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JACKIE MACMULLAN

A lot of reflection from Little

MESA, Ariz. -- He knew.

No matter how Grady Little may have played it last fall when his world came tumbling down after the seventh game of the American League Championship Series, after he left Pedro Martinez on the mound as a succession of New York Yankees dismantled Boston's World Series dreams with one hit after another, the manager was acutely aware of the repercussions of yet another heartbreaking Red Sox loss to their bitter rivals.

As he sat on the team bus, in the kind of deathly quiet that only a crushing defeat can generate, Little braced himself for the inevitable -- and ugly -- fallout of his decision to stick with his ace.

"I'm just glad," Little said yesterday afternoon, "it was me they blamed instead of one of our players."

More than four months after Little's loyalty to Martinez cost him his job, he has reported to spring training wearing the uniform of the Chicago Cubs. He will serve as a roving instructor for manager Dusty Baker and general manager Jim Hendry. Little is tanned, relaxed, and excited about his new team, although that excitement is masked by a calmness that so often soothed his Red Sox clubhouse at the same time it infuriated his critics.

Some Boston fans never will forgive Little for his inaction on the night of Oct. 16. The former manager said he knew within minutes after the game ended that would be the case.

"Sure, I knew what was coming," Little said. "There were strong indications of that after being around there [in Boston] for a couple of years.

"I listened to people talking about something that happened in a game in 1946. I'd go up Boylston Street to get a cup of coffee almost every day, and I'd hear from people. It would be the last week in April, and they'd come up to me and say, `That was a devastating loss last night.' I'd look at them and say, `Just relax. We've got 140 more to play.' "

Little's homespun, laid-back approach didn't sell in Boston. Red Sox Nation wanted fire, passion, discipline, and, above all, that elusive world championship. By failing to deliver on the most dramatic stage, in the seventh game of a playoff series at Yankee Stadium, Little understands he has secured a permanent place in Red Sox infamy alongside Mike Torrez, Bill Buckner, and others before him.

"But it wasn't that one decision [to leave Martinez in] that cost me," Little said. "It was the results of my decision."

Little has had more time than he could possibly need to reflect on the events of that night. As Martinez began to falter, Little could have turned to a number of relievers, including lefty Alan Embree, veteran Mike Timlin, and closer Scott Williamson. In the end, he bet on his All-Star instead of Embree, a fastball pitcher who had been hit-or-miss much of 2003, or Williamson, who came on strong in the postseason but never completely gained the confidence of his coaching staff, or Timlin, who was in the midst of surreal playoff run.

"A guy in my position makes 1,000 decisions a week," Little said. "Sometimes the results are good, sometimes they're not.

"A lot of friends have said to me, `Would you have done it differently?' Well, sure, if I knew the results ahead of time."

Did Little, in retrospect, consider how his life would be different if he lifted Martinez for Timlin?

"I've had all winter to think about all sorts of different things," he answered.

If Little is bitter, he masks it well. He has trained himself to look ahead, never back. "Guaranteed, that's me," he said.

He will not lash out at the fans who sent him death threats and spit expletives at him. He will not take aim at the troika of Theo Epstein, Larry Lucchino, and owner John Henry.

"I have a lot of respect for those people up there," Little said. "They gave me a chance to be a big league manager, and I'm not going to sit here and say anything negative about them.

"It's a business. They felt they wanted to make some changes for the future of the team. They've done a good job in the offseason of getting that team ready to play and compete.

"It was great experience for me [in Boston], but I just wish it had turned out differently. I wish the results were different."

Asked if he thought he'd still be manager of the Red Sox had they lost that seventh game, 8-2, eliminating that one crucial moment that now will define the 2003 team, Little answered, "That's hard to say. There were things the front office and I were going to have to discuss."

Include the team's reluctance to offer Little a long-term extension as one of those issues. There were indications the club planned to pick up only Little's one-year option, and that would have been untenable to the manager.

It's all irrelevant now, of course. Little's concern is no longer whether Pedro should be allowed to sneak home to the Dominican Republic, or whether Derek Lowe can regain his form of two seasons ago. He can't waste time worrying about whether Nomar's feelings are hurt, or if Manny really has the flu.

He's concentrating on Cubs stud Mark Prior, and wily veteran Greg Maddux, and the mercurial Sammy Sosa, and his old friend Todd Walker. The Cubs also experienced an excruciating playoff exit, with their defining moment of failure when a Cubs fan interfered with a ball that Chicago left fielder Moises Alou swears he could have caught. Little has jumped from one scarred franchise to the other, but insists, "I don't believe in curses."

Little has known Terry Francona, the new Red Sox manager, for years, yet Francona confessed recently he hasn't called Little about his new position because he wasn't sure "the timing was right."

"I understand," Little said. "Terry knows he's got a good friend right here. I haven't called him, either. Better to let the dust settle a little."

In a recent interview, Francona was asked if he understood the magnitude of what happened to Little that night in the Bronx.

"I'm beginning to understand," said Francona, who received a three-year contract with a club option for 2007 in December, "but I think it would be flippant to say I've got it completely."

"He'll learn," said Little yesterday, with a hint of a smile.

And what advice would the former manager of the Red Sox give to his successor?

"Heck, he doesn't need any advice from me," said Little. "He's already got himself a longer contract than I ever had there."

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

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