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Sheffield has been top-shelf

For all the fanfare regarding the Red Sox MVP candidates -- Manny Ramirez, David Ortiz, and he-who-can-no-longer-be-overlooked, Johnny Damon -- the man in the Bronx has a pretty compelling case.

Surprisingly, we're not speaking about Alex Rodriguez, the defending MVP who made it look easy while switching positions and dealt smoothly with the expectations of being the greatest thing to hit Gotham since the Babe. Certainly, Brian Cashman isn't asking for his money back for a season in which

A-Rod was at .293 with 35 home runs, 102 RBIs, and a .901 OPS entering play last night. But while A-Rod has been a worthy contributor, there is near-unanimity among Yankee types that the most valuable man in pinstripes has been the right fielder, Gary Sheffield, who has claimed most of the team's biggest hits all season while playing with a sore left shoulder that has required cortisone shots at various times. Sheffield had a couple of shots during last Sunday's blowout win over the Red Sox, but was back in the lineup just two nights later, hitting a home run against the Blue Jays.

Sheffield came into play last night with 20 home runs and 60 RBIs since the All-Star break. Only Miguel Tejada of the Orioles had driven in more runs in that time (63). Sheffield, Ramirez, and Ortiz have had roughly the same average with runners in scoring position this season, Ramirez at .331, Ortiz at .329, and Sheff at .327. With 19 home runs at home, Sheffield tied Joe DiMaggio's 1937 record for most home runs by a righthanded hitter in Yankee Stadium, and he also became the first player to drive in 100 for five different teams.

The eight-time All-Star, who has a World Series ring with the Florida Marlins (1997), shed whatever controversial baggage he carried from early in his career on his last stop, with the Braves, where he won the admiration of manager Bobby Cox for his selfless approach. That has carried over to New York, even as the pain in his shoulder is near-constant.

"There are a lot of guys deserving of [MVP]," said Sheffield, when asked about his chances last weekend at Yankee Stadium, "including those two guys over there [Ramirez and Ortiz]. I believe that it honestly depends on what the voters are looking for and what `MVP' means. It changes from year to year. Sometimes they say you have to be on a first-place team."

And sometimes, like last season, when A-Rod won, it doesn't matter if you're playing for a last-place club. If the balloting is to be based on best player, Ichiro Suzuki of the Mariners would win in a walk.

But if it's about winning, it's hard to overlook Sheffield. And if the Yankees do hold off the Sox for the division title, shouldn't that give him an edge over the Sox sluggers or anyone else? Given Jason Giambi's near year-long absence, it's hard to imagine the Bombers holding off the Sox without Sheffield.

"I had to take on a certain role because of the situation," Sheffield said. "We had a lot of key guys hurt. As a player who has been in that situation before, when you lose somebody, everybody has to step up until you get the big guns back."

Sheffield has bursitis in his left shoulder. Last month, he was told by famed orthopedist Frank Jobe that the trapezius muscle in the shoulder was slightly separated from the bone. The only remedy is rest. Instead, Sheffield has played through.

"Regardless of how much treatment I get, the pain is always the same," said Sheffield, who has heat applied to the shoulder daily. "I don't feel it when I swing, only when I check my swing or take a bad swing. The small twitch muscles, I'm just not strong enough to hold up on a swing. I can't react when I want to hold up. It also hurts when I go back on a fly ball and have to reach up.

"Surgery can't help it. The scar tissue has to build up, and that will happen only through rest."

And that will have to wait till November. Sheffield, the most valuable of Yankees and maybe all American Leaguers, has a prior engagement for October.

Werner won't tip his cap to New York
Curious why none of the Red Sox owners made it to New York last weekend for the Yankee series? John W. Henry was being honored at a dinner by the Mind-Body Medical Institute, and Larry Lucchino stayed back to attend. Tom Werner, however, has a more personal reason for avoiding Yankee Stadium when he can.

"When I was involved with the Padres, I was at Yankee Stadium during the 1998 World Series," said Werner, the former owner of the Padres. "I was with my son, and a man came up to me and said, `Take off your hat.' "

Werner, who had gone with his son to the concession stands behind home plate to buy hot dogs, was wearing a Padres cap.

"I said, `Why?' " Werner said. "He cursed at me. I walked away. He started to go after me. He said, `Did you hear me?' I said, `Yes, I heard you.' So he pushed me.

"There was a cop 10 feet away. I said, `Don't push me.' He cursed me again. I said to the cop, `Why don't you do anything?' And he said, `You're lucky he didn't slug you.'

"True story. That's why, between my discomfort, anyway, about going to away games, coupled with lax security, that I wasn't there."

The whole thing didn't sit well with Kaat
That night, revisited: Yankees broadcaster Jim Kaat, a longtime friend of Sox manager Terry Francona, reiterated recently that Francona told him Nomar Garciaparra came to Francona before the July 1 game against the Yankees and said he couldn't play. Other club sources have insisted that the decision was made by the Sox medical staff.

"We had a shot of Nomar," said Kaat, "and I remember saying, `If I was his teammate, I would be very disappointed he's not playing.' What I said on the air is they talked to Nomar and he felt he needed another day off. I said then that I would be disappointed if I was his teammate and he didn't play, unless he had a broken leg. Then that's the same game, of course, that [Derek] Jeter dives into the stands and makes the kind of play that electrifies his whole team. Those are the things that don't show up in a box score."

