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ON BASEBALL

Renteria deftly handles this squeeze play

NEW YORK -- He's too polite to say I told you so, even after three hits, including a grand slam, and five RBIs in the 17-1 hurting the Red Sox put on the Yankees yesterday afternoon. And he's too private to volunteer all the reasons it was such an absurd notion to begin with, this idea that Edgar Renteria couldn't handle the pressure of playing baseball for the Red Sox in Boston.

Renteria was content to let his critics make their snap judgments and expose their ignorance, not only of the player but of the man.

Pressure? He survived the barrios of Barranquilla, Colombia, when his father, Francisco, died of high blood pressure when Edgar was a year old, and his mother, Visitacion Herazo Renteria, went to work as a street vendor to support him and his seven brothers and sisters, who slept four to a room.

Pressure? He showed up at the first minicamp in the history of the Florida Marlins, at the Bucky Dent Baseball School in Delray Beach, Fla., when he was all of 15 years old in 1992, a forged birth certificate claiming he was 16 so the Marlins could legally sign him. Tony Taylor, the former Phillies infielder who was an instructor at the camp, recalled that Renteria was ''very intimidated, but he knew how good he could be."

He was so skinny then, having subsisted on a diet of rice and beans, one of his teammates said, ''The first time I saw Edgar, I thought I was looking at Buckwheat."

Pressure? How about being the youngest player in the major leagues when the Marlins promoted him in 1996 at 19, a year younger than Alex Rodriguez, and his promotion was front-page news in three newspapers back home in Colombia? At the time, Rey Ordonez, the Cuban defector with a wizard's glove who signed with the Mets, was supposed to be the next great shortstop, but Al Avila, then the Marlins' director of Latin American operations, was prescient when he said, ''Forget about Ordonez. As a shortstop, Renteria's second to nobody."

Pressure? How about driving in the winning run in Game 7 to win the first World Series ever for the expansion Marlins in 1997, and playing at a high level for the Marlins and Cardinals every year thereafter?

Excuse Renteria for not laughing out loud when his slow start with the Sox was construed as an inability to cope with the ''pressure."

''I don't know what they've been saying," Renteria said, when asked if he found it all somewhat silly, not to mention insulting. ''I don't know what they've said, if they were good things or bad things. Players have pressure on them every day."

Renteria began the week batting .239. By the time Yankees pitchers got through with a routine straight out of ''Animal House" -- ''Thank you, sir, may I have another?" -- his batting average had climbed to .281, a gain of 42 points. Renteria was 6 for 12 in three games in Toronto, 6 for 7, plus a sacrifice bunt, in the first two games here. His line for the week: 5 games, .632 batting average, 12 hits in 19 at-bats, 4 runs, 5 RBIs, a double, a triple, and yesterday's grand slam to the opposite field off Paul Quantrill.

A week ago, Kevin Millar publicly implored people to lay off Renteria. Yesterday, Millar, who has his own critics to deal with -- and the presence of another veteran first baseman, John Olerud, who had three hits yesterday in his Sox debut while Millar sat -- said he had gone to Renteria with some private words of encouragement as well.

''I just let him know, 'Be yourself,' " said Millar, who played with Renteria in Florida. '' 'We in this clubhouse don't give a [expletive] what you do in the first seven weeks, you're Edgar Renteria. You have nothing to prove to anybody. You have a World Series ring, and a $40 million contract, you're one of the best shortstops in the game. Be yourself. Have fun.' "

Sox manager Terry Francona said one of the things that makes this team special is the way players ''take care of each other" when they're struggling.

''He's really a good player," Francona said. ''He's getting to where he's supposed to be. I've been saying that since the second week, and now it's happened."

Francona said he thinks it helped Renteria to face three lefties on this trip, and another plus was playing indoors in Toronto and in warmer climes here after a miserable spring weatherwise.

''He's struggled," Francona said. ''That has been well-detailed. I think he's handled himself great. Put yourself in his shoes a little bit. When the fans are on you a little bit, you don't want to go out there and do cartwheels and act silly."

Renteria knew where his support was, Millar said.

''Give up on Edgar? What, are you kidding me?" Millar said. ''Who gave up on the Yankees when they were 11-19? The season is 162 games, 500 to 600 at-bats. But when you're going through hard times, that's when you know who's on your side. It's easy to be there during the good times, but you find out who's got your back during the bad times. And those same people who were down on you, they're the first ones to jump back on your back when you start going well."

Renteria may not let on, but he knows what is being said. There may be frustration, and even a little anger, behind the smile, but he's not going to show it.

''That's me," he said. ''I can't change myself. I try to play the game every day. But I'm the same guy. A shy guy."

Who knows a little about pressure.

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