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DAN SHAUGHNESSY

Time to look ahead -- to '07

The first game of the 2007 Boston baseball season was played last night (a 6-4 win over the Blue Jays).

The Red Sox officially declared the end of their efforts to win in 2006 when they announced that David Wells had been traded to the Padres at 7:47 p.m., in the bottom of the second inning.

Raising the white flag over Fenway Park makes sense at this hour. Poor management, poor play, a plague of late-season injuries, and a couple of player hospitalizations involving potential life-threatening issues conspired to sink the season before the first of September. As a result, spoiled Sox fans (three playoff appearances in three years) this month get a taste of how the other half lives across baseball America. If you want to see games that count, watch the Patriots starting a week from Sunday. Then stay tuned for the 2006-07 Bruins and Celtics. The Sox are officially done for this year. Think of September at Fenway as Fort Myers with higher ticket prices.

Sox general manager Theo Epstein was reluctant to admit the significance of yesterday's deal, which is expected to bring Triple A catcher George Kottaras into the fold. Boston's young executive with the faded halo said, ``It doesn't mean that these games aren't important. It doesn't mean that the performances of our players aren't important, but it's a balancing act and we thought this was the right thing to do.

``It's not where we expected to be," he admitted. ``It's not where we want to be. But we're not immune from that kind of month [9-21 in August] . . . This is the reality now. And we're going to work hard to make sure it's not going to happen again."

Sox manager Terry Francona said, ``I understand what we're trying to do and I support what we're doing."

It goes without saying that the health and well-being of young men such as David Ortiz and Jon Lester are more important than any baseball game or pennant race. The Sox yesterday indicated that Ortiz, who has twice gone to Massachusetts General Hospital because of heart palpitations, was resting comfortably at home. Francona said, ``David is very upbeat." And Ortiz told a Dominican radio station that he plans to play tomorrow. (Sox officials called Ortiz's projection premature.)

As for Lester, the Sox would only say he is at Mass. General, and his symptoms included enlarged lymph nodes. Francona visited the young pitcher and his parents yesterday and said he would have no further comment.

``His family is going through a little bit of a loop when they woke up and saw what they saw [including a Herald front-page headline that read, `Sox cancer scare -- Lester's enlarged lymph nodes a big concern.'] "

Sox pitchers Curt Schilling and Mike Timlin acknowledged the seriousness of Lester's situation.

``Everybody's thoughts and prayers are with Jon and his family," said Schilling, adding, ``I have been in a situation where cancer was the operative word [his wife, Shonda, is a skin cancer survivor and vigilant anti-cancer advocate]."

Timlin said, ``This is life. It's not him not being able to get out of the sixth inning. We are praying for him. Jon's 22. Any time that word comes up with any of us, you're going to be scared. He's probably pretty scared . . . Going out and playing the game tonight is our release. Dealing with horrible things and human life is a whole lot worse than losing."

We all agree. Baseball is not a life-and-death experience. No ballgame is more important than good health.

Our town has had more than its share of painful events in this area. Old-timers remember Harry Agganis. More recently we witnessed the death of Reggie Lewis and Tedy Bruschi's scare.

That said, someday in the not-too-distant future, when the Red Sox and their fans are not worried about issues of life and death, we will start thinking about the Sox as a baseball team again and Sox management will need to be held accountable for the disaster of August 2006.

This has been a fold of epic proportions and it's a cop-out to simply blame injuries and bad luck. The Yankees had more than their share of injuries and bad luck during the first three months of the season and they did not come apart like a cardboard box in a tornado. The Sox were still at reasonable strength when they tanked in Tampa and Kansas City, and struggled mightily against Cleveland at home. The Sox were the ones who failed to acquire a lefthanded reliever at the deadline and stood firm on not dealing young pitching for short-term help. The Sox were the ones who drew the line at Bobby Abreu's hefty price tag.

The Sox still had Ortiz and Manny Ramírez when they lost five straight to the Yankees in their own ballpark.

Go back to the end of the 2004 World Series and list the good moves made by Epstein. It's tough to come up with many. The GM is in a slump reminiscent of the final days of the Lou Gorman regime. Start with the ill-advised acquisitions of Edgar Renteria (John W. Henry continues to pay for that mistake twice per month) and Matt Clement, and carry on through this year and the disappointments of Coco Crisp (an invisible .260), Rudy Seanez, Julian Tavarez, and Javy Lopez. Trading Bronson Arroyo continues to haunt the Sox and that ballyhooed reacquisition of Doug Mirabelli looks terrible in the wake of what Cla Meredith and Josh Bard are doing in San Diego.

Last night, Theo was forced to admit he sold off a contract -- someone who could help this year -- in order to get some value for 2007 and beyond. Tough to swallow for Sox fans who expect more from the team with the No. 2 payroll in baseball.

The 2006 Sox led the American League East by 3 1/2 games July 22 and officially took themselves out of the race before the first day of September. Other than the infamous collapse of 1978, this is the worst fold by a Red Sox team since the 1974 edition, which led the East by seven games Aug. 23, but finished in third place, seven games behind the Orioles. It's impossible to predict how the 2006 veterans will respond now that the front office has delivered the message that the hunt is officially over for this year.

Are you ready for some football?

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

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