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BOB RYAN

This no clubhouse divided

"How do you spell Pujols?"

Todd Jones wanted to know. The righthanded reliever was one of many Red Sox players filling out his "Players Choice" ballot some three hours before the first pitch of last night's game with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Around the room various writers were chatting with players, some of the conversations having been initiated by voters seeking a professional opinion.

All clubhouses are not created equal. Two years ago at this time the Red Sox were battling with the media, their overmatched manager -- just exactly what was Dan Duquette thinking? -- and even themselves. It was immediate post-9/11 and for them baseball was a chore. Their mental bags were packed. It may only have been Sept. 17 but, for them, the season was already over.

Last year at this time the clubhouse mood was better, but the cause was hopeless. The Red Sox were going to be out of postseason play for the third straight year. But there was new, enlightened management, and there was hope. Though no one knew who would be the new general manager, there was a sense that something good was coming, and that there would be beneficial changes.

Now it is 2003 and life is good. It's not your father or grandfather's baseball world. It is a big screen, high-tech, informational overload and, most of all, wild-card world. Let the Yankees win the division. That doesn't mean everything's been settled. There is more baseball to be played.

The atmosphere, I am here to tell you, is good. Manny's not talking? No conversational loss there. Pedro's not talking? That really is a blow to the media, but it would be worse if he were an everyday player. Anyway, we keep telling ourselves it's not going to last. His only legitimate beef is with some stray radio callers, not us. No man could have a more (deservedly) slobbering press. Nomar? Well, yes, he does have his, shall we say, ways, but it's not as if he never talks. He's not wild about having the media hordes invade the locker room every pregame and postgame, and we already know he will be the zealous enforcer of the Red Line, but he'll generally answer the postgame bell if asked.

In years past the attitudes of the very best Red Sox players would carry the day, but not here, not now. None of this really matters against the backdrop of the wild-card chase (May we just concede the American League East to the Yankees and move on?). Most of the players on the 2003 Boston Red Sox aren't angry with anybody. They are all far too busy enjoying their daily life. The Red Sox clubhouse does not feel remotely claustrophobic, no matter how many bodies are crammed in there at any one time. The good vibes of a happy, winning team make this room feel like Yellowstone at dawn.

Since the end of the last homestand, a red line of demarcation has been drawn 3 or 4 feet from the lockers, which is more amusing than anything. The idea, supposedly, is to give the players some space when they encounter media inquisitors. Well, fine. But there was never any problem. Most of the guys on this team have been accommodating, and some (David Ortiz, Kevin Millar, Trot Nixon, Johnny Damon) are famously gracious. Jason Varitek has always been a stand-up guy, as have Derek Lowe and Tim Wakefield. Todd Walker usually talks to anybody. Bill Mueller doesn't say much, but he is respected for it because he is that modern athletic rarity: a truly humble man.

And then there's Gabe Kapler, one of the many Theo Epstein imports who has brought a different spirit to this team and this clubhouse. Gabe actually talks to media folk without a hint of condescension. You wanna talk baseball? Step right into my office (and I won't care if you're an inch over the line).

The subject of the moment was Dodgers reliever Eric Gagne, he of the 51 saves. "Most difficult at-bats I've ever experienced," Kapler maintains. "I only faced him twice, and I struck out both times. But what makes him so good is that if you take all the elements that can make a pitcher great and put them into one guy, that's him. Fastball, outrageous changeup, and deception."

Inside his office, the low-key manager, whose value will never be fully understood by those who persist in thinking a manager's primary value is pulling pitchers and flashing the bunt sign, is fielding inquiries in his patient manner. Someone wants to know if he is concerned about Pedro Martinez's bounce-back capability after throwing 122 pitches during his complete-game conquest of the Devil Rays Tuesday.

"No," says Grady Little. "This is what we've been working for all season, so that he can do that. It's time to go to work. This is why we give him those extra days throughout the season."

That is another reason why the vibes are so good. Pedro is pitching well. Lowe is pitching well. Two starters on a roll can carry a team in the postseason.

I'm not implying the Red Sox are ahead of themselves. They are where they are because they really have been able to focus their attention on each nine-inning block. This is a relaxed, confident team that enjoys coming to work. Every day. I've seen a lot of Red Sox teams that were incapable of enjoying their good fortune. Believe me when I tell you this is not one of them.

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