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ON BASEBALL

Good signs are seen

It was as if he'd returned from summer vacation, and couldn't be happier to find he still had his old locker, the same friends sitting around him in home room, and the most beautiful teacher in school walking into his algebra class.

Manny Ramirez was back in the starting lineup last night for the Red Sox' 6-4 win over the Kansas City Royals, and in case anyone missed the significance of the moment, he ducked inside the left-field scoreboard (when are they going to paint a star on the door, as they do for actors' dressing rooms?) and emerged with a sign that read: ''New Episode . . . 'Manny Being Manny.' "

In the top of the ninth, he retrieved the sign and delivered it to someone sitting in the stands. Was it the sign's creator? Can't tell you. Ramirez left quickly, evidently without showering, which may be his way of making sure people give him his privacy or because the scented soaps at the Ritz are far superior than what is dispensed in the clubhouse.

''Manny being Manny," Johnny Damon said of the sign-waving, which is not yet in a league with Joe Horn of the Saints celebrating a touchdown by whipping out a cellphone he'd hidden in the goalpost, but give him time. ''And when he hits a home run, that's Manny definitely being Manny."

When Ramirez hit his league-leading 29th home run with two aboard in the fourth, then drove in an insurance run in the seventh -- his four RBIs giving him 97 in 98 games played -- it was hard for a moment to imagine that anyone in the organization ever entertained the thought of cancelling the Ramirez show. Or that the star would dream of walking off in a fit of pique because he thought his manager didn't give him enough love.

But that's what happened last week, as Ramirez punched the clock midway through a Tuesday night game with the Devil Rays. Even before he jogged to first in the 10th inning, he struck out to start three different innings and did not back up Damon on his game-saving catch in the ninth. He barely went after a foul ball in the 10th. He then insisted on taking the next day off; bench coach Brad Mills is determined to take the bullet for failing to convey how badly the Sox wanted him to play with Trot Nixon hurt, but given his effort the night before, the Sox might have been better off without him.

What Ramirez did not anticipate was the extent of the backlash, inside the clubhouse and especially outside, where he was roasted for selfishness, an attribute Ramirez did not discern when he looked in the mirror. What he saw was a manager who left him out there to be barbecued by his critics, and on Saturday, the day after he was booed on the team's return to Boston and with trade rumors reaching DefCon 5 levels, he told Francona he didn't want to play. That, incidentally, puts Francona in the company of Grady Little and Joe Kerrigan among managers Ramirez has told he wasn't playing for, and Francona has made the list twice, Ramirez having bailed on him last July in Anaheim.

When Ramirez returned minutes later and said he wanted back in, Francona was unmoved, and a theory gaining momentum is that Ramirez was listening to the siren song of Pedro Martinez and trying to force a trade to the Mets.

But with agent Greg Genske having parachuted in to monitor the situation, and Francona and Mills both having lengthy chats with Ramirez Sunday morning, Ramirez evidently decided he didn't want to be a dropout after all, with the Sox deciding almost simultaneously that any hope of experiencing another Eden this October would never happen if Manny were expelled from the garden.

Maybe Francona should adopt a policy of handing out more ''mental health" days if this will be the result. Given two days to ''clear his head," Ramirez is at least outwardly acting like he's happy to be re-enrolled, and the Sox are once again demonstrating that they thrive on chaos, running off their sixth straight win last night.

''Obviously, it's been interesting around here," said rookie Adam Stern, who came around to score the tying run as a pinch runner after right fielder Emil Brown misplayed Tony Graffanino's single for a two-base error.

''But it's fun. The clubhouse is a good clubhouse to be a part of. There are a lot of different guys here, but that's what makes it fun."

The Sox' hope is that another embattled member of the team, Keith Foulke, will return from his sabbatical with both his wounded knee and bruised ego restored to optimal condition. In the meantime, the Sox should demonstrate how enterprising they can be in the 21st century. Another round of days off, on the house. Big Papi has played in 103 of the 105 games; surely he could use a blow. ''Day off? I'm OK," David Ortiz said. ''I feel fine. What would I do with a day off? I don't know. There's no chance to get a day off."

Damon gets irked when the manager suggests he take a breather, the sign of a true idiot.

''I'm all right, I'm swinging it too good," said Damon, who is 12 for 31 (.387) in his last seven games and has either gotten a hit or scored a run in a remarkable 44 straight games. ''Those are days that can be useful. The best days off are the ones right before an off-day. People don't understand how much your body recuperates."

Sorry, JD. The next scheduled off-day isn't until Aug. 11.

Tim Wakefield, when he's not starting, takes his spikes to the bench. Jason Varitek goes to the bullpen and warms up relievers on his days off.

Come on, guys, lighten up. Why should Manny have all the fun?

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