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ON BASEBALL

A circus catch

There's plenty to watch surrounding Red Sox-Yankees spring training game

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Alex Rodriguez understands if Nomar Garciaparra is upset with him. Eventually, he said, they'll talk about everything that went down this winter. That's what he told the Red Sox shortstop yesterday, when the two came face to face for the first time since Garciaparra learned that the Sox were trying to replace him with A-Rod.

But yesterday, there was only time for a quick on-field embrace before Rodriguez's introduction to a rivalry that yesterday was more about renewing acquaintances than spilling bad blood, which may also reflect the difference between a spring game in March -- even one hyped like never before (a $6 commemorative pin for an exhibition!) -- and an October game with a championship on the line.

Not that everyone was as good-natured as Larry Lucchino, who after spotting a photographer clicking a picture of him in the stands talking to Yankees GM Brian Cashman -- whom he'd just bumped into -- cracked to Cashman, "That could be a bad career move," alluding to the enmity Cashman's boss, George Steinbrenner, feels for the Red Sox CEO.

While Garciaparra, who sat out the game with a bruised heel he sustained when hit by a ground ball the previous day, was all smiles for just about everyone in a Yankee uniform -- hugs for A-Rod, Derek Jeter, and former teammate Tony Clark, handshakes with Yankees manager Joe Torre and new batting coach Don Mattingly -- emotions came to a boiling point in a stadium parking area, where Yankees publicist Rick Cerrone and a longtime Sox security guard, Dave McHugh, a retired postman from Portland, Maine, had a run-in.

"Do you know who I am?" shouted Cerrone, contending that McHugh had pushed him. "I'm with the American League champion New York Yankees, and you're a typical Boston Red Sox employee."

McHugh said he was merely trying to pass through a crowd of reporters in order to allow some Yankee players who had driven down from Tampa to leave, and that he'd put his hand out, said "excuse me," and gave Cerrone a small push when Cerrone inadvertently backed into him. Part of the problem was that Reggie Jackson's older brother, Ja Mz, had a car that was blocking that of Yankees catcher Jorge Posada. A call was placed to the Hall of Famer in the clubhouse, and he quickly got in touch with his bro. "You better get out there," he said. "You're starting a war out there."

But leave it to a Rodriguez to play peacemaker. Rodriguez's wife, Cynthia, who had accompanied her husband here, gave McHugh a ball signed by A-Rod on her way out. Cyn-Rod wasn't around, however, when two young women, one a Yankee fan, one a Sox loyalist, had gone toe-to-toe in a parking lot spat before the game, which was won by the Yankees, 11-7.

Rodriguez came to the plate twice, and was booed loudly each time. He was thrown out by fill-in shortstop Pokey Reese on his first at-bat and singled on his second after Jeter, who had committed a first-inning error, hit a home run off Sox pitcher Jason Shiell, who was not banished to the minors immediately after the game. It's spring training, remember, not Game 8 of the ALCS, as it had been dubbed by some.

Rodriguez, the center of attention in a place that would have been his new spring training home if the Sox had consummated a deal for A-Rod that had been in the works for two months, shrugged off the boos, saying he wouldn't have expected otherwise. He expressed concern, however, that Garciaparra might be harboring ill will toward him. He acknowledged that their relationship, which he described as one of mutual respect, might need to be repaired.

"I plan to talk to him sometime this summer," Rodriguez said. "I have a great deal of respect for Nomar, and I'm happy for Nomar because he's in a very good position now. A lot of good teams are going to be interested in his services, and hopefully he'll get what he deserves."

The joke in Yankees camp was that the Bombers might be one of those teams, and would put him at second base in an infield for the ages. "Don't start that," Jeter protested yesterday. "It was a joke, a bad joke."

But A-Rod insisted -- and was backed up by Reggie Jax -- that he wouldn't be surprised at all if the Yankees made a move for Garciaparra if he becomes a free agent after the season.

"It would not shock me," Rodriguez said. "Nothing around here should shock anyone."

Jackson went even further. "No question about it," he said. "Everybody wants to win championships. This guy [Steinbrenner] is going to put his best foot forward. You're not going to hear him say it's $3 million or $30 million or $60 million too much. He's going to mortgage the farm. He's going to say, `That's the best team I can have, I'll figure out the money.' If you consider him an expense, you're in the wrong business."

While contemplating Garciaparra in pinstripes (said Nomar: "I was a marketing major, right? I'll keep all my options open"), Jackson also managed to take a shot at the Sox for failing to seal the deal for A-Rod.

"You [expletive] up A-Rod," he said, noting his audience was wearing a Boston ID. "We got A-Rod because you [expletive] it up. Everybody says, `Oh, the Yankees got A-Rod because George spent the money.' But you [expletive] up A-Rod. That's how A-Rod came to us. A-Rod should have gone to Boston. I wanted him to go to Boston. He needs to play against Ted Williams and Carl Yastrzemski. He needs to be in a legacy like that. He needs to be on a stage."

By coming to New York, of course, A-Rod stepped on an even bigger stage. Shame on Boston, Jackson said.

"In the end," he said, "you can't sit on the porch, because when the big dog comes out, you ain't going to get no bite of the steak."

Garciaparra insisted yesterday he bears no resentment toward Rodriguez. "Hey, it's baseball," he said. "I'm past all that. I'm focused on the season."

But Rodriguez said that if he'd been in Garciaparra's position, he'd have been upset, too.

"No question," he said. "I would have been thinking, `What's going on here?' But I didn't know that he thought it was so great to be in Boston. I didn't know. I still don't know. But when he made that phone call [the one Garciaparra placed to WEEI on his honeymoon when he learned of the A-Rod talks], I said, `Ohmygosh.' But by that time, we were 75 percent of the way there.

"That phone call was disturbing to me because I thought Nomar wanted to go West [to his native California]. That was my understanding."

Garciaparra still could wind up going west, or north, or south, too. His agent, Arn Tellem, was in to speak to Sox officials in the last few days, and while Garciaparra stuck to his pledge not to discuss details, there was no indication of any breakthrough.

"Talks," he said. "No progression."

By winding up with the Yankees, Rodriguez believes he has helped Garciaparra's negotiating position. "He's in a great position to do what's best for him," he said. "I hope this works out for both him and I."

And who knows what the big dog is plotting.

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