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JACKIE MACMULLAN

Manager should be given the `safe' sign

The manager signs baseballs before every game. He negotiates the crowd of insistent, demanding adults -- oh, and their children, too -- with the patience of a man who is versed in satisfying multiple egos, personalities, and individual needs. The manager does this with the look of someone who knows the punch line to a very humorous joke.

But there's nothing funny about Grady Little's situation. The skipper of the Boston Red Sox is closing in on 95 wins and a postseason run, but he's still not completely sure he'll be back in the dugout next spring. Little's contract runs out at the end of this season, and although the club could exercise an option to keep him on the job next year, it has not.

"What do you expect?" observed longtime Orioles bullpen coach Elrod Hendricks. "This is Boston. You're never safe."

Hendricks is right. If this were Kansas City, Milwaukee, or Minnesota, Grady would be hawking Cadillacs, hosting his own talk show, and kissing babies. But in Boston, where the Red Sox are a local treasure, the manager is under more pressure than the governor, the mayor, or the chief of police.

And winning the World Series is all that matters.

"I think the fans, and the writers around here, they get a little nervous," Hendricks said. "After all the disappointments they've had, after getting that close to a championship, they don't trust anyone anymore.

"I laugh about it. I've been around a long, long time. I've been coming here over 35 years, so I know what it's like. They have so little faith. Sometimes I yell up to them, `Stop blaming the Babe!'

"You sure shouldn't be blaming Grady Little. This team he's got, they're a bunch of renegades. They go out and have fun, and they win. Whatever Grady is saying, it must be right. And anyway, where do they think they're going to find someone else better?"

Hendricks isn't aware of one of the many maladies that plagues Red Sox fans. They want what the Yankees have. They want Joe Torre, and there's a feeling that if the Bombers don't win it all, then Torre might be available. If not Torre, maybe the manager could be Bruce Bochy, because apparently there's this other theory that everyone Sox president Larry Lucchino ever met while he was in San Diego must come to work for the Red Sox.

That's what Grady Little listens to when he drives to work every day. That, and he doesn't say "Nomah's" name correctly. Oh, and he doesn't look angry enough when the team messes up. Also, he isn't the new ownership's "guy."

Little decided long ago that he would contend with his contractual status when the season is over. He usually wears that amused look when he repeats that.

Sox general manager Theo Epstein was asked last night why he hasn't exercised the option on Little's deal.

"Whenever someone asks me about Grady, it stops me in my tracks," said Epstein. "When I think of him, I'm thinking how big a part of this team he is, and how much he's been a part of the success we've had.

"I don't think about the contract. It's not on our minds right now. What Grady and I talk about every single day is winning. We agreed to table the other topic until the end of the season."

Theo is a local guy. He knows how it works around here. A vote of confidence is a kiss of death. But declining to exercise the option is an invitation for speculation and doomsday predictions. Theo also knows the manager of this local nine always will be held to higher standards than other managers, by the fans, the writers -- and yes, the management.

"I think the rules are different here," Epstein conceded, "but I think I've been independent regarding outside influences and how I make decisions."

The simple solution would be to extend Little's contract right now, instead of after the October deadline. But it isn't likely to happen. It is because owner John Henry has someone else in mind? Or is it Lucchino? Epstein? All of the above? None of the above?

"I just don't like talking about this right now," Epstein said. "All I can tell you is Grady has done a very good job."

There are two ways to measure a manager: on the field and in the clubhouse. Little is more vulnerable when discussing the former, particularly because of the inconsistent manner in which he's handled the bullpen. Of course, the way the relievers have pitched this season, they'd keep any manager guessing. But in the clubhouse, Little has been a calming, positive influence. Sure, he's had to deal with some Manny Moments, but we've come to accept those as inevitable. The more relevant point is that there have been no major blowups in that locker room for a very long time.

"I'm telling you," Hendricks said. "I'm used to seeing the whole country club thing here. No more."

Baseball strategist or chemistry guru? Ideally, you want both (there's that Torre again). But, pressed to choose, give me the chemistry guy every time.

"Grady has done a fantastic job," said outfielder Trot Nixon. "He's got a lot of guys in here who are capable of playing every day, and somehow he's worked it so everyone is happy."

Pedro Martinez, who is undefeated in September, has been giving Little credit for holding him back early, so he could be healthy and strong for the stretch run. Asked about Little yesterday, Martinez gave a thumbs-up.

"There's no way he shouldn't be here next year," Nixon said. "Point blank. A lot of guys feel that way. Hopefully we'll have some say-so, to get him an extension. But Grady is one of those guys who only worries about today and today only. He'll worry about next year later."

The Red Sox brass -- whether it's Henry, Lucchino, or Epstein -- should render Grady Little's future a moot point. The man has nurtured Pedro, sat Manny, juggled Nixon, Ortiz, Kapler, and the rest, and has coaxed Boston to the brink of the playoffs. If that's not worth an extension, what is?

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