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Striking makeover for Sox

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Twenty years ago, Globe sportswriter Michael Madden reported on Tommy Harper's revelation that the Red Sox had patronized an Elks Lodge in Winter Haven, Fla., that excluded blacks. The presence of Harper, who was then a coach with the team and is now a consultant, is a reminder of how socially backward the Red Sox were in those days.

Yesterday, those of us who had been to spring training in the early '80s couldn't help but see the irony as five baseball players were having the time of their lives with the Fab Five of "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy," a Bravo program in which gay men make over heterosexual men -- or in this case, make "champions look like champions."

It was a vivid example of how far the organization has come in terms of inclusion and tolerance since those days just two decades ago.

It might have been an R-rated day, one fraught with much sexual innuendo by the Fab Five, but it was something that comes with a World Series championship. It has been a whirlwind of activity for the Sox since they won it all for the first time in 86 years. There are 20 books about the championship on the market. There is a movie, "Fever Pitch," a love story about a Red Sox-crazed fan. There have been photo shoots and magazine covers and interviews by the dozen. Appearances on Jay Leno, David Letterman, MTV's "Cribs."

Some Sox fans have expressed concern that the Red Sox may be too caught up in their celebrity. That they are stretching themselves too thin. It's understandable. Yesterday's taping went all day and will continue into tomorrow.

Tim Wakefield, Kevin Millar, Johnny Damon, and Doug Mirabelli all gave a lot of their time to the program, which will air June 7. Later in the day, Jason Varitek joined in, making a dramatic entrance in a helicopter that touched down in center field at City of Palms Park after he had played against the Orioles in Fort Lauderdale.

Is there any reason to be concerned about all these actvities.

"I don't think so," said Sox CEO and president Larry Lucchino. "It's confined to the offseason and spring training, so everybody is keeping it in perspective. And everyone will be focused when the time comes to be focused."

Lucchino is right. It is only spring training. Many players believe that it's two or three weeks too long anyway. And the players involved are mostly veterans, who performed at a very high level last season.

"Most of it will stop when the season begins," Lucchino said. "There's been a tremendous focus on the club this offseason, but Tito [Francona] and Theo [Epstein] and all of us recognize the clock is ticking down on this period for celebration for 2004 and ends in large part by Opening Day. So we have a few weeks to have some fun with it all."

Charles Steinberg, the Sox executive vice president of public affairs, said they have turned down a lot more things than they've done. Most of those were "pop culture, entertainment things" right after the World Series.

"Down here, we've tried to be discerning," Steinberg said. " `Queer Eye for the Straight Guy' is a huge time-consumer for the PR people. You try to shield it from your baseball operation except for the day it involves the players. But I think we've done a good service for baseball, and that is penetrate the entertainment world."

As a marketer, Steinberg sees nothing but good in mixing baseball with the culture.

"Our story line for last year and our long-term story line has connected with people," he said, "so you are being given the opportunity to step into mainstream culture, and that's good. What you don't want to do is use your players' time and distract their focus from their chosen profession. That's the line you try to straddle. That's essential because our first priority is baseball.

"But in November, if you're on Leno and Letterman, and little kids in Iowa and Arkansas suddenly care about the Boston Red Sox in those towns more, it's better for baseball"

Damon is on record as saying how much he loves doing such appearances; he fancies himself becoming an actor after baseball. Millar loves the spotlight, as does Curt Schilling. Varitek, because he's the captain, also is taking on a high-profile role. Wakefield, too, is one of the team's elder statesmen.

It was interesting, though, that Bill Mueller was a last-minute scratch from the "Queer Eye" group, rethinking it after learning he would be subject to back waxing, manicures, pedicures, beard-shaving or trimming, and hair-cutting.

The Patriots went through a similar experience after their first Super Bowl win. Tom Brady turned down more offers than he accepted. The team seemed to draw the line on celebrating last season once training camp began. The Sox appear to be letting it ride a little longer.

"Spring training is when you can do a little bit that lets your hair down," said Steinberg. "You wouldn't do this filming during the baseball season. We shouldn't be myopic and say that baseball should only ever be a nine-inning game with no music. The game should be the top story line, but baseball should extend its reach and inspire the next generation to become fans whether it's because of the story line or because of Johnny's hair or because of Millar's humor or they were watching MTV and decided that this baseball player is pretty cool.

"We shouldn't be so self-consumed that even though we've loved baseball since childhood, that another generation will. If you get cocky and arrogant you'll get knocked to the ground in a flash. You'd better regenerate your fan base."

Regenerate is what the players did yesterday.

One of the Fab Five, Carson Kressley, stood on the Sox dugout and yelled up to Epstein's office, "Can we change the name to the `Pink Sox'?"

Epstein rolled down his window and yelled, "Red worked well for us last year."

Yes, it is a different time. A better time.

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