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JACKIE MACMULLAN

Little's decision is now his legacy

His friend and predecessor, Jimy Williams, tried to warn him. The manager of the Red Sox is the most scrutinized man in the city of Boston, more than the governor, the mayor, or the chief of police. Yet Grady Little seemed immune to it all, either blissfully -- or purposely -- unaware of the maelstrom that often enveloped the decisions he made regarding his baseball team.

Such obliviousness is no longer possible. Little's failure to pull a faltering Pedro Martinez from Game 7 of the American League Championship Series Thursday night at Yankee Stadium stamped a permanent stain on his Boston resume. He now assumes his place in the halls of Red Sox infamy alongside Bill Buckner, John McNamara, and Mike Torrez.

Yesterday morning, the venom with which Little's name was invoked was both jarring, and sadly predictable. A baggage handler at Logan Airport, cursing under his breath, vowed never to attend another game as long as Little was at the helm. The toll taker at the Mass. Pike lamented, "To think they could have hired Felipe Alou instead." Local radio talk shows were inundated with calls and e-mails calling for Little to be ousted immediately. The veiled and not-so-veiled threats on Little's well-being were sick, ugly, and laced with bitterness. You wondered if the manager had already called the exiled Buckner in Idaho, inquiring whether the farmhouse next door was available.

In the midst of it all, the silence on Yawkey Way was deafening. When Aaron Boone deposited Tim Wakefield's limp knuckleball into the left-field seats to signal the end of the Red Sox season, it also signaled the end of Little's contract. The team has an option for another season. They still have not exercised it. Little, meanwhile, was privately talking about a multiyear extension, and walking away if he didn't get it.

Now what? Does Little walk before he is pushed? Does general manager Theo Epstein stand tall in the face of such hot-blooded criticism and bring back his manager? In the immediate aftermath of Thursday's debacle, Epstein stood resolutely by Little, declaring, "I refused to second-guess him. He has been too much a part of our success this season." How that translates into future employment remains to be seen.

This much we do know. Martinez struggled in the seventh, giving up a home run to Jason Giambi, and back-to-back hits to the bottom two batters in the order, Red Sox killer Enrique Wilson and Karim Garcia. Sure, Pedro punched out Alfonso Soriano to end the inning, but the second baseman, who has struggled mightily in the postseason, was clueless in this game, striking out for the fourth consecutive time. Of course Martinez looked like he had gas left in the tank on that at-bat.

As Martinez pointed to the sky, then jogged off the mound, he was met with hugs and handshakes from his teammates. Nomar Garciaparra whispered something in his ear, and smiled. It looked to everyone that Martinez's day was done. He sat back, buttoned his jacket, and watched relievers Alan Embree and Mike Timlin warm up in the bullpen.

But there was Martinez, back out on the hill for the eighth, even though his pitch count was hovering at 100.

And this is where Little fell down. He had not one, not two, not three, but four chances to give Martinez the hook, and save this game. The first opportunity came when his team took the field in the eighth. Boston was up, 5-2, and Timlin, who gave up only one hit -- we repeat, one hit -- in this entire series, was ready.

OK. So you want to give your three-time Cy Young award winner the chance to inch you one inning closer to the win. And, momentarily, when Martinez coaxed Nick Johnson into a popup to the shortstop, then backed Derek Jeter into an 0-and-2 count, it appeared to be a successful gamble. But when New York's All-Star shortstop roped a double over right fielder Trot Nixon's head, that should have been enough evidence that Martinez was done.

With two lefthanders, Bernie Williams and Hideki Matsui, coming up, Little remained placid in the dugout, continuing to exhibit faith in his ace, who had embarrassed himself and his team with his Game 3 histrionics, and was surely gunning for redemption.

What it came down to was this: a tired Martinez versus a rested Alan Embree, a lefthander who throws the ball 96 miles per hour, but almost always throws it the same way: fast, and down the middle. Sometimes, it blows past everyone. Sometimes, that fastball gets whacked all over the park.

Hesitant to rely on Embree in a pressure situation? Sure, I can understand that. Hesitant to rely on Timlin in that situation? No, that one doesn't wash, not the way he pitched the final month and a half.

When Williams banged out an RBI single, Little ran to the mound to confer with his franchise pitcher. What was said in those few moments will be the subject of folklore for years to come. What we do know is Martinez remained as Matsui tagged him for a double. Martinez remained as Jorge Posada delivered a devastating blooper into no man's land to knock in two runs, and tie the game. Why, in any one of those four occasions, Little chose not to make a pitching change is unfathomable.

For that, Little will pay, now and forever. My guess is he's managed his last game here. He will not understand why the dramatic events of Game 7 have altered his status. The Red Sox will not give him what he wants, and will be secretly relieved when he leaves. The fan base will thirst for new blood to scrutinize and second-guess.

And what of the pitcher? We know Martinez is a gamer, and all those other tired cliches, but shouldn't he, above all, be honest in that situation? If he was running on empty, he should have said so. His excuse that he will never ask out of a game rings hollow. And, yet, ultimately it's the manager's responsibility to take the ball out of his hands.

If the Red Sox lost, 10-2, Thursday night, Grady Little's future probably wouldn't have been an issue. We would have lamented a Game 7 blowout, applauded the overachieving local nine for stretching themselves this far, and be pushing for their manager to receive his well-deserved extension.

Funny how it all changes when there's heartbreak involved. Red Sox fans take losing badly. Always have, always will. Little should have known. After all, he was warned.

Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. Her e-mail address is macmullan@globe.com.

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