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BOB RYAN

Defense isn't all that shaky

''Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown." -- Henry IV, Part 2

Somebody should tell Terry Francona just how great things are going. Ed Barrow, Joe Cronin, Dick Williams, Darrell Johnson, John McNamara, and Kevin Kennedy all would have gladly traded places with him on the morning of their Year After May 22ds.

Those six gentlemen would be unanimous in agreeing that winning something is always the easy part. Defending your turf; now that's the real challenge.

After last night's loss to Atlanta, the Red Sox are three games behind the Orioles.

On May 22, 1987, McNamara's Year After, the Sox were 17-23, 8 1/2 out, and had already spent the two days, and one game, his team would spend over .500 (8-7) all year. Now consider Kennedy's Year After. On May 22, 1996, his Sox were 17-26, 8 1/2 out, and were in the midst of a season that began at 0-5 and 3-15 and in which the Red Sox didn't reach .500 until Game 130 on Aug. 9 and were never in the race.

So what we have going on with Tito's Lads is V-J Day, at least. We do not know what the immediate future holds, but with Red Sox history as a guide, the current state of affairs could surely be a lot worse.

Since 1918, the Red Sox have had the opportunity to defend two World Series titles, four American League pennants, and one American League East title. In the six previous Years After, the Red Sox finished out of first place by 20 1/2, 14, 17, 15 1/2, 20, and 7. The only good thing to be said for any of those weak title defenses is that attendance has always gone up in the Year After, most notably in 1919, when attendance soared an astonishing 40 percent as the Sox were flopping around in what we used to call the second division all season. Of course, that Babe Ruth guy was busy smashing a record 29 homers in his transition year from pitcher-outfielder to resident slugger.

Let us hope Mr. Francona will sail through this season without the sort of problems that bedeviled Barrow in 1919. The big issue was snarly pitcher Carl Mays, who became convinced that his mates were deliberately making errors behind him. As recounted in Frederick Lieb's splendid 1947 Red Sox history (No-frills title: ''The Boston Red Sox"), Mays left a July 13 game in Chicago between innings, declaring, ''I'll never pitch another game for the Red Sox." And he didn't, embarking on a fishing expedition, even as let's-talk-this-over telegrams from management began piling up at his door.

The Red Sox sent him to the Yankees for $40,000 and two journeyman pitchers, but the matter didn't end there. American League president Ban Johnson regarded the idea that a sulking player could get his way as an intolerable situation, and he attempted to prevent Mays from suiting up for the Yankees. The Yankees went to court, obtaining an injunction that thwarted Johnson. The prexy even went so far as to keep separate Yankee with/without Mays standings for the rest of the season. When all was said and done, the courts ruled against him, and Mays's Yankee participation was accepted.

For the Red Sox, the difference was this: Mays was 21-13, 2.21, for the championship '18 squad and 5-11 before they shipped him out in '19. And he was 26-11 and 27-9 in his first two full seasons for the Yankees. Oops. The '20s Yankees vs. the '20s Red Sox: That's another story entirely.

Thus began the sad history of Years After for the Boston Red Sox. The next defense opportunity was in 1947, when there were great hopes for a repeat after a 104-win season and the AL pennant. Pitching was the problem. Boo Ferriss, Tex Hughson, and Mickey Harris, who had combined for 62 wins in '46, won 29 the next year. Rudy York, a major contributor in '46, got off to a slow start and was traded for Jake Jones, who never did much of anything. Even a Triple Crown year submitted by Ted Williams could not prevent a drop from 104 wins to 83.

Next up was 1968. In actuality, the season was over before it began, once Jim Lonborg messed up his knee in an offseason skiing accident. Lonnie went from 23-9 and a Cy to 6-10, 4.29. Meanwhile, Jose Santiago, 12-4 in '67, was a solid 9-4 when his elbow blew out forever. And it didn't help that George Scott went from .303-19-82 to a shocking .171-3-25. They finished 17 out, but Tom Yawkey's basic bills were paid, as 182,176 more people than the year before watched the Sox play.

Here's one vivid memory of 1976. Peter Gammons and I are standing behind the top row of the Yankee Stadium press box awaiting Tom House's arrival on the mound in the ninth inning of a close game. ''Can Tom House throw one pitch and lose this game?" Peter inquires. House throws, and Chris Chambliss (if I'm not mistaken) hits the first pitch into the stands for a game-winning home run.

''Yes!" Gammons bellows, as he heads to the elevator.

Well, it wasn't all Tom House's fault, or even Darrell Johnson's. Losing Bill Lee for most of the second half of the season after that famous brawl didn't help. (Spaceman went from 17-9, 3.95, 4 shutouts, to 5-7, 5.63), and neither did Fred Lynn missing 30 games and plummeting to 10 homers and 65 ribbies. They finished 15 1/2 out, and, as a final testament to a futile season, needed all of 15 innings to lose a 3-2 decision to the Orioles on the last day of the season. (I'll never forget it, since I must have called Ken's Steak House five times asking them to extend our reservation.)

I've already told you all you need to know about 1987 and 1996, except to note that John McNamara's '87 club was 28-54 on the road, 28-40 in one- and two-run games, and 3-12 in extra innings. Doesn't sound like a group you'd want to foxhole-up with, does it?

So what's the 2005 story? Other than the disappearance of Curt Schilling, the predictable uncertainty of David Wells, Manny's shrinking average, the shaky starts of Messrs. Millar, Mueller, Renteria, and Bellhorn, Foulkie's disturbing mortality, and Trot's balky knee, everything's great around here.

''The key questions," advises general manager Theo Epstein, ''are whether we have a team that is better than the sum of its parts, whether we have a club that can overcome the usual adversity to play its best baseball at the most important time. We've done that the last two years, and I have a lot of faith in all the people working hard to make sure it happens again."

Hey, the Sawx are still over .500. As Sox Years After go, that's not too bad.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is ryan@globe.com.


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