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DAN SHAUGHNESSY

He's swinging from the bright side

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- The Savant Slugger got to the ballpark ahead of just about everybody else on the first official day of workouts for all Red Sox players.

Before the inaugural team meeting, before frenzied fans showered love on the defending world champions (downright Beatlesesque, it was), Manny Ramirez was swinging a 34-inch, 32-ounce, Canadian-made Wilson Sam Bat in the cage at the minor league complex yesterday morning.

"Been hitting?" asked batting coach Ron Jackson.

"No, this is the first day," said Manny, as he sprayed line drives into the cage's nets. "And I got no pop."

Right. No pop. Ramirez taking hacks in a cage creates the sound you hear if a gun is discharged in a stairwell. Plenty of pop.

Manny's hair was beaded and braided into fuzzy dreadlocks, wrapped tightly in a bandanna that featured the Brazilian flag. He had a smile and a hug for just about everyone in camp as he prepared to go back to work for the first time since he won the World Series MVP trophy.

Manny was aware that he had some new teammates and he knew that Randy Johnson was now pitching for the Yankees, but he was blissfully clueless regarding all the recent sniping between the Sox and Yankees. He also said he didn't watch a single video minute from 2004 during the offseason.

"I'm not wasting my time with that, man," he said. "I'm not into that. That's in the past. I don't even think about that."

Not living in the past can be helpful sometimes. A year ago, Manny arrived in Fort Myers wearing a Jeremy Shockey jersey. The Sox had spent the previous winter trying to get rid of Manny. They'd placed him on waivers, then dealt him to the Rangers in exchange for Alex Rodriguez, a deal that was nixed by the all-powerful Players Association.

Manny's antics late in the 2003 season (missing a weekend against the Yankees with an illness, then getting spotted socializing with Enrique Wilson) and his reluctance to share his personality hurt him with Sox management and the Nation. In February of 2004, many Sox fans were sorry that the Sox were stuck with Manny. People were moaning about the superstar (A-Rod) who got away to the Yankees.

But everything changed after the spring of 2004. When the season started, Manny seemed happy and playful. He was embraced by teammates and started to open up to media and fans. There was never any doubt that he'd hit, but suddenly he was Cuddly Manny, a fan favorite. Fans finally saw the lovable superstar teammates had talked about.

Then came October, when the Sox put together the most memorable playoff run in history and Manny was named MVP of the four-game sweep against the Cardinals. Manny was a diamond god in the Hub. He enjoyed the parade more than any of his teammates, hoisting an anti-Jeter poster and pressing the flesh with thousands of fans. The Sox were the champions and Manny was The Man. (The Red Sox have a photograph of Manny alongside Tom Menino that could inspire the greatest caption contest in history.)

This year, nobody worried that Manny would be late or that he'd rip into management for letting Pedro Martinez get away. There was no big deal preceding his arrival. He just showed up wearing a Tom Brady jersey, went to hit in the cages, then joined his teammates for the first workout. Just another blissful day in Mannyworld.

"I feel pretty good, man," he said. "I'm just happy to come back to work. Today was the first time I hit in the offseason. I went to Brazil, Argentina. It was great, man."

Like his teammates, he received heartfelt thanks from Sox fans throughout the winter.

"It's a great feeling, man," he said. "Everywhere you go, people want your autograph. They're so happy. A lot of people would come up to me and say, `Hey, my dad, I wish he could have seen it. But I'm pretty sure he's sending you a lot of blessing and stuff.' That makes you feel great.

"I had told my mom before the season, `Listen, I'm going to win an MVP,' and I did and I left it at home. I don't want to win no regular-season MVP. I just want to go out, stay healthy, and have fun like I did last year and I'll go from there."

He was asked about personal goals for the season, and each time he gave the same small answer. He said he wants to hit .275 with 25 homers and 100 RBIs (.308, 43, 130 last year).

He said watched the Super Bowl in his wife's homeland of Brazil, where he was happy to go unrecognized. In was in Brazil that he got his new do. He said he'll try to go with the beads as long as he can.

This is his fifth season with the Red Sox.

"He finally became happy with being in Boston," observed Johnny Damon.

And now the happiest place on earth is about three hours south of the Magic Kingdom in Orlando.

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

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