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Glee club

Sox and fans greet each other with a sunny embrace in camp

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- The rock-star Red Sox emerged, one or two at a time, most wearing sunglasses, all wearing luminous red jerseys. As they walked into the Florida sun yesterday toward the inaugural full-squad workout of 2005, they were greeted with astounding applause by citizens of Red Sox Nation lined four-deep, at the very least.

By day's end, an astonishing 2,533 fans had passed through the turnstiles at the Sox' minor league facility.

"If you win it," said Steve Blessing, director of security, "they will come."

Not only did the fans come, they made themselves a presence.

At one point, Johnny Damon strode to the plate for batting practice.

"Dead center field," yelled an elementary school-aged kid. "Way back. Waaaaay back."

Damon fouled off a pitch. He spun to look at the kid and laughed out loud.

Down the first base line, two fans stood side by side against the fence, one wearing an Alex Rodriguez jersey, one wearing a Curt Schilling jersey. They became a story themselves, getting interviewed by television stations.

Fans inundated principal owner John W. Henry, seeking autographs and offering stories.

"The difference I've noticed is that in previous years people wanted to thank you for what was going on at Fenway, for putting a good team on the field, or wanted to tell you a story about a grandfather, father," Henry said. "This year it's become the story of how much it meant to win."

The evidence was in the hot dog sales -- at one point 47 people stood in line for food -- and in the empty hat racks. Sox caps now come in just about every color of the spectrum, and the souvenir stand yesterday sold out the pink, green, and yellow hats with the centered "B" logo and a small egret in the bottom corner.

"These women's hats have gone like crazy," said vendor Tina Baldino, who was born, appropriately, in Cooperstown, N.Y., home of the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Elsewhere, 8-year-old Kyle Quitadamo stood alongside his 11-year-old brother, Bryan. The Sox will have at least eight new players on the 25-man roster this year, and the boys fashioned their approval by wearing Edgar Renteria T-shirts.

"When they traded for Renteria," said Kyle's dad, Steve, "he danced around the house."

The family has traveled here from Auburn, Mass., the last three years to enjoy the spectacle of spring training. But they didn't remember it being quite like this.

"It's a little different," said the boys' mother, Marie. "We used to take a little bus with 20 people on it. This year it was a tour bus with a video."

Somewhat lost amid the commercial success was the reality that the Sox are here to work, as they prepare to defend a championship.

They began with a 1 p.m. team meeting that lasted about a half-hour. Henry addressed the team. Chairman Tom Werner was introduced. President/CEO Larry Lucchino spoke briefly. So did general manager Theo Epstein, manager Terry Francona, and executive vice president Charles Steinberg. Traveling secretary Jack McCormick, equipment manager Joe Cochran, and trainer Jim Rowe also talked.

At one point during the meeting, applause could be heard outside the clubhouse walls.

"You know what they were cheering about?" Henry said. "Jason Varitek was introduced as our captain, and everybody in the room cheered. That was a great moment."

No one wanted to talk much about what was said, though Francona has said all along that he'd talk to the players about being proud of what they accomplished yet putting it behind them at the same time. He also addressed, if indirectly, the recent sniping between the Red Sox and Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez.

"I think Tito said something along the lines of, `Let's talk about ourselves,' " Henry said. "That was the reference."

Asked whether he addressed the A-Rod issue, Francona simply said, "I think that will slow down."

Epstein, in his remarks to the team, discussed the issue of repeating. According to Henry, he borrowed a chapter from Bill Belichick, telling the Sox that this is a new season, with new goals, and with no link to the past. In that sense, the Sox are not defending anything and should not have to talk about repeating.

One topic that was not discussed was steroids. Henry pleaded ignorance on the issue, as Francona did earlier in camp.

"I've never considered it my bailiwick," Henry said. "The whole steroids issue, I haven't studied it. I really shouldn't comment."

Once out of the meeting and on the field, some players picked up where last season ended. David Ortiz stepped into the cage and lost a good dozen balls into the wilderness over the left-field fence. Henry stood near the on-deck circle, tracking balls as they flew.

"David Ortiz and Johnny Damon showed up to me noticeably ready to go," Francona said. "Johnny showed up heavy last year. He had to play himself into shape. To be perfectly honest, had he shown up a little heavy we would have allowed him to play himself into shape. But he looked really good."

Francona also looked really good, in a different sense. He walked the grounds and interacted with players and coaches with more confidence and comfort than he did a year ago, as a first-year manager.

"As great a job as he did last year, I've already seen an increased sense of confidence and sense of role in where he fits in," said Epstein. "He's really been a dynamic leader."

Francona, on that perception: "It's more exciting to get reacquainted than acquainted. We've been through a lot together."

With plenty more to come.

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