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DAN SHAUGHNESSY

When it comes to Sox, popular vote is in

Who is the Red Sox' most popular player?

We know that Tom Brady gets the nod with the Patriots and Joe Thornton is everybody's guy with the Bruins. Paul Pierce once held the title on the Celtics, but his popularity eroded this spring and rookie Al Jefferson was among those who gained on Pierce.

Two years ago, Nomar Garciaparra and Pedro Martinez were the Sox' most popular players. Both are gone, but the team is more popular than ever.

Ever.

The surging Sox (Secretariat in the Belmont, remember?) won their 13th straight home game last night, topping the best-record-in-baseball White Sox for the second straight game, 7-4. Boston's sellout streak went to 201 and not even tropical conditions or a 40-minute rain delay dampened the enthusiasm of the loyal legion. The Franconamen leave town after today's game, which means some season ticket-holders will be going through withdrawal for the next week and a half. Diehards are already adjusting their sleep schedules to prepare for nocturnal NESN when the Sox hit Anaheim Thursday.

So, in the middle of all this wonderfulness . . . who is the Red Sox' most popular player?

This is unscientific. We offer no instant polls, no random counting of T-shirts, no conversations with fans at the nightly bacchanal on Yawkey Way. That said, David Ortiz gets the nod over Manny Ramirez, Johnny Damon, Jason Varitek, and Curt Schilling.

A look at the top tier:

Ortiz (three more hits and a walk last night) is The Man at this hour. His profile is slightly smaller than those of Ramirez, Schilling, and Damon, but unlike those three, he has no detractors. Everybody loves Big Papi. And what's not to love? On a team of legitimate cartoon characters, he is the ultimate teddy bear, a friend of everyman, and he hasn't done one thing on or off the field that would taint his image as a great player and a great guy. He's also been clutch on a par with Yaz in 1967, and we never thought we'd say that again about anybody. It's hard to believe that two years ago Ortiz started the season on the bench, fighting for playing time with Jeremy Giambi. In those days, his agent told Theo Epstein that he wanted to be traded. Now he's the best bargain in baseball.

Manny has cut his way through his annual jungle of trouble and emerged on the other side as the same cult hero he was at the end of the World Series ride. Most of his critics are reporters and WEEI speed-dialers. Fans worship the guy and forgive the occasional brain cramp or lack of hustle. Production will do that, and Manny is worthy of all those Jimmie Foxx comparisons.

No one has worked harder to make himself the face of the franchise than Caveman Johnny. And all the nonsense would be downright annoying if he weren't Boston's best center fielder since Fred Lynn. The man has incredible baseball skills and is having one of the great contract years in Boston sports history. And let's not forget the hair. Johnny is Boston's Baseball Beatle, which makes him a serious threat as most popular player.

The catcher captain lacks the star profile of the other four in this top tier, but purists love the guy. No player prepares more thoroughly or cares more about winning than Varitek. They all say they care about winning, but Varitek really does. He's a rare baseball player who makes his teammates better and has never done a thing to taint his image. He'd probably be Sox MVP every year if we left it up to clubhouse polling.

Schilling will be able to eat free in Boston for the rest of his breathing days, and the big guy deserves all the adulation. His politics and glory-hog tendencies generate some backlash, but he gets maximum credit for delivering the first World Series championship in 86 years. A healthy Schilling holding down the top of the rotation can still be the most popular Sox player, but he's a closer now and it's been rough at times (Jermaine Dye got him for a homer and a half last night).

Tim Wakefield, Trot Nixon, Bronson Arroyo, Gabe Kapler, and Kevin Youkilis get honorable mentions.

Wakefield (12-9 after 6 2/3 solid innings last night) deserves his own tier because of his continuous service, his willingness to do anything for the team, and his contributions in the community, but he doesn't play every day and lacks the star power of Manny, Papi, Johnny, and Schill.

Nixon gets points for service time, community contributions, and nonstop hustle. Arroyo is a cult guy, inspiring his own fan clubs. The chicks love Gabe and teammates talk about him with rare reverence. Youkilis has supplanted Kevin Millar. Subpar performance and overexposure work against Mr. Cowboy Up and nobody gets a better greeting from the fans than Youk.

Sorry, Bill Mueller fans. Your guy is simply too boring for words. Nothing wrong with that. He's the consummate professional and a pillar in the clubhouse, but it doesn't translate into shirt sales at Twins Enterprises.

Oh, and it's too early for Tony Graffanino (three more hits), though he's emerging as this year's Orlando Cabrera.

Keep an eye on David Wells. If Schilling stays in the bullpen, Wells could be your No. 1 starter in the playoffs. His girth and personality will thrust him into the top tier if he pitches in the clutch the way he has in the past.

The Sox have won six in a row, 14 of 16, 18 of 23, and are 21 games over .500 to lead the Yankees by five games. They have more home games remaining than any team in baseball and they are 38-18 at Fenway. Things look pretty darn good.

And as of Aug. 14, 2005, Big Papi is the Red Sox' most popular player.

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

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