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DAN SHAUGHNESSY

Baseball season means a trip to wondering land with Manny

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- The first official workout for Red Sox pitchers and catchers is today. Position players are scheduled to "report" Tuesday, and their first workout is supposed to be Thursday at the minor league complex at the dead end of Edison Road in this godforsaken town.

Already we have been happily bombarded with stories about Jonathan Papelbon, Craig Hansen, Manny Delcarmen, Kevin Youkilis, Wily Mo Peña, and Elvis Matsuzaka. We have rejoiced in the retirement of Keith Foulke and we won't sleep until the Sox make a decision on the 2008 contract extension for the Big Blowhard himself, the inimitable Schill.

This Sox talk is enough to fill the sports hole for the nightly news at 6 and 11 and keeps the fan-boy bloggers breathlessly e-mailing one another 24/7. Our local baseball team is finally filling the void left in the wake of the Patriots' stunning loss at Indianapolis four weeks ago today.

Which leaves us with one huge, unanswered question . . .

What's up with Manny Ramírez?

There's been no word from Camp Manny since he curiously quit in the middle of the crucial Yankees series at Fenway in late August. Nothing from agent Greg Genske. Nothing from Red Sox management. Nothing from Manny's teammates who loathe his attitude but bite their tongues and say nothing in the hope that Manny will return and post his customary .320, 35, 110. Certainly, there