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BOB RYAN

'Old school' is in session

Ex-Sox Little happy in LA

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- True story.

It is spring training, 2002. I am sitting in the Red Sox dugout interviewing Carlos Baerga, who is hoping to catch on with the Sox. I am wrapping up the session when someone approaches us and informs Mr. Baerga that he needs to conclude his business with me because the Red Sox are about to start a team meeting.

I remain in the dugout, reviewing my notes (and probably thinking about lunch), when about five minutes later I hear a raucous cheer coming from inside the clubhouse.

The team has just been informed that Grady Little is their new manager. They actually give him a standing O.

Now, in case you're wondering whether or not Grady harbors any negative feelings about the abrupt end to his tenure in Boston, consider his answer to a question concerning his thoughts about returning to Fort Myers as the skipper of the Los Angeles Dodgers.

"My feelings?" he inquired. "It's one game here and one game for us tomorrow [across town, against the Twins]. And it's a long ride over here."

OK.

Was it right? Was it fair? Do we have to rehash the whole thing now? Nah. Some other time, maybe. The story isn't going anywhere. It will be a part of Red Sox lore for all-time.

Grady Little did his time in Elba following his dismissal as manager of the Red Sox. He went to work for the Chicago Cubs in a non-uniform capacity. He was a glorified scout and consigliere, and there are worse ways to go through life.

But it's all kinda dull when you've become accustomed to sitting in the dugout.

"There's a big difference between sitting in an office and sitting in the dugout," Little pointed out. "You can be around before a game, but when the game starts and you go up in the stands, it's not the same. In the end, that's what we all miss. You don't have the same feeling that you were out there in the battle. That's what rules us all eventually, being in the dugout. To be a part of the team."

Little found himself part of a Dodger team that was able to negotiate its way into the 2006 postseason as the National League wild card after finishing in a tie for first in the West with the Padres. His team took the long way home, getting off to a so-so start before cranking it up beginning July 27. From that point on, the Dodgers went a major league-best 41-19, finishing things off by winning their final seven games, and nine of their last 10.

Of almost equal importance was the attendance. Once baseball's unquestioned gate kings, the Dodgers had fallen out of favor in LA. But Little's team got things turned around, as 3,758,545 poured into the still-beautiful Dodger Stadium to see them play. The Dodgers are once again a major player in LA.

So, yes, life is good for a good man in LA, especially since the Dodgers appear to have strengthened themselves in the all-important pitching department by signing free agent righthander Jason Schmidt away from the archrival Giants.

Little was part of a little cross-pollination deal as the Red Sox took on the Dodgers at City of Palms Park yesterday. Batting third and playing first base for the Dodgers was one Nomar Garciaparra. Batting fifth and playing right field for the home squad was one J.D. Drew, who had a career year for Grady in '06, driving in 100 runs for the first time in his injury-restricted career.

Not surprisingly, Grady had only nice things to say about the man.

"Only time will tell what he'll do, but this guy's a good player," Little declared. "He's going to play hard every time he's on the field. How's he going to do? I don't know. But there won't be any question about a lack of effort. I wish I knew how many times there was a man on first last year and he'd hit a routine ground ball and there would be no double play. He goes down the line hard."

The facts bear out this judgment. Drew hit into four double plays in 494 official at-bats last year and has hit into only 41 DPs in 3,161 major league at-bats, or one every 77 at-bats. Sounds good, anyway.

Little was equally effusive on the subject of Nomah.

"He's a professional," Little observed. "Last year we asked him to make a position change, and he handled it flawlessly. He was able to play a lot of games [122], and we hope he will be able to play even more this year. When he's in the game, he's a force."

Had that fateful eighth inning never transpired as it did on that fateful October evening 3 1/2 years ago, Grady Little would still not be the Red Sox manager. He didn't fit. This is a New School organization, and Grady is decidedly Old School. Dodgers management had soured on New School general manager Paul DePodesta and his intense manager, Jim Tracy. They brought in a traditional thinker in Ned Colletti to be the GM, and he, in turn, selected a traditional manager in Grady, who is the quintessential, yes, "player's manager."

"I do a lot of communicating with my players all the time," Little said. "I don't just treat them as ballplayers. They're people to me."

You never heard the Red Sox players complaining about Grady Little, either before or after That Night In The Bronx. The fact is, the Red Sox loved playing for him. They have zero interest in newfangled stats and really don't care whether or not their manager is computer literate. Terry Francona is very much a player's guy, too, but we all know the No. 1 reason he is employed as manager of the Red Sox is that he speaks John Henry and Theo's language.

But Grady can go to his grave saying he once got a locker room standing O. That's pretty cool.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is ryan@globe.com.

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