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ON BASEBALL

Manager is winning them over

SARASOTA, Fla. -- The phone lines might be on fire as the Red Sox attempt to negotiate deals for their high-profile impending free agents, but in the clubhouse this spring, perhaps the most important thing is the players developing a working relationship with Terry Francona and vice versa.

There's no timetable on how long this is supposed to take. There's no two-minute warning. No buzzer goes off indicating the "getting-to-know-you period" is over.

We know it's ongoing, but it had better not take too long. The Red Sox took a major risk when they let Grady Little go (in-

sert your favorite joke here) because of his hold on the team in the clubhouse. That means nothing to the average fan, who judges managers mostly by their game strategy. But to players, chemistry with the manager is everything. And when you change, especially on a team that will be perceived as a failure if it doesn't get to the World Series, there's a heightened risk. 2004 has to be the Year of the Manager in Boston, because 2003 was not.

And Francona, who was hired in early December, seems to be making gains in the one area in which we can measure him at the moment: gaining the respect of his team.

"If the respect came immediately, it wouldn't be worth a damn," said Francona. "It's a developing process. Common sense tells you the more you're together, the more you get to know one another. I have an obligation to get to know them. They have had a lot of success here."

He has not had to manage in spring training with an iron fist, but he knows he will do so if it comes to that. He said his ways are subtle. If he sees something out of line, he has a conversation with the player out of everyone's sight.

"I really care about having an atmosphere where they care about doing the right thing," said Francona. "And so far our coaching staff has been really pleased that we have a group of guys who want to do the right thing. For me it would be silly to walk around like a drill sergeant. That wouldn't be in my nature."

Maybe the comfort level of Manny Ramirez, Pedro Martinez, and Nomar Garciaparra is last on the priority list for Sox fans, but to the players, comfort can mean greater production.

"You have to have a relaxed atmosphere," said Ellis Burks. "In order for a player to play at his best, he has to play relaxed. What better way to do that than to go to the clubhouse and have the whole clubhouse like that? And it starts with the manager."

Burks said he has studied many of the managers he played for, and he counts Dusty Baker as the best in all aspects, from dealing with players to managing games. Burks, who is considering a managerial career of his own when his playing days are over, thinks it takes a good year for players to really get to know a new manager.

So far, he's seeing in Francona what he would like to be himself one day.

"I'd be a player's type manager," said Burks. "As a player, I know what I like and what I expect out of a manager. Respect is the main thing. I give it and I expect it in return. It's early, but from what I see right now, he's a veteran player's manager."

Tim Wakefield, for one, said he doesn't need any more time to get to know Francona.

"It didn't take long at all," said Wakefield. "He came in with a lot of respect for the players and we have a lot of respect for him. He's a lot like Grady in that he wants us to succeed. Grady did the same thing, and it makes you want to play hard."

Some players made mention of Francona's "quality over quantity" approach to spring training drills. It's no different than a football coach telling his players to take off the pads so he can preserve them during a long season.

"He makes sure everyone gets their work in," said Wakefield. "There's not much standing around. You get your work done and you're done. It's quality of work, not quantity of work.

"Spring training is long enough as it is; sometimes that stuff gets old. You can tell he's had experience with veteran teams. We're all professionals and we know how to get our work done. But he's not going to let us slide on anything. He's got discipline behind what he's preaching to us. I think we respect him enough to where we're not going to take advantage of him."

Brian Daubach, who may wind up being one of Francona's end-of-the-roster decisions, said the manager "communicates well. He's outgoing. He seems to keep everyone feeling like they're a part of it. For a Red Sox camp, it's real laid-back. You never know what's going to happen here, but it's been all about the game, which isn't always the case here."

Kevin Millar was one of the first players who had to deal with Francona in the offseason when he made comments about his preference for Alex Rodriguez over Garciaparra when it appeared a deal was about to be struck with the Rangers. Francona called Millar and Garciaparra to make sure trouble didn't brew. It seemed he headed off a problem at the pass.

"It takes time," said Millar. "He's got a big job to do trying to figure out 25 different personalities. He's seen us all play, being in a different dugout, but it takes time. This is his adjustment period. He's learning.

"He's been amazing so far. He's got a great sense of humor. His job, coming into a team like this, is just letting the guys play. He's been awesome. He's very down to earth. He's got an open-door policy. I think those are two things that you need to have as a player.

"The big thing is you can talk to him. You can ask questions and he'll get your input into what you're thinking. That's when you realize you're all in this together, to win a World Series."

Millar enjoys the fact that Francona has a prankster side.

"He's gotten us a few times," said Millar. "He's come up in a huddle and we're all straight-faced and he'll pop something and we're all dying laughing.

"The things he wants you to do are be on time, play the game hard, and play the game right. He's got a clubhouse of guys who will do that."

Don't underestimate the importance of what has taken place so far. Francona is on display. With Pedro sound, Curt Schilling fitting in, and the team relatively healthy, Francona is the developing story of this camp. So far, he's winning over his players. He's managing his star veterans without a glitch. Next hurdle: Game management.

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