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ON BASEBALL

Give a rest to giving Ramirez a free pass

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- On the same field where Manny Ramirez made his famous U-turn from the batter's box and was belatedly chastised by Red Sox manager Grady Little three years ago, the Red Sox left fielder once again disgraced himself and the uniform he wears, insisting Tuesday night that he be given the day off yesterday even though Sox manager Terry Francona told him the club was in a ''bind" because of Trot Nixon's injury, and needed him.

Ramirez's demand not to be inserted in the lineup came only a short time after he jogged to first base in the 10th inning of the team's 10-9 win over the Devil Rays, arriving safely only because of a misplay by the Devil Rays. Jason Varitek subsequently hit a double that scored Edgar Renteria with what proved to be the winning run, but no thanks to Ramirez, who appeared unperturbed at the notion of hitting into an inning-ending double play.

Because he is the team's cleanup hitter, has Hall of Fame ability, and possesses a contract, the second-richest in the game, that makes him unmovable, Ramirez is rarely held accountable. ''Manny being Manny" has become as much a part of the New England lexicon as pahking the cah in Hahvahd Yahd. One day someone from within the Sox clubhouse or in the Yawkey Way offices will rise up and condemn him for his selfish indifference.

That day has yet to come, mainly because his bosses and his teammates feel like Ramirez is, in essence, holding the team hostage. Speak out against him, and the fear is that Ramirez will withdraw like a petulant child and go into a three-year pout. Let it slide, and you have a man with the potential of repeating as the World Series MVP.

So the Sox mostly look the other way, though there were plenty of people angry that Francona ran out an outfield yesterday that had Kevin Millar making just his fifth start in left field and rookie Adam Stern making his first start in right. Maybe they did so because they've been through this drill before -- think Labor Day 2003 in Philadelphia, when Ramirez refused to pinch hit, and last July in Anaheim, Calif., when he begged out because of a supposed hamstring injury that didn't keep him from playing in the All-Star Game just days earlier. One Sox veteran blamed the media. ''You guys never hold him accountable," he said. ''I've never seen a guy get such a free pass. You all think it's a joke, 'Manny being Manny.' What is 'Manny being Manny?' Him disrespecting the game?"

Then there are the oddball demands to be traded, another annual event. Sports Illustrated's highly respected Tom Verducci said Ramirez asked to be traded because he had no privacy in Boston. This from a guy who recently allowed the Globe Magazine to run a spread on his son's bedroom.

''What does he want, his own clubhouse?" said David Ortiz. ''You think if Manny wanted to be traded only one reporter in Boston would know? Manny isn't unhappy. If he was unhappy, we all would know."

Johnny Damon also cast doubt on Ramirez's trade demand, and said Sox players all understand that a loss of privacy comes with the territory. Damon also professed little concern with the reported trade demand.

But what has taken place in the last 24 hours is different, something that should challenge even the most ardent Manny defenders.

Francona parsed his words carefully yesterday. Originally, he said, Ramirez wanted a day off in Chicago, even though the Sox were playing a four-game set against the White Sox, the team with the best record in the major leagues. Francona talked him out of that one by promising him yesterday off, which would give him consecutive days off since there is no game scheduled today.

''Then [Tuesday] night after the game I kind of went to him and said, 'How do you feel? Because we've got obvious issues.'

''He said, 'I still need it.' So we're giving it to him."

For Francona to reveal even that much regarding Ramirez is a measure of how distressing he found his behavior, whether he said so or not. As for his blase base running the night before?

''He looked like he was tired," Francona said, expressionless. ''He looked like he was ready for a day off. I agree. He looked like he was out of energy."

How pathetic. Matt Clement is taken off the field in a stretcher, Trot Nixon injures himself with a violent swing, the team responds with extraordinary gallantry, and Ramirez looks tired.

Asked to comment, Red Sox CEO Larry Lucchino deferred to general manager Theo Epstein. Here was Epstein's take, after the Manny-less Sox played smart and clean and determinedly to beat the Devil Rays again, 4-1.

''We're in a pennant race and battling a lot of adversity -- injuries and otherwise," Epstein wrote. ''It's times like these when you find out about your team and your players. More than ever, we need all 25 players pulling together, putting the team first in pursuit of victory. It's our responsibility to get there, and I think we will. I have a lot of faith in our players -- all of them -- and in the entire organization."

Think about this day the next time you give Manny your unconditional love.

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