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ON BASEBALL

Talking a good game, too

TORONTO -- Aside from his obvious assets on the field, what made Alex Rodriguez such a tantalizing prospect to the Red Sox last winter was his charismatic personality, a marketer's dream. On a team whose superstars tended to be guarded (Nomar Garciaparra), aggrieved (Pedro Martinez), or remote (Manny Ramirez), Rodriguez offered the perfect antidote -- glib, smooth, and polished, as comfortable in front of a TV camera as he was in the middle of the diamond.

But as the Red Sox prepared for the first time this spring to invade New York, where Rodriguez has taken up occupancy both in the Bronx and on Madison Avenue, it is becoming increasingly apparent that the Sox require neither an infusion of A-Rod's talent nor social skills to compete with the Yankees, or anyone else.

The Sox come into Yankee Stadium tonight, having taken two of three from the Blue Jays here after taking three of four from the Yankees last weekend in Fenway Park, where Rodriguez went without a hit until his final at-bat on Patriots Day.

They have crafted a 9-6 record in the American League East without Garciaparra and Trot Nixon, and in so doing have created a new fan favorite -- the irrepressible Curt Schilling, who enthusiastically embraced the chance to immerse himself into the local culture, be it Dunkin' Donuts or the Sons of Sam Horn, from the moment he decided to relocate to New England. Being as good as advertised -- despite last night's meltdown against the Blue Jays -- has made Schilling's acceptance here a foregone conclusion, whether or not he ever masters the nuances of wicked hahd.

But the unexpected story line of the season's first month revolves around Ramirez, who apparently is constitutionally incapable of harboring a grudge. Given ample cause to resent the way he was treated in the offseason, when the Sox first placed him on irrevocable waivers, then tried to unload him to the Texas Rangers in a deal for A-Rod, Ramirez instead has become the ultimate happy camper, and has gone out of his way to let everyone -- including media types he has studiously avoided in the past -- know it.

His locker has become a regular stop for reporters seeking a postgame quote, and he has sat down for any number of TV interviews, including one yesterday afternoon with NESN.

"A lot of people expected me to come back mad, this and that," Ramirez said on camera. "But life is too short."

Ramirez has always appeared happy with a bat in his hands, and this spring has been no exception. He had three hits and two walks in five plate appearances last night, raising his batting average to .393. He has hit safely in 14 of 15 games, scored or knocked in a run in a dozen of them, and has had two or more hits in eight games, batting .500 (8 for 16) with runners in scoring position. All without the benefit of Garciaparra in the lineup to share some of the load.

In the clubhouse, Ramirez has always been popular with teammates, who find him guileless, almost innocent, and playful. He has a nice comfort level with fans, as well, as he showed last Sunday during the team's photo day, when a kid handed him a cellphone.

"I spoke to his mom," Ramirez said. "I said, `Hi Mom, how you doing?' That's what it's all about, making the fans happy."

But what accounts for this newfound willingness to reach out more publicly, to become Manny Ramirez, media go-to guy?

"You're welcome," Kevin Millar said to an inquisitor posing that very question.

It was Millar's way of saying he has encouraged Ramirez to step out.

"It's great, isn't it?" Millar said. "It's nice that people get to see the kind of guy he is. He's always been this way with us, but it's about time the fans get to see it, too. When I got here last year, people were still talking about that comebacker in Tampa. That was the year before. It's over. Give it a rest."

Ramirez was involved in a couple of other attention-grabbers last season that cast him in less than a positive light. He skipped a doctor's appointment while missing a series against the Yankees, and manager Grady Little benched him in Chicago after he refused to pinch hit in Philadelphia.

Even Millar wouldn't stand for that. If he doesn't want to be part of the team, he said, then we'll win it without him.

Ramirez responded in the right way, going on a tear down the stretch, batting .375 with six homers.

And even as all "that drama" unfolded around him last winter, he said he didn't take it personally. He began working out a week after the playoffs ended, and came to camp ready to go back to work.

He said some of his previous reluctance to talk publicly came from feeling some uncertainty about expressing himself in English, his second language. "When your English is not that good, sometimes you don't want to talk, you don't know how to express yourself good."

But that stuff about wanting to play in pinstripes someday? He trusted his answer required no translation.

"That's in the past," he said. "I'm a Red Sox. I want to finish my career here."

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