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BOB RYAN

Ramirez man of the hour

Manny Ramirez and a sea of Fenway fans celebrate his three-run homer that gave the Red Sox some breathing room in the fourth inning. (Globe Staff Photo / Jim Davis)  <a href='http://www.boston.com/sports/baseball/redsox/gallery/10_02_05_celebration' onclick='openWindow('http://www.boston.com/sports/baseball/redsox/gallery/10_02_05_celebration','','width=775,height=585,resizable=yes,scrollbars=yes,toolbar=no,location=no,menubar=no,status=no'); return false;'> Celebration  <a href='http://www.boston.com/sports/baseball/redsox/gallery/10_02_05_sox_yankees' onclick='openWindow('http://www.boston.com/sports/baseball/redsox/gallery/10_02_05_sox_yankees','','width=775,height=585,resizable=yes,scrollbars=yes,toolbar=no,location=no,menubar=no,status=no'); return false;'> Game photos  <a href='http://www.boston.com/sports/baseball/redsox/gallery/10_02_05_scene' onclick='openWindow('http://www.boston.com/sports/baseball/redsox/gallery/10_02_05_scene','','width=775,height=585,resizable=yes,scrollbars=yes,toolbar=no,location=no,menubar=no,status=no'); return false;'> Sunday scene
Manny Ramirez and a sea of Fenway fans celebrate his three-run homer that gave the Red Sox some breathing room in the fourth inning. (Globe Staff Photo / Jim Davis)

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If in the offseason the Red Sox management succeed in freeing themselves from what they seem to think is the financial oppression of the Manny Ramirez contract, may we not assume that Terry Francona will have one question for his masters?

''Where, in this lifetime, are you going to find me a better No. 4 hitter than him?"

It wasn't too long ago that we were all lamenting Manny's ''off" year. The .316 lifetime hitter was batting as low as .224 in late May, and Francona swears he wasn't concerned. ''When you are a good player," Francona says, ''over the course of the year the numbers are going to be there. Good players get to their levels."

If that's true of good players, then it's exponentially true of great players, and Ramirez is a first-ballot Hall of Fame kind of great player who put the team on his back during the past two weeks, capping off his monster stretch run with a three-run fourth-inning home run to the center-field bleachers during yesterday's 10-1 playoff-clinching smackdown of the Yankees. That closed out a 12-game run in which Manny Being Manny meant this: 9 homers and 19 runs batted in.

This may have been the ultimate Manny Being Manny year. Hey, they almost dumped him at the trading deadline. If we can believe everything we read and hear, the Devil Rays wouldn't cooperate on their end of the complicated multi-team trade because the Red Sox refused to part with prized infield prospect Hanley Ramirez. So this kid is already a key footnote in Red Sox lore. Even if he never does anything tangible for the team, he's been of immense benefit already.

Ah, Manny. What are we going to do with Manny? He is quite clearly never going to change. He is in his own world, and he couldn't be more secure. He is not going to run everything out that should be run out. He is going to stand in the batter's box and admire his blasts, as he did last Thursday in that vital victory over the Blue Jays. The team was trailing, 4-1, when Manny came up with a man on. He hit one in the general direction of the bullpen, but instead of running, he stood and watched. The ball landed maybe one foot over the fence. When David Ortiz hit his tying homer in that same game, he was motoring out of that batter's box the instant the ball left his bat. Did Manny take notice? Yeah, right.

Manny is 33 years old, 11 years into one of the great hitting careers of this, or any other, era. He has been mentored and lectured by many. He has had the opportunity to watch other greats play the game the way it is, as they say, ''supposed to be played." But nothing ever changes. In the end, everyone in the organization is subject to his whims. Everyone must live with the idea that Manny is forever going to be Manny.

What saves the situation from ever getting to be explosive inside the locker room is that Manny is anything but disruptive. He is a man who walks into the room every day with a smile on his face. There is no star trip going on. His teammates simply shrug when Manny pulls one of his little stunts because there won't be a long wait for the next three-run homer. They know they must take the entire package, and they are willing to do so.

It's a plus-minus deal, and for the past two weeks it has been a huge plus, his occasional walkabouts notwithstanding. ''Manny Being Manny always means being one of the best hitters in baseball, and it is, when all is said and done, a guy who wants to win and who does it in a unique way," says general manager Theo Epstein. ''There is always going to be something going on. But none of us are always at our best. Manny is a huge part of our ball club, and the players respect him. In the last two weeks he has run the bases well, played good defense, and taken his hitting to another level."

And Manny can run the bases and Manny can play quality defense when the mood strikes. Derek Jeter found that out yesterday when he hit Curt Schilling's first pitch off the wall, thinking that he had a leadoff double. But Manny pounced on the ball, barehanding the carom and firing to second baseman Tony Graffanino, who slapped on the tag (with the Yankee captain tweaking his knee on the slide). Let the record show that it was Manny's major league-leading 17th assist, a number that reflects several things. It reflects the cozy nature of Fenway's left field. It reflects a certain lack of respect for Manny (not so much his arm, but the perceived level of his interest at any particular moment). And it reflects a fairly strong and, quite frequently, a very accurate arm.

So Manny can help the team in more than one way. But the reason Dan Duquette committed $160 million worth of organizational money four years ago was what Manny does on those four or five daily occasions when he walks to the plate with a bat in his hand. You don't pay money for Manny to run bases or flash leather, and he knows it. Of course, if Manny were a bit more professional in his overall approach he would recognize that being a ballplayer is supposed to involve something more than those four daily ABs. That brings us back to that whole Manny Being Manny business.

What was going on with Manny in the spring? Who knows? Batting coach Ron Jackson speculates that perhaps Manny was just waiting for the warm weather. Whatever the reason, the fact is that through the first 46 games Manny was hitting .224, with 11 homers and 38 runs batted in. By the way, 11 homers isn't all that bad. Even a sub-par Manny has offensive value. Still, it wasn't the dominant Manny we've all come to know.

Beginning with a four-hit game against the Yankees May 28, Manny has hit .321 with 34 homers and 106 ribbies, which is more like it. His home run yesterday was his 45th, which ties a career high. Even more indicative of Manny's immense skill and impact on the game of baseball over the past decade is the fact that his total of 144 runs batted in represents his third highest season total. Whoa.

Manny is a hot man entering the playoffs, and, as Francona is fond of saying, ''When Manny is hot, he's hitting homers, not singles." A hot Manny is a batting machine, with quick hands, perfect balance, and exceptional ball-strike judgment. ''He can maneuver counts," says Graffanino, ''and sometimes you'd swear he really does know what's coming. And when he gets his pitch, he doesn't miss."

Paired with Big Papi, Manny gives the Red Sox baseball's best 3-4 combination. Papi Being Papi means one thing and Manny Being Manny means another. The Red Sox players have no problem with the former and they have learned to live with the latter. The way they see it, Manny Being Manny means they've got a chance to win it all again.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is ryan@globe.com.

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