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DAN SHAUGHNESSY

Now he's Fenway's friendliest

What's next, Manny In The Morning doing drive-time talk radio around Greater Boston? Manny on stage at the Tweeter Center, singing a duet with Julio Iglesias? Manny at Borders, signing copies of his new bestseller, "The Tao of Manny"?

For three Boston baseball seasons, he has been Marcel Marceau Manny: seen, never heard, a savant slugger with no voice. Now, suddenly, in the spring of 2004, he's Manny Motormouth. Ubiquitous Manny. Loquacious Manny. Live-shot Manny. He's getting more air time than Bill O'Reilly. He's become the media's go-to guy in the Red Sox clubhouse. He's quoted in the paper every day. He's sat down for interviews with Sports Xtra and NESN. He's probably going to be on "The Big Show" before the end of the week. Leno, Letterman, and MacNeil-Lehrer can't be far behind.

Oh, the new Manny Ramirez still can hit, too. In 18 games he's at .392 with 5 home runs and 15 RBIs, while slugging .676. He demolished the Yankees in the Bronx over the weekend, going 5 for 13 (.385) with two homers, a double, and four RBIs. On Saturday, he doubled in the 12th and came around to score the winning run on a sacrifice fly. On Sunday, he hit a prodigious two-run homer to provide the only offense in a 2-0 win. He is the early front-runner for American League Most Valuable Player.

Let's get this straight about Manny: He has been roughed up in this space and others when he declined to run out a ground ball, or vanished on an important weekend, or refused to pinch hit. But he is not a clubhouse cancer. Never has been. Not even close. He comes to the park early, does his job, and goes home. Teammates either like him or ignore him.

This could have been a rough year for Manny. The entire world knows the Red Sox tried to give him away last fall when they placed him on irrevocable waivers. Any team could have grabbed him if it was willing to pay his whopping ($20-million-plus) annual salary. When no team bit, the Sox spent two months trying to trade Ramirez to Texas for Alex Rodriguez. Again, there was no secrecy. If not for Gene Orza and Friends, Ramirez would be patrolling the outfield in Arlington, Texas.

Some players would have been wounded and upset. Not Manny. He showed up in Fort Myers wearing a Jeremy Shockey jersey and a smile. There has been no pouting. He's even backed off earlier statements about wanting to play for the Yankees. For the first time in his Boston tenure, Manny seems genuinely happy here. He's talking publicly and he's more involved with his teammates during the games.

Manny says he has no problem with the media. Like most of us, he's not comfortable in his second language, but he says he wants people to get to know him better this year. He was downright hilarious when he sat for an interview along with Kevin Millar for Channel 7's Wendi Nix last week. When Millar teased him about not opening his wallet enough, Manny laughed and said, "The problem is that $160 million, that don't last like they used to."

How true. If I've said that once, I've said it 160 million times.

Cynics (don't you hate people like that?) might suggest that Manny is merely trying to court favor in an effort to get the fans back on his side. I say no. Ramirez is not your typical cause-and-effect person. He is what he is, a great hitter. He gives no indication that he's overthinking on any matter. Especially in the batter's box.

Ramirez is a fascinating hitter. Watch him at the plate. He has incredible balance and his hands are loose around the bat when he waits for the pitch. He has the requisite bat speed and power, but it's his hands that make him different. Show this to your kids and tell them not to strangle the handle of the bat when waiting for the pitch. He gets more two-strike hits than any player. Woe to the hurler who tries to waste a pitch on the far side of the plate when it's 0-and-2. Manny will smack that sucker into right-center for a double.

His off-critiqued attitude is another blessing at home plate. Manny is always relaxed. The laid-back approach that sometimes drives us crazy is one of his great assets when he's in the batter's box. You don't see him smash helmets or water coolers when he makes an out (neither did Joe DiMaggio). This helps when he's working on an 0-for-4. You know that Manny is not at the plate pressing because he's hitless. Every at-bat is a clean slate. It would be good if every hitter could walk to the plate with Manny's attitude.

"Sometimes I'm surprised because I don't know what I'm doing up there," he said. "I go, see the ball, and hit it."

See it and hit it. Don't make it too complicated. This is Manny's World and in 2004 you are all invited along for the ride.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is dshaughnessy@globe.com. 

In Today's Globe
LATEST RESULTS
Thur. (Gm.1)RHE
Red Sox 3 9 0
Rangers 4 6 0
WP: Ramirez LP: Malaska
 Box score   Log
Sat. vs. Texas, 9 p.m.
TV: NESN Radio: WEEI 850-AM
Starting pitchers:
BOS:Martinez TB: Benoit
 Complete schedule
AL EAST STANDINGS
  W L Pct. GB
Boston 15 7 .682 --
Baltimore 12 10 .545 3.0
New York 13 11 .542 3.0
Tampa Bay 7 14 .333 7.5
Toronto 7 16 .304 8.5
 More standings
UPCOMING SCHEDULE
APRIL/MAY
Sat Sun Mon Tues
24
@NY
W,3-2
25
@NY
W,2-0
26
OFF
27
Tam.
PPD.
Wed Thurs Fri Sat
28
Tam.
W,6-0
29
Tam
W,4-0
W,7-3
30
@Tex
PPD.
1
@Tex
L, 4-3, 9 pm
NESN

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