Garciaparra's ongoing health issues with the Cubs -- wrist, Achilles', and groin -- have raised a debate over whether Chicago will try to tie him up long-term. Upon Garciaparra's return to the lineup last week, Cubs manager Dusty Baker dropped him to sixth in the order, which would have been unthinkable in Boston. Baker said he made the move to protect Garciaparra from aggravating the injury ("so he can worry about driving in runs, not scoring them"), but still it raises doubts that Garciaparra will command anywhere near the four-year, $60 million offer he turned down from the Sox a year ago last spring.

Not much to go on for '05

Sox chairman Tom Werner said the team has had conversations about next year's payroll but wasn't about to yield any company secrets, other than to say fans shouldn't expect any dramatic changes in philosophy, e.g. a sharp decline from this season's roughly $130 million payroll. "If the fans are asking, `Are you planning to do anything?' the answer is no," Werner said. As to whether any of the team's key free agents -- Pedro Martinez, Jason Varitek, Derek Lowe, Orlando Cabrera -- will be signed before they have the right to negotiate across the board, Werner said, "This is [Theo Epstein's] bailiwick. I'm sure conversations are going on. My hope is that as soon as appropriate, continued progress will be made. I don't think Theo wants to think about it at the moment, but we've always made it clear to those players about wanting to secure them, even if one could debate the numbers."

Chin music

Curt (on the car phone) Schilling, who did a number last week on Butch Stearns after the Channel 25 sports anchor suggested on WEEI's "The Big Show" that Schilling and Martinez had a strained relationship, would make a nice addition to anybody's debate team. Back in his Phillies days, Schilling raised his hand one night to tangle on a postgame TV show with powerful agent Scott Boras over the future of J.D. Drew, the Phillies' top draft choice who was balking at signing (and ultimately was traded to the Cardinals). As spirited as the debate was on camera, it was blazing off-air, with shouting back and forth between Schilling and Boras. During one break, according to longtime Philadelphia Daily News columnist Bill Conlin, Boras warned the show's host that unless "the hometown hero" backed off, "I'm outta here."

A boost from the booth

ESPN broadcaster Rick Sutcliffe, the former Cubs pitcher, was a teammate of Andre Dawson when the Hawk moved from Montreal to Chicago and won an MVP award in his first season there. Sutcliffe predicts that another recent emigre from the Expos, Cabrera, could enjoy a similar renaissance with the Red Sox. "This kid is a terrific player," Sutcliffe said. "He had back problems in Montreal, playing on that turf, just like Hawk was beat up on the turf. Look what he did when he got to Wrigley. And this kid is going to find that Fenway will have the same effect on his career. He's not going to be a 50-home run hitter, but he's unbelievable defensively -- he's up there with the best of them -- and he has great instincts. This kid can beat you in a lot of different ways. He's a ballplayer, and on top of that he's a good kid, which is a bonus."

Thinking back

A major league scout, alluding to the spate of home runs allowed by Keith Foulke lately, wondered whether Foulke's back was acting up again. "He wouldn't have been able to go against the Red Sox in Game 5 of the playoffs last season, his back was that bad by then," the scout said. Foulke has had some stiffness this season that has prompted manager Terry Francona to sit him out a day or two, but there have been no indications that the back has been an issue.

Family business

Former New England Revolution coach Thomas Rongen, hired last week to coach MLS expansion team Club Deportivo Chivas USA, has tapped into some strong bloodlines for an assistant. Javier "Zuly" Ledesma, who was a goalkeeper with Mexico's 1986 World Cup team, is Nomar Garciaparra's uncle.

Oester's ouster

Ugly parting of the ways in Cincinnati, where former Reds manager Ron Oester was canned last week as the team's minor league field coordinator by former Sox infielder Tim Naehring, the team's director of player development. On his way out, Oester, who had ripped the club after he was dumped as manager, said Naehring was "over his head" in his current position. Those words rang hollow, because Naehring is widely regarded as a rising star in executive ranks.

Nothing but quality

Minnesota's Johan Santana has had 21 straight quality starts, the longest such streak since Pedro Martinez reeled off 21 from Aug. 19, 1999, through June 20, 2000, according to Stats Inc. Santana has given up more than two runs only twice over those 21 outings, which date back to June 9, and he's 17-2 with a 1.33 ERA since then. In those 21 starts, Santana is 18-2 with a 1.34 ERA. He has held hitters to a .147 average, and has struck out 199 in that span while walking 30.

No big deal

Dodger star Shawn Green, who elected to play on Yom Kippur Friday but planned to observe the solemn Jewish holiday yesterday, on the wide discussion surrounding his decision: "I don't know why it's become so much bigger than it was a few years ago. From my perspective and for Giants and Dodgers fans, it's more significant because everyone's involved in the pennant race. But I'm surprised. I've heard it's a big story around the country. It's not my nature to be in the center of attention, especially in the middle of a religious debate. I'll look forward to next week when it's all gone."

Material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report. Gordon Edes can be reached by e-mail at edes@globe.com.

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