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DAN SHAUGHNESSY

Change of the seasons will be fascinating

A week ago today, the Yankees and Red Sox played their 71st and final game of the last three magical years, and when it was over, the Sox were drinking champagne while Yankee Alex Rodriguez predicted another Sox-Yankees meeting in the ALCS.

''I think it's inevitable," said A-Rod. ''We know that to get where we want to go, we need to go through the Red Sox. And I think the Red Sox know that for them to go where they want to go, they need to go through us."

The headline in the next day's New York Post read, ''Be seeing you real soon."

Not exactly. The Red Sox and Yankees are no longer in a league of their own. There will be no ''Rocky III" featuring the ancient rivals from the Northeast corridor. The Red Sox were wiped out by the White Sox in three games -- outscored, 24-9, in a three-game Division Series sweep. Meanwhile, the Yankees were rained out yesterday in New York and face elimination if they lose one more game to the Los Angeles Angels.

Let the Yankees worry about their own problems with their $200 million payroll. What's going to happen to the Red Sox? What can fans expect to see when they return to Fenway next April?

For starters, you can say goodbye to the abomination that was the 600 Club or the 406 Club or the Fortunate 500 Club or whatever they were calling it at the end. One of the last great blunders of the old regime (Wade Boggs claimed it kept his warning-track fly balls from going into the bullpen), the brutal baseball aquarium will be demolished this week and ultimately replaced with something more in concert with the old-time old lines of the 1912 ballpark. No doubt the new area also will be the precinct of kings and lottery winners. At least it will have fresh air and spectators will be able to hear the game.

That may not be the only change upstairs. Can you even imagine the Red Sox without Theo Epstein as general manager? Panic not, gentle fans. Theo probably will be back. But his contract is up and he's asking for a giant pile of dough, more control, and less interference. The Theo talks might take a while. The good news is his parents probably won't let him leave, but there's tension at the top on Yawkey Way and a new deal for the boy wonder could get messy before it gets done.

As for Terry Francona, despite the never-ending talk-show rips and the second-guessing that naturally comes with the job, it's hard to quarrel with 95 wins when you lose two aces and your closer. The Sox might annoy him with another lowball offer, but look for Francona to be back in the dugout in 2006 (remember, these predictions come from the same guy who told you in June that the AL East would be a runaway for the Red Sox).

Say goodbye to the Jesus action figure who plays center field for the Red Sox. The math simply doesn't work with Johnny Damon. He turns 32 next month and it's pretty clear his best baseball is behind him. He plays hard and he plays hurt, and the Sox got a ton of production from him, but now he wants a four-year deal at something north of $40 million. There will be suitors, and hardball agent Scott Boras will wait until the last dog dies. The Sox would be crazy to get involved in the Damon romance tour. Take a look at creaky Bernie Williams in New York. That's what the Sox want to avoid.

Trade Manny Ramirez? Theo wants to do it, but ownership will balk, even though John W. Henry and friends would love to get out from under that contract. But the bottom line is 45 HRs and 144 RBIs, and we all know you can't find that anyplace else. So relax, ignore the nonsense, and stand back and watch the man hit.

Tony Graffanino certainly deserves another look, and the Sox may try to work out a short-term deal with Bill Mueller, though that's unlikely. Everyone knows the Kevin Millar era ended Friday, and those of us with notebooks and tape recorders certainly will miss one of the all-time media go-to guys in our town.

Lastly, brace yourself for the unfortunate Cooperstown canonization of Jonathan Papelbon. The kid was terrific in September and October and will be expected to step into the rotation and do what Roger Clemens did in 1986 (24-4). Obviously, we will ask too much because the promise is so great. Think Al Jefferson.

As predicted, the Red Sox changed forever after winning the World Series in 2004. It just doesn't mean as much as it did before, and there's nothing wrong with that. Getting swept in 2005 was easier to accept because the Sox have a trophy in their house and the Nation no longer has to blame ghosts when things go wrong.

The 2005 Sox are done playing because they were not as good as the White Sox. Most Boston baseball fans today are smart enough to see that and mature enough to live with it.

''Godfather III" just wasn't nearly as good as the first two.

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

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