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MICHAEL HOLLEY

Done in by final analysis

Little's number obviously up

At times, they sat at their Fenway Park round table and went too far. Theo Epstein and Larry Lucchino were supposed to be explaining why Grady Little is not the ideal manager for the Red Sox. They wound up describing a man who should be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Grady was a "gifted" manager. Grady was a "good man" and a "good person." Grady was "great." For about 40 minutes yesterday -- the day he lost his job -- Grady was Connie Mack and Albert Einstein. You heard two of his former bosses praise him and you wondered, "So why are we here again?"

Epstein and Lucchino were extremely respectful of Little on his awkward day. But they never got around to saying what now should be obvious to everyone: The Fab Five (Epstein, Lucchino, John W. Henry, Tom Werner, Bill James) love the man named Grady, but the manager named Grady is a gulf away from what they want in the dugout.

And they've felt that way for months.

Yesterday wasn't about Little's 188 wins or the 188 adjectives he has heard in place of his name. It wasn't about the drawn-in infield in Oakland or the pitching changes he never made in New York. It was about one of the oldest American sentiments, the feeling that things are OK today but with some tweaking they'll be lovelier tomorrow.

If we were talking about the dating scene, the Sox would say that Little is really nice but he's not their type. He wasn't at the end of 2002, despite his 93 wins, so they went into a holding pattern on his option. He wasn't at the All-Star break. He wasn't at the beginning of September. He wasn't before Game 7 of the American League Championship Series.

There is such a thing as irreconcilable differences in baseball and that's what Little and Sox management had. It was never personal. The gap occurred when the manager was gently asked -- and sometimes forcefully told -- how to prepare for games.

It was suggested that he have a game plan, as if he were coaching in the NFL. It was suggested that he shut his office door for however long it took, 90 or 120 or 150 minutes, and meticulously study tendencies. He was encouraged to use anecdotal evidence, but his bosses wanted him to merge that with attention to the tiniest quirks. They wanted a curious thinker, a man who never would stop prodding and poking.

How does Derek Jeter's approach change when he's ahead 2-0 rather than down 1-2? What does he do with his bat? What adjustments has he made since April?

Little listened to his bosses during these sessions, but he is not that kind of manager. If there is a legitimate criticism of him, it is that he should have tried harder to do what they wanted. If there is a legitimate criticism of them, it is that they should have quickly known what he was when they interviewed him. They could have then hired another "transition" guy or stayed with Little and put their kind of staff around him. Now they both find themselves in unusual positions. Little has to go on job interviews and help an employer understand why someone with his big-league resume is on the street. The Sox have to bypass candidates who have the potential to take them to the Series and find a man who they know can do it in 2004.

They long have felt that they can do better and now they're going to find out if they were right.

They were right -- nearly perfect, actually -- when they went about selecting players who could carry out their on-base vision. They were wrong about the bullpen, but were able to clean up their mess as the season went along. They can't afford to be wrong about Little.

If they're wrong, they'll join the former manager in Sox history. He'll be remembered as the man who didn't trust his bullpen. They'll be remembered as meddlers who didn't quite trust what they had.

Imagine what we'd hear if old Fenway's walls could speak. Hollywood Kevin Kennedy was known as the manager for the stars. Jimy Williams hated Dan Duquette. Joe Kerrigan said he wanted to stabilize the lineup and then shuffled it like a Vegas dealer. And now there's Little, who may have absorbed more fan anger in 12 days than Kennedy, Williams, and Kerrigan received over seven years.

There were lots of kind words yesterday, from Boston to North Carolina and North Carolina to Boston. Little said Epstein is a solid GM, and the two believe they will remain friends despite not working together.

The way the Sox see it, their breakup was caused by evolution. But the fact is that the Sox believe that they had a playoff team in '02 and a Series team in '03. They also believe that the difference between making the Series and watching it was the management from the bench.

No one knows if yesterday's transaction was the proper one; we'll all know by this time next year. So after a summer of cowboys and karaoke, Little walked away with a $250,000 going-away present from the Sox. The Fab Five offered kind words, waved toward the horizon, and went to sleep thinking they can achieve greater things with someone else.

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

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