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Pushed by Mets, Sox won't go fourth on Martinez

Lest there remain any doubt about their resolve, the Red Sox last night were fully prepared to let Pedro Martinez take his remarkable skills elsewhere rather than guarantee him a four-year contract to stay in Boston.

A three-year deal, yes. A day after the New York Mets entered the competition for Martinez, the Sox appeared open to eliminating any remaining escape language in their latest offer to the three-time Cy Young Award winner and fully guaranteeing him $38.5 million over three years plus $2 million in potential performance bonuses.

But four years? No way, according to sources familiar with the team's position.

In fact, the Sox wonder whether a four-year deal would be enough to lure Martinez back to Boston. Team executives, after recently meeting with their former ace in Florida, harbor concerns about whether he even wants to continue his career here. Though team president and CEO Larry Lucchino publicly said the meeting "went fine," Sox officials came away privately wondering whether Martinez believes he would be happier elsewhere.

Beyond his highly publicized schmoozing with the Yankees -- he sat down in Tampa with Yankees owner George Steinbrenner and Derek Jeter the day before he met with the Sox brass and dined with Alex Rodriguez in Miami the night after -- Martinez has made no secret about the level of respect he expects from his employer, the media, and the public. And though he professed his affection for the team and the city during the World Series -- "My heart is with Boston," he said -- he has a keen memory for the slights he believes he endured during his seven years with the Sox.

All of which makes the preliminary offer from the Mets (an estimated $37.5 million over three years with a $12.5 million option for 2008) a significant development. Should the Mets guarantee a fourth year or trigger a bidding war with the Yankees or other potential suitors that generates a more lucrative offer, Martinez soon could summon moving vans to his Boston-area home for a one-way trip to the next destination in his storied career.

Some of his teammates might not be shocked. As a measure of the uncertainty surrounding Martinez's desire to return to Boston, several Sox players privately have expressed more optimism about the team re-signing Jason Varitek than Martinez even though Varitek and the club have a larger gap in their contract talks. (The Sox have offered Varitek $36 million over four years while Varitek, who initially sought $55 million over five years, appears willing to consider a compromise of four years at more than $40 million.)

When manager Terry Francona recently was asked about the team's prospects of retaining Martinez and Varitek, he gave distinctly different responses.

Francona said of Martinez, "The best way I could answer is, I have a lot of confidence in [general manager] Theo [Epstein] and ownership that when we head down to Fort Myers we'll have a good team. I understand you can't sign everybody back because of the payroll, but we'll be ready to go."

Of Varitek, the manager said, "I'm a little stuck in between. Knowing Tek, he's a smart kid. He knows how much we like him. I'm a little torn about what to do. I don't know how much I should call him. Me calling him and begging him to come back, that's not going to do it, but he knows what I think of him."

Francona denied he had difficulty with Martinez, saying only that managing the superstar "was an adjustment probably for me."

Martinez privately stewed the first month of the season about how the team handled contract talks in spring training with him, Varitek, Nomar Garciaparra, and Derek Lowe. Then he broke off negotiations April 30 in Texas, saying the team exaggerated its attempt to sign the players. He also assailed club officials for proposing language in offers to him and Varitek that would have voided their contracts if they suffered career-shortening injuries.

Chief among the reasons the Sox are opposed to offering Martinez a four-year deal are lingering concerns about how many more pitches his shoulder will permit him to throw. He was diagnosed in 2001 with a small tear in his labrum and opted for a strength and conditioning regimen rather than surgery.

"I just don't like people lying, trying to fake that they're signing us when they never made an effort strong enough to make us actually think about anything," Martinez said April 30, though he later indicated he regretted adopting such a harsh tone.

A free agent for the first time, Martinez has expressed numerous reasons why he would like to remain in Boston, including the connections and comfort level he has developed in the community. Members of his family have made the city their home. He has close ties to several Sox players, and the club generally has allowed him to operate on his own schedule.

Whether or not Martinez maintains a positive view of ownership, he almost certainly recognizes the need to project a good relationship with the Sox in order to keep the market for his services as robust as possible. Team executives respected him enough that they sweetened their initial proposal to him after he indicated the Yankees offered him a four-year contract, which has yet to be confirmed.

Now, Martinez has entered a new phase of his free agency, having two top suitors with possibly more to follow. On Thanksgiving, he dined in the Dominican Republic with Mets general manager Omar Minaya and may be enticed to strongly consider the Mets for several reasons, including his success at Shea Stadium (5-1 with 1.17 ERA), his openness to returning to the National League, and the prospect of playing for a Dominican GM.

Mets manager Willie Randolph also gave Martinez a glowing endorsement, telling the New York Post Sunday, "I think any manager in his right mind would love to have a Pedro Martinez."

For his part, Martinez is expected to wait for the market to fully develop. The Yankees, for example, could turn their attention to acquiring him if they fall short in their effort to trade for Randy Johnson of the Diamondbacks.

The Sox will be watching closely -- and wondering.

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