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ON BASEBALL

He's in danger of crossing World leaders

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Manny Ramírez, as we all know well, has frequently exercised the right to change his mind. So nothing, obviously, is etched in stone this morning.

But if he has indeed elected to withdraw from playing for the Dominican Republic in the World Baseball Classic, that will make for an unhappy Bud Selig, the commissioner of Major League Baseball and a primary proponent of the new international event.

While word of this possibility was making the rounds of the Red Sox clubhouse yesterday, in the aftermath of the club's announcement that Ramírez would be reporting here March 1, top baseball officials said yesterday afternoon that they had not been notified by Ramírez or his agent, Greg Genske. That included Gene Orza and Rob Manfred, lawyers for the union and the commissioner's office, respectively, and Manny Acta, the manager of the Dominican team, who as recently as Monday was showing reporters a prospective starting lineup that included the Sox left fielder.

Ramírez was expected to be one of an elite group of sluggers making the Dominicans a formidable entry in the tournament, with a lineup that could include Vladimir Guerrero, Albert Pujols, David Ortiz, and Miguel Tejada. Of that group, only Ortiz has not been a league Most Valuable Player, and he finished second last season to Alex Rodriguez of the Yankees in the American League.

It is quite possible that MLB, the union, and Dominican officials will exert considerable pressure on Ramírez to change his mind, if he has indeed elected to skip the tourney. Ramírez, if he does not play, would join a growing list of major leaguers who aren't playing, taking some luster off what was supposed to have a ''Dream Team" aura.

The game's premier slugger, Barry Bonds, withdrew from the US roster, as did Braves pitchers Tim Hudson and John Smoltz. Yankee outfielder Hideki Matsui and White Sox second baseman Tadahito Iguchi will not play for Japan. Yankee closer Mariano Rivera said he will not pitch for Panama, and his catcher, Jorge Posada, will not play for Puerto Rico.

Sox third baseman Mike Lowell will not play for Puerto Rico. Nomar Garciaparra, learning to play first base for the Dodgers, will not play for Mexico. Dodger closer Eric Gagne will not pitch for Canada. The Orioles, who could lose 12 players to the WBC, including four pitchers, have petitioned MLB to be excused from sending all of them.

For some players, like Gagne, injury concerns were foremost in the decision not to play in the WBC, a 16-team tournament scheduled to run from March 3-20.

Others, like Lowell and Garciaparra, want to focus on joining their new teams. Some teams, like the Yankees, discouraged their players from taking part; they successfully blocked Posada on injury grounds.

Ramírez, however, does not have any of those excuses, just an apparent disinclination to play, after first signaling his willingness to participate. Manfred said last night that he assumed Ramírez intended to play, ''unless something happened in the last 24 hours."

Selig said yesterday he had not heard that Ramírez was bowing out. But he emphasized the importance of the game's biggest stars taking part in the WBC.

''I've been very candid about that," Selig said from his office in Milwaukee. ''This is something we've been together on, the Players Association and the clubs, that this is something that can lift this sport to great heights around the world.

''It takes vision, it takes courage to do so. I have very strong feelings about this, but those are not mine alone. A lot of the support for this came from our international committee, of which [Sox CEO] Larry Lucchino is a very active member. The union, they've been great.

''This is a chance for this generation's players to help the sport worldwide, so you bet I feel very deeply, very strongly [about players not participating]. But this is the first I've heard of [Ramírez]."

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