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ON BASEBALL

Shortstop is in center

He wasn't here last night, though he is expected in town by the weekend for his annual baseball camp for kids. On a day when Roger Clemens ended the shortest retirement since Michael Jordan by signing with Houston and Vladi Guerrero tilted the balance of power in the West toward Anaheim by signing with the Angels, Nomar Garciaparra may not have been on the dais for the Boston baseball writers' dinner, but he is definitely on the agenda for the Red Sox.

The vision might have been different a month ago. Alex Rodriguez and Magglio Ordonez easily could have been the Sox headliners at last night's dinner, sharing the stage with Bud Selig, the commissioner who gave his blessing to the proposed trade that would have brought A-Rod to Boston, which in turn would have triggered a deal sending Garciaparra to the White Sox for Ordonez.

But with that deal flatlined, Garciaparra remains central to the Sox' plans for the immediate future, and perhaps beyond. That is why Sox chairman Tom Werner, who is close friends with Garciaparra's agent, Arn Tellem, made a point of inviting Garciaparra to his home when the Rodriguez deal was on the verge of collapse.

"I just wanted to tell him how much respect we have for him and to fill him in on what was going on, to make sure he understood we had turned the page and were moving on," Werner said.

The relationship between Garciaparra and the Sox was strained close to the breaking point when Tellem called the A-Rod negotiations a "slap in the face" to Garciaparra and accused the Sox of being disingenuous.

That prompted a rare public burst of anger from Sox owner John W. Henry, and soon the details of the Garciaparra negotiations -- he turned down a four-year, $60 million offer in March, the Sox came back with a four-year, $48 million offer in December -- spilled into the public.

For the intensely private Garciaparra, that was as much an affront as the fact the Sox were pursuing Rodriguez.

It did not surprise Werner that Tellem would go on the offensive on Garciaparra's behalf.

"Arn has a very special relationship with Nomar," Werner said. "They're very, very close. Arn was doing what he felt was the best way to protect his client."

If Garciaparra had not rejected the Sox' offer back in March, there would have been no pursuit of Rodriguez. The Sox were motivated by fears that Garciaparra's decision to remain here would be market-driven, as opposed to a fervent desire to be a Sox lifer, and that they would be left with only draft choices if he left after next season as a free agent. An even bigger component was the opportunity to rid themselves of Manny Ramirez's bloated contract for that of a franchise player and marketer's dream in Rodriguez.

Werner spoke with Tellem during the Rodriguez negotiations, and has spoken with him since. He expects Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein will have a conversation with Tellem shortly, opening up another round of talks regarding a long-term extension.

But in the interim, despite his Hawaii honeymoon phone call to WEEI, has Garciaparra's ardor to remain in Boston cooled? And were the Sox correct in dropping their offer to the shortstop by $3 million a year, citing a market correction?

"Does he want to stay here? I hope he wants to stay here," Werner said. "I hope the recent episode is something that is a thing of the past. He's still a Hall of Fame ballplayer.

"By the time we get to spring training, I hope it's a thing of the past, and the team is what's most important, and that winning is what's most important. I think with Nomar, there's such a thirst for winning that trumps everything."

How the Sox approach negotiations with Garciaparra, however, may be a different story, though Werner dismissed speculation that the Garciaparra-Ordonez deal might still be alive.

"He's a real professional -- I think he'll be able to understand that some of these situations develop during the course of a year," said Sox CEO Larry Lucchino. "We have enormous respect for him, and affection. That hasn't been lost at all."

The third and most influential member of The Trio, Henry, said he would like to see the matter addressed before the start of the season. But Henry, who has described himself as a poor negotiator and one who would rather operate on the basis of `Here's our best offer, give us an answer,' noted how the Sox had made a three-year, $24 million offer to free-agent-to-be Cliff Floyd. When the offer just sat there without a response for six weeks, the Sox pulled it off the table; Floyd eventually took a worse offer (4 years, $24 million) from the Mets.

A similar "best" offer was made to closer Ugie Urbina, who spurned it and signed with Texas before being traded to the Marlins.

"We make good, credible offers," Henry said, "but everyone wants to negotiate. People seldom believe you when you say, `This is the best we can do.' "

Can Garciaparra retrieve the millions he left on the table back in March? Will he be willing to settle for less? From the Sox side, are those millions gone forever, or are they willing to make another "market correction?"

Rico Petrocelli, the former Sox shortstop and a guest at the dinner, wasn't making any predictions.

But he did say this: "Everybody always tells you, both players and management, that this is just business, so there shouldn't be hard feelings. If that's true, then boom, let's negotiate."

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