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MICHAEL HOLLEY

Knowing he's gone got Little going

MIAMI -- Look at it this way: The "ifs" can now be taken out of all Grady Little arguments. There will be no more "If Grady is fired . . ." stories because the decision has already been made.

Little is gone as manager of the Red Sox and he knows it. It's part of the reason he is talking like a man who has leverage, even though he has none. It's part of the reason he has portrayed his supervisors as fair-weather bosses, supporting him one night and backing away the next.

That's part of the reason. The other part is that Grady has gumption. He was completely underestimated here, by fans, media, and the men who made his paychecks possible. He obviously is not the avuncular baseball figure that everyone thought he was. He was frequently mocked as old Uncle Grady, the man who would prefer to pat the boys on the back and roast marshmallows 'round a campfire.

Nope. Now we know that he's got some sting behind those "gol'dangs" that he loves so much. We know that he would prefer to put some verbal flames to the backsides of those who let him drive back to North Carolina without giving him the answer he wanted to hear.

Little has all but walked into the front office, put his feet on the desk, and demanded that somebody in a suit fetch him a cup of decaf. There he was in yesterday's Globe, saying the kind of things that men who are worried about job security don't say. No matter what your opinion is of the manager who let Pedro Martinez pitch and pitch and pitch in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series, you have to allow that he has guts.

For better or worse.

He wondered aloud if he even wants to keep his job. He wondered aloud if he wants to work for people who would be free and ecstatic after his team won Game 6 and then be officious and corporate after his team lost Game 7. He went to his go-to move, speaking in the third person, and warned that Grady Little can handle the heat. And that Grady Little will be another Fenway ghost -- a ghost! -- coming back to haunt the place. And that the rage directed at Grady Little after Game 7 was not surprising when you consider that the Sox play "162 seasons" rather than 162 games.

I don't know about you, but I was blown away as I read it. It was as if Little did some deep thinking during that Southern drive and suddenly snapped outside of Virginia. He sounded frustrated and confused that his job is even an issue after two seasons and 188 wins on the table.

The biggest surprise here is not that management has concerns about Little, because it clearly does. The twist is that he has concerns about the decision-makers, too. If you want to pick up the paper trail on where Little's dissatisfaction began, start in August or September. That's when the manager started inching toward candor about his bullpen.

Maybe he knew there was a feeling the doomed BBC Network (Bullpen By Committee) could have survived if he had put his relievers in favorable matchups with hitters. Or spent more time studying and preparing for game situations. Whether he sensed that vibe or not, Little started to say that he didn't have time for guys to work out their issues during games. He became bolder in the playoffs, when he was asked what he learned during the 2003 season.

"I learned that you need to have a closer," he said.

During the Division Series and ALCS, he reminded everyone that it was Game such and such of the season and "I still can't tell you who my closer is."

He said that in front of the national media; his bosses probably would have preferred the subject, still touchy, to remain at the family dinner table.

Maybe the long drive helped him see the irony of his situation. There were screams all season about the sorry bullpen. The penmanship was better in the playoffs, but who would have guessed that a job would be lost because Little refused to take the ball out of Martinez's hands?

Pitching. That's what the game in general and Little's job in particular comes back to.

He probably didn't like Theo & The Trio's (John W. Henry, Larry Lucchino, Tom Werner) mathematical approach; they probably didn't like his handling of the staff. He was taught that relievers need roles; they not only waved the Bill James abstract, they hired Bill James and said there is another way. He was delivered Ramiro Mendoza, Byung Hyun Kim, Scott Sauerbeck, Jeff Suppan, and Scott Williamson as pitching reinforcements; they and everyone else saw only one of them -- Williamson -- be effective in the postseason.

The Sox brought in Dave Wallace as interim pitching coach when Tony Cloninger got sick, and maybe they thought Wallace could guide Little's pitching decisions. But Wallace is overqualified for the job. He has a great pitching mind (it was his idea to move Eric Gagne to the bullpen in Los Angeles), but he should be an executive with this team.

What's so fascinating and frightening about Wednesday's words is that you're not sure if Little is delusional about his importance here or if he knows how close the clubhouse is to collapsing. It's obvious that he isn't worried about paying any bills, and it's obvious that he knows another job in the big leagues awaits him.

So let the speculation begin. Will it be Glenn Hoffman, Bruce Bochy, or Jerry Manuel? Or will someone else win the right to keep a clubhouse full of free agents and free spirits focused on winning?

Whoever this man is, he had better be tough. There is a strong feeling around New England that one thing kept the Sox from the World Series this year. And that one thing was a competent manager.

Little knows about that sentiment. He heard about it for the better part of two years and 188 wins. They win in spite of him. How many times did you hear that?

No one has to hear it anymore. Little has grabbed his bosses by the lapels and dared them to push him away. It's eerie how prepared he is to lose his job.

It's eerie how prepared he is to be a ghost.

Michael Holley is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is holley@globe.com.

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