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DAN SHAUGHNESSY

Dark days have hit the road

When the history of the 2004 Red Sox is written, the hardball poets will cite July 31 as the turning point of the season. That's right, all you Nomie Krishnas, still wearing those No. 5 jerseys . . . the Sox kicked it into gear when they traded Nomar Garciaparra in a complicated four-team deal that at once bolstered Boston's defense and dissolved the dark cloud of bad karma and uncertainty that was polluting the Sox clubhouse.

Sometimes cause-and-effect is obvious and immediate. In 1988, the moribund Red Sox fired miserable manager John McNamara at the All-Star break. Tollway Joe Morgan took over as "interim" skipper and the revived Sox rattled off 12 straight wins and 19 of 20 en route to the division title. The same thing happened to the Celtics after Bill Fitch ran them aground in 1983. K.C. Jones was hired and the lads won two of the next three NBA championships.

Now Nomie is gone and the Sox are 17-8 since he left. This from a team that played .500 baseball for more than 12 weeks, more than 82 games, which is more than half of a season.

Coincidence? I think not. Let's ask the fellas, who returned home last night to take on the improved Detroit Tigers.

Start with Kevin Millar.

"Sure," said Millar. "You start with the guy who said, `Hey, we want Alex Rodriguez!' . . . Actually, only time is going to tell on this deal. We hadn't played so great before the trade happened. Now we're playing better. I don't know what the reason is. It would be unfair to say that trading Nomar is the reason, but is it part of it?

"I think so, yeah."

Wow. Baseball players are a close-knit fraternity. It's rare to get an admission that subtraction of an individual could be addition. Millar called over teammate Bill Mueller and asked him, "Bill, is trading Nomar the reason we're playing better?"

Mueller smiled and walked away, taking a giant bite out of a cheese sandwich. Manny Ramirez pretty much did the same thing.

"It doesn't matter," said Manny. "I just want to have fun."

David Ortiz was similarly neutral.

Then there's Curt Schilling, guaranteed to have an opinion about everything (and we love him for it), who offered, "I don't think there's any argument against it [the trade]. We've given up one unearned run in 13 games. Consider our recent record in one-run games [the Sox have won four of their last five]. Absolutely."

Taking his answer to another level, Schilling added, "There isn't anybody doing their own thing now and that's different. Nomar had a lot of things going on and he's introverted. He had the Achilles'. He had the contract. And it was its own story. Every day with the trade, that changed the atmosphere immediately in here."

Johnny Damon said, "We got rid of a very good player in Nomar, but with these three players, we're better defensively everywhere because of it -- at first base, at shortstop, and in the outfield. Now everybody's pretty relaxed and excited about the way we've been playing. There's just a lot more life."

It's a little bit like the last line of Dylan's "Positively 4th Street," in which the bard says of his non-friend: "Yes, I wish that for just one time you could stand inside my shoes. You'd know what a drag it is to see you."

OK that's overly simplistic, but there's a grain of truth in there. The daily Nomar sulk was dragging everyone down. Removal of his persona liberated the locker room, while giving the Sox a better defensive team. The latter element continues to draw rave reviews from a heretofore frustrated pitching staff.

General manager Theo Epstein is careful not to issue any more combustible quotes about Garciaparra, but is clearly pleased with the early returns.

"We said at the time of the trade that we were making the changes to make us a better team," Epstein said. "We're playing well now, sure. I don't think it can be assigned a direct effect. I'm not going to stand here and say we're playing better because of that trade."

He doesn't have to stand and gloat. Not his job. The fans can say it for him. The media can say it for him. More important, his players will say it for him. And before this year is over, there will be more guys willing to go on the record and point to the big trade as the day things changed for this team.

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

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