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DAN SHAUGHNESSY

Whether slugging or sluggish, nobody can stop him

The Red Sox are in a bind. They can trade Manny Ramirez, which apparently might make him happy, but they are unlikely to get commensurate value and that's not going to satisfy fans hungry for another magical October. They can bench Manny or publicly embarrass him, and risk alienating their petulant star, which might make him stop trying all together. Or they can do what they always do -- look the other way, continue to kiss his butt, and hope he resumes knocking in more runs than anyone in baseball.

This is what happens when you have a savant slugger with the maturity of a 12-year-old who has a guaranteed contract worth $160 million (three years and $57 million remaining).

And most of the fans don't care as long as Manny keeps driving in runs. Assuming Ramirez is still on the team and back in the lineup tonight, you can bet he'll been greeted like Charles Lindbergh when he takes his place in left field on the Fenway lawn -- proving again that it's impossible to insult Red Sox fans as long as you produce.

Ah yes, it's just Manny being Manny, and isn't he cute?

Let's make a distinction and divide Manny Moments into two categories: the goofy stuff and his crimes against baseball.

In the former category, we have stunts such as urinating inside the left-field wall during mid-inning, occasionally forgetting the number of outs, requesting a song with obscene lyrics to accompany his plate appearances, and sometimes turning routine outs into blooper reels. All of the above are harmless and contribute to Manny's playful persona. He's very engaging with fans and does nothing to bring attention to himself in the clubhouse.

And then we have the latter. These are episodes that hurt the team, such as not running out the ground ball in the 10th inning against Tampa Bay Tuesday night, then refusing to play the next day when his team needed him. It's similar to the situation in 2003 when Manny blew off a doctor's appointment at Fenway the morning after he was seen socializing with Yankee Enrique Wilson -- then refusing to pinch hit when Grady Little needed him in Philadelphia the next day.

These occurrences should not be explained away as ''Manny being Manny." The guy is the highest-paid player on the team (and second only to Alex Rodriguez in baseball). Is routine hustle too much to ask? What about raising your hand to help out when other teammates are playing hurt and extending themselves to win a ballgame?

In Gordon Edes's fine column on these pages yesterday, an anonymous Manny teammate said, ''You guys never hold him accountable. 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?"

Good quote. So why isn't the braveheart ballplayer willing to attach his name to his bold statement? The player blames the media, yet contributes to the very problem he's addressing by refusing to take a public stand on the matter.

So where are the leaders of this team when Manny stands down? Where's the clubhouse outrage over Manny's abject indifference? Where's captain Jason Varitek or know-it-all Curt Schilling? Where's nail-spitting Trot Nixon? Where's Kevin Millar, who has an opinion on everything? Where's David Ortiz, a fellow slugger who can communicate with Manny in the language of their homeland?

Where's John Henry and Larry Lucchino? Where are Theo Epstein and Terry Francona?

Clearly, all of these men have decided it is more prudent to let Manny's selfish actions speak for themselves. No one wants to be the one to publicly condemn Ramirez's preadolescent pout. They might ''lose" him.

Meanwhile, in the words of Springsteen, ''The poets down here don't write nothing at all, they just stand back and let it all be."

The nameless ballplayer is correct about Manny's free pass in the media. We've been charmed by his childlike manner and appropriately impressed with the monstrous production. When John Tomase of the Lawrence Eagle-Tribune challenged Manny several weeks ago on some of these same issues, Tomase was ripped and ridiculed by fans, bloggers, sports radio folk, and many in the press box.

It would be nice if Lucchino could call Tom Hicks and cajole the Rangers owner into swapping Mark Teixeira for Manny. Absent that, maybe Mets general manager Omar Minaya would like to add Manny to his galaxy of stars at Shea. Theo demonstrated his bold nature at this hour last year and is not afraid to turn Sox Nation upside down with another blockbuster involving a Red Sox icon.

But the Red Sox would be crazy to give Manny away for nothing at this stage of the season. He's simply too tough to replace in the lineup. And that is why his behavior is tolerated. More than once in recent days I've had people say, ''Why would Manny want to be traded?" or ''Why would Manny refuse to play" or ''Why would Manny complain about lack of privacy after allowing the Globe Magazine to photograph his wife and son and disclose the exact whereabouts of the family residence?"

Those questions presuppose that there is some rational thought, or standard cause-and-effect in Manny's world. From all indications, it is a mistake to make that leap of logic. This is a man whistling through life on the sheer magnitude of his extraordinary talent. Normal standards and rules have never applied, and that's not about to change.

Manny is not evil. And he's not going to change. You can take it or leave it. You can endure the occasional Manny moment or trade him out of spite. From the sounds of silence echoing throughout Fenway, I'd say the Red Sox have decided to swallow hard and live with the situation, at least for the rest of this year.

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

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