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Sox focused on present again

If you are a Red Sox fan, there is much to like about the team's aggressive pursuit of Japanese righthander Daisuke Matsuzaka. The Sox ponied up $51.1 million Tuesday to earn exclusive rights to negotiate with the 26-year-old hurler. For another $40 million or so, they'll snag the best free agent pitcher on the market. A Red Sox starting rotation of Matsuzaka, Jonathan Papelbon, Josh Beckett, Curt Schilling, and Tim Wakefield looks pretty good.

As always, there are layers beneath the surface of the deal.

Let's start with the apparent new harmony at the top of the Sox masthead. Theo Epstein and Larry Lucchino may forever suffer from Belichick-Mangini Syndrome, but the united quest for Matsuzaka certainly gives the appearance that the men in the front office are back on the same page. This was not the case in the nuclear winter of 2005-06, and the Sox paid the price in the summer of '06.

The 2006 Red Sox suffered an unspeakable spate of injuries, but their dysfunctional roster was woefully equipped for land mines encountered in the second half of the season. This was because, in large part, of the "win now" vs. "win in '08" split in the executive suites at Fenway. With Lucchino stripped of power, young Theo made the decision to take a step back in '06 in hopes that his farm system and patience would reap rewards in future summers. And so on Aug. 31 (10 days after Manny Ramírez quit for the year) -- with the Sox eight games out of first place -- Theo officially ran up the white flag when he traded David Wells for George Kottaras.

Boston's sad, sloppy September was little more than extended spring training (at whopping big league prices) as the Red Sox auditioned a soft parade of prospects and suspects, intent on finding out who might be able to help in 2007 and '08. Nearly 200 miles to the southwest, the Yankees smiled and cruised to the division title without the usual threat from Boston.

Now the urgency is back on Yawkey Way and this can only be a good thing for Red Sox Nation. Forking over $90 million for one starting pitcher is a sure sign the Sox have returned to a "win now" philosophy. And there is no indication of a power struggle or a split. Owner John Henry, stung by the stunning collapse of '06, doesn't mind digging into his portfolio. Meanwhile, Boston's Machiavellian move to box out the Yankees is smudged with Lucchino's fingerprints, and Epstein and his minions have made it clear they believe in Matsuzaka's abilities and long-term upside. You can almost hear Dr. Charles Steinberg at the keyboard while Theo, Larry, and John hold hands and sing, "We Are The World."

There's other fallout from this bold, expensive move. As long as they are owned by Henry and friends, the Red Sox are no longer allowed to complain about the Yankee s payroll. It has been a comfortable crutch for too long -- complaining about their inability to compete with the Yankees. But those days are over. The Red Sox just spent $51.1 million for the right to negotiate with a player. Their bid topped the Yankees by nearly $20 million.

It was just four years ago that the Sox were outbid by the Yankees in the infamous, furniture-busting Jose Contreras sweepstakes at the Hotel Campo Real in Nicaragua. You might remember Lucchino saying, "The Evil Empire extends its tentacles even into Latin America." The comment triggered new levels of hostility in the ancient rivalry. (We will resist the temptation here to trace Contreras's disappointing career with the Yankees and wonder if that fate could find Matsuzaka.)

One year later, the Contreras contretemps was followed by the Alex Rodriguez Valentine's Day fiasco. That's when Henry characterized the Yankees as "a team that has gone so insanely far beyond the resources of all other teams."

Last August, in the final hours of the humiliating five-game Fenway sweep at the hands of the Bronx Bombers, Epstein resurrected the same pathetic theme, saying, "We are not the Yankees . . . We have to do things different . . . That's the reality. It's going to occasionally leave us short, it's going to leave us short every time there's a player who's available in a bidding war."

Maybe that was a rope-a-dope by the clever Sox to catch the Yankees napping this week.

There exists the possibility, of course, that the Sox and Matsuzaka's agent, Scott Boras, will be unable to come to terms between now and next month's deadline. That would send the Dice Man (D-Mat? We badly need a nickname for this guy) back to his Japanese team for a year and the Sox would have a lot of explaining to do to the loyal Nation. That's why it makes sense to look for a deal to be consummated and one of the all-time media frenzies when Matsuzaka reports to Fort Myers, Fla. , in mid-February.

The pressure will be great and we'd advise Matsuzaka to steer clear of the English language when he gets to the Hub. In Boston, most ballplayers are better off not knowing what is being said or written about them. Matsuzaka doesn't need to know we're calculating how many million dollars he's making for each appearance on the mound.

The figures are absolutely staggering. But it's not our money (actually, for those of us at Daddy Globe, it is our money, and here's hoping the Times doesn't add a quarter to the cost of the daily paper to recoup some of the Matsuzaka investment). The Red Sox are already charging the top prices in baseball. There's a infinite appetite for all things Red Sox and the ball club has expanded its international appeal.

Most important, the bid for Matsuzaka is a much-needed demonstration that the Red Sox front office is reunited and back in the business of winning now. After a winter of discontent and a late-summer collapse, this is a message the Sox needed to send.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is

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