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It's finally time to focus on field

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- At 1:40 p.m., under another cloudless sky and blazing sun, the 2006 Red Sox burst out of the clubhouse and took the field en masse for the first time in the spring season. Let the record show they were led through the crowd and onto the diamond by Lenny DiNardo.

You knew it wasn't going to be Manny Ramírez or David Wells, right?

If you live for baseball, the first full squad spring workout is just about the best day of the season. It means that box scores -- one of the four basic food groups for seamheads around the world -- will soon be part of your morning breakfast again.

''For me, it's the best day of the year," said owner John W. Henry, looking evermore like Curious George's Man in the Yellow Hat. ''I think I looked forward to this spring training more than any before. I was really itching for it to get started the last few weeks."

For the Red Sox, it was especially nice to get back on the field after the tumultuous offseason of 2005-06. You might recall that less than a month after getting swept out of the playoffs, boy wonder GM Theo Epstein resigned. The next three months were more complex than ''Syriana" and left a lot of hurt feelings around Red Sox Nation. Along the way, the Sox said goodbye to Johnny Damon, Bill Mueller, Kevin Millar, and Doug Mirabelli, four fan favorites from that championship season of 2004.

But now the Sox and their fans are looking ahead, and the future is in the hands of Josh Beckett, Coco Crisp, Mike Lowell, Mark Loretta, Alex González, and a raft of wunderkinds named Papelbon, Hansen, Lester, and Pedroia. The Sox of 2006 pledge to be younger, and better with the leather, while still thumping the Wall often enough to get to the playoffs for a fourth consecutive season.

Making his first appearance of the spring, Henry was accompanied by chairman Tom Werner and embattled CEO Larry Lucchino. According to Henry, the trio dined with Epstein Wednesday night and Theo and Larry did not throw bread rolls at one another across the table.

Henry, Werner, and Lucchino walked a lap around the track of Field 5 at the Sox' minor league complex just after noon while players were still undergoing physicals. At 1 p.m., there was a kickoff meeting in the lunchroom complex. (The Globe volunteered to address the troops in our role as limited partner, but the offer was rebuffed.) Lucchino said there would be no Gipper-esque speech from ownership. Amazingly, Schill resisted the urge to spill his wisdom in the meeting. Catcher John Flaherty said none of the players spoke.

''I had a short message that I wanted to deliver," said Terry Francona. ''Just to make sure everybody is on the same page and to make sure they know what is expected of them and the things that are important to us as a ball club, as a staff, and as a team . . . We do have a lot of new faces and I think it's important that they don't feel new for very long. So that's the whole idea. It goes from welcoming back people, welcoming new people, and all of a sudden, we're one."

Forty minutes after the meeting began, the boys burst from the blocks and proceeded with the stretching and jogging that makes baseball so much different from training camps in all other sports. Grueling . . . would not be the word. All the Sox players were in attendance except for Manny, who has been given permission to work out in Miami until March 1, and Wells, who clearly wants nothing to do with the Red Sox. Rehabbing from knee surgery, Wells stayed in the clubhouse and worked on an exercise bike while his teammates stretched and commenced with drills.

Henry said he met with Ramírez a few weeks ago, but steered clear of commenting on the status of trade requests issued by Manny and Wells. Deferring those inquiries to Epstein, he said: ''We did have a discussion during the offseason about sending more things to Theo and having more one voice than three or four voices when it came to baseball players, baseball issues. It was actually suggested by Larry. It wasn't something Theo asked for."

Lucchino deferred all Manny inquiries to Theo, except to say he expected to see Ramírez in camp March 1.

''It's a fun day," Lucchino said, looking out at the Sox complex before the ballplayers emerged. ''The grass seems a little greener this year and the sun seems a little brighter this year and it's also a really intriguing team this year. There's going to be lots of new players and important players trying to bounce back from injuries. It's a very intriguing, interesting team. I guess we're considered in the eyes of many to be underdogs."

According to the Red Sox, the workout was attended by 2,384 fans, a group slightly smaller than last year's thanks to the delirious throng (2,533) that greeted the defending world champs in February 2005. Cheryl Greeley of Newton attended and spoke for many when she said, ''I just like to sit in the sun and soak up the sights and sounds of baseball."

Like most spring training days, yesterday was relatively uneventful. Kevin Youkilis worked on his fielding around the first base bag, rookie pitchers did some running wearing only sliding shorts (a hazing ritual), Johnny Pesky sat in a chair and signed autographs, and young women walked around the grounds asking where they might get a glimpse of Gabe Kapler (he can't run and spends most of his time in the batting cages).

Nick Rowland, an 11th-grader from Orwell, Vt., wore a No. 18 shirt with the word ''Traitor" stenciled across the back -- a reference to Damon, the Jesus Action Figure who was Boston baseball's uber-celebrity in spring 2005, but crushed Sox fans by joining the Yankees this winter. Rowland and a lot of other Sox fans have embraced Crisp, the charismatic outfielder from Cleveland who is replacing Damon in center.

Crisp spent a lot of time signing autographs after the two-hour workout and said, ''Baseball is baseball and this is my third different team, but obviously there are more fans here and there's more excitement that comes with that. So far, everybody's been really cool."

Veteran catcher Flaherty, who spent his first spring training with the Red Sox in 1989 but was traded by the Sox in 1994, commented on Sox spring then vs. now: ''Obviously, we have these raucous crowds now. Back then, it was just a few snowbirds from New England on vacation, but now it seems like this whole Red Sox Nation has taken on a life of its own and they are fired up about the team. It's different on the field, too. It used to be old school, where they'd just throw the bats and balls out there. Now it's more cutting edge. We still have tradition with guys like Johnny Pesky and Jim Rice and Luis Tiant around, but the instruction is more new and improved."

Theo was there. Watching the workout with Henry. Together again. Like father and son.

''There were parts [of the offseason] that were painful," Henry acknowledged. ''But when you look back at it now . . . we laugh about it. We were doing a lot of laughing last night . . . about the offseason."

Mercifully, Boston baseball's wicked winter of 2005-06 is officially over. The Red Sox are on the field, playing baseball again. Happy day.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is

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