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ON BASEBALL

Ramirez's day exciting, dangerous

Since he was an Academic All-American at Georgia Tech, the same institution of higher learning that produced Jason Varitek and his one-time college roommate, Nomar Garciaparra, Jay Payton's intellectual pedigree is unquestioned. He is smart enough, for example, to know that had he been the one to lose two fly balls in the same inning under a high sky yesterday afternoon, and not Manny Ramirez, he might have elicited a more hostile reaction from the full house at Fenway Park than Ramirez did.

"Unless," Payton said wryly, "I hit two home runs like Manny did today. When you drive in 130 runs a year, you're entitled to miss a ball or two, regardless of the sun or not."

The show of power Ramirez put on yesterday -- a Monster-clearing three-run homer off Blue Jays starter David Bush in the second inning, followed by a two-run homer to the shelf in front of the first row of Monster seats in the sixth -- will cover a variety of transgressions. That includes the misadventures Ramirez had in the fourth inning of yesterday's 12-7 win over Toronto, when he locked eyes with the sun and blinked first. This was not a question of Ramirez running out to his position without his sunglasses, or forgetting to flip them down at the appointed moment.

This was Manny looking skyward, even with the benefit of the best shades a $20 million salary can buy, and failing to detect the ball descending his way, not once but twice. The first one, struck by Orlando Hudson with one out and nobody on, Ramirez tried to catch side-saddle in front of the wall, and was lucky he didn't catch it with his teeth, as it skimmed off the top of his glove. The second one, hit by Frank Catalanotto, cleared by a wide margin Ramirez's glove, which he'd stuck out like a man groping for a light switch.

When the next batter, Gregg Zaun, hit a low liner that Ramirez caught, the crowd of 35,243 erupted in cheers, to which Ramirez responded with a couple of finger points and a "What-can-you-do?" shrug. In degree of defensiveness, that fell far short of Ted Williams's memorable explosion when he missed a fly ball by Mickey Mantle in extra innings, was booed for his trouble, and responded with a panoramic sweep of the ballpark, middle finger extended.

The official scorer, Charles Scoggins, initially ruled both plays errors, bringing back memories of Ramirez's Game 1 adventures in the World Series last October, when he booted two balls in the same inning, then returned to the dugout and announced, "There goes my Gold Glove." The misplays lengthened what was already a trying afternoon for Sox starter Curt Schilling.

"The toughest thing about it was Schill was already really battling," manager Terry Francona said of an inning in which the Jays scored twice. "You get a fly ball, you kind of take a deep breath, and then all of a sudden you have to reload."

But when Catalanotto, playing left field for the Blue Jays, proved equally as lost as Ramirez in the sixth inning, when Kevin Millar's fly ball dropped in front of him by 15 feet while he attempted to shield his eyes with his glove, Scoggins changed Ramirez's second error to a double.

Whether the Sox left fielder was gratified by Scoggins's exercise of compassion was a line of inquiry that could not be pursued yesterday, inasmuch as he departed before the media hordes could descend. That may be becoming something of a habit for him, though it will come as some relief to the cleanliness is next to godliness set that Ramirez, who bolted after another two-homer game Friday night, this time paused long enough to take a shower, having been lifted from the game for pinch hitter Payton in the seventh inning.

Ramirez's fellow outfielders, naturally, had nothing but sympathy for his plight, a product in part of yesterday's 11 a.m. start.

"No one understands it," said right fielder Trot Nixon, who on day games that start at a normal time is usually the one who has to cope with the sun. "They think just because you have on a pair of glasses you should be able to catch the ball, but when you have a high sky and the ball gets in the sun, you can't see anything.

"Maybe what the scorers should do is grab a glove and come down here, take some fly balls in the sun, then they'll know what we're dealing with. Obviously if an outfielder gets that close to a ball and you see him reaching like that, he's lost it. What can you do? Hope for a cloudy day."

Nixon said he didn't hear Ramirez say anything when he returned to the dugout, and Schilling said the left fielder didn't leave him a message.

"But you've got to keep your wits about you," Nixon said, "because it'll eat you up if you let it. Manny didn't, because he probably doesn't hit his second home run if he did."

By the time Payton played left field yesterday, the sun was no longer an issue, having shifted toward right. "Worst sun I ever had to deal with? Probably in Pittsfield, Mass.," said Payton, who in his first year of pro ball in 1994, when Pittsfield was a Mets affiliate, played in ancient Wahconah Park.

"The sun wasn't a problem for the fielders, but the hitters," he said. "The sun would set right behind the pitcher in center field in, like, the fourth inning. Sometimes it would delay the game for 15 or 20 minutes, because the umpire couldn't see either.

"I don't know why, but it seems like I did some of my best hitting then. Maybe because I closed my eyes."

With eyes wide open, Payton knows what he's seeing in Ramirez. "The best righthanded hitter in the game."

Better than Albert Pujols of the Cardinals, by acclamation the best righthanded hitter in the National League and a player Payton has seen more often than Ramirez?

"I'd fear Manny more than him," Payton said. "Why? Just watching him. Maybe if I was watching Pujols every day I'd say the same thing about him. But watching Manny, he helps me as a hitter. And when he's locked in like he is right now, you can almost call his home runs.

"Matter of fact, I said something before his second home run, so I'll take credit for that one."

Yes, Francona said, Ramirez will have "a train wreck out there once in a while.'

"But I think he will be just fine tomorrow," the manager said. "I don't think he'll lose any sleep over it.

"And I'm going to say we're not going to bench him," Francona said.


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