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JACKIE MACMULLAN

Team as we know it is history

The news comes fast and furious. Pedro Martinez goes to Tampa to visit George Steinbrenner. Theo Epstein and John Henry go to Florida for their turn with Pedro. Carl Pavano comes to Boston to visit Curt Schilling. Jason Varitek says he's not a goner. Derek Lowe is a goner, but he says he wishes it could be different. Orlando Cabrera wants to stay, but at what price? Scott Williamson wants to stay, but at what price? Gabe Kapler wants to stay, but at what price?

What is the price tag of a World Series champion? Why must there be a price on one of the most electrifying New England sports experiences of all time?

Easy. This is sports in the 21st century. Sentiments are nice, but it's all about business. Less than 48 hours after millions lined three-deep throughout the streets of Boston to honor their baseball heroes, those same heroes filed for free agency. The Red Sox have 16 players without contracts, including Ellis Burks, who is expected to retire. The players who could potentially walk include two of their top three pitchers, their starting catcher, their starting shortstop, their fireballing middle reliever, one of their lefthanded relief pitchers, and their key reserve outfielder.

You want the Red Sox to keep your band of "idiots" intact. You want to believe the Derek Lowe who pitched brilliantly in the postseason will be the same Derek Lowe who will show up for spring training 2005, focused and ready to win 20 games again. Your front office decided long ago that scenario is not a realistic one.

You want to believe that Varitek is as wise as you think he is. You want someone to wink and tell you all that posturing by agent Scott Boras is just a negotiating ploy, and that when it is all said and done, and Boras informs Varitek he's got a sweet long-term deal for him in Kansas City, the levelheaded catcher will tell his agent that even though it's not the best deal, the right deal is the one his Red Sox have offered him.

You don't want Pokey Reese to go, even though he made only a cameo in the thrilling postseason march. You can't get those dazzling throws he made when he filled in for Nomar what's-his-name earlier in the season out of your head. The thought of Cabrera leaving makes you nauseous, too. He was the symbol of the New Sox, the fleet-footed, defensive-minded Sox that won it all. So he wants $8 million or $9 million. C'mon, Mr. Henry, you can afford it.

Your reasoning is based on emotion. You want to keep these players who fulfilled your most ardent dreams together. You want these things for sentimental reasons. You should be grateful you are not general manager Theo Epstein, because emotions cannot enter into the equation.

Epstein will not give Varitek five years or a no-trade clause. He is armed with reams of statistics chronicling the plight of catchers after the age of 32. Varitek is 32, and count me among those who believe he will be durable and reliable and performing well into his later years, like Carlton Fisk. But five years is too long.

Think dollars and sense.

So you sit back and squirm in your commemorative Red Sox Barcalounger as Martinez flies to Tampa to meet with Steinbrenner about pitching for the Yankees. You take comfort in knowing Pedro previously told a number of people he'd never sign with New York. Yet you envision Steinbrenner waving one of those oversized checks with a whole bunch of zeros in front of his face, before Pedro finally grabs it and says, "The Yankees showed me respect."

You wonder what Pedro and George talked about. You envision Pedro saying, "You know, George, you really could be my daddy."

You envision George responding, "Well, then, Pedro, my boy, either cut your hair and be on time or I'll ground you for a month."

It is a bad match, Pedro and the Yankees. Maybe that's what Epstein and Henry intend on reminding Pedro as they chat with their future Hall of Famer. The men in pinstripes have rules and regulations. Pedro incensed Sox teammates by showing up so late to the park, he would often join them in the dugout as late as the sixth inning, then mug for the camera so his presence could be noted. Martinez has earned superstar status here in Boston; he might be the best pitcher the Sox have ever had.

He has done nothing for the New York Yankees, unless you count the endless hours of entertainment (and T-shirt revenue) he provided with the "Whose Your Daddy?" onslaught. Martinez doesn't handle criticism well, from his manager, his teammates, his fans, or the media. If he doesn't cut it in New York, he'll hear it in stereo from all those places.

It's not for sentimental reasons that you fret over Boston's pitching rotation. Take away Pedro and Lowe, and you've got Schilling, who was magnificent in 2004, but is 38 and coming off surgery. Bronson Arroyo is a promising but young prospect. Tim Wakefield is a consummate professional who eats up innings (and, occasionally, the Yankees) but is perfect as a fourth starter.

It is sobering to consider the dismantling of the World Series champions. You can convince yourself Pavano can replace Pedro, because he won 18 games last season, but he's only done that once. Martinez has been doing it his whole career. You can talk yourself into believing that if Varitek walks, then Doug Mirabelli will fill in admirably, but then you'd be forgetting Mirabelli is a free agent, too.

No one can take away the World Series rings from the 2004 Boston Red Sox. No one can take away the euphoria you felt -- and undoubtedly still feel -- as your ball club completed a surreal turnaround against the Yankees, then a sweep of the St. Louis Cardinals, to make history.

Hope you took a lot of good pictures. By the time the Sox report to Fort Myers next spring, the 2004 World Series team will be exactly that: history.

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

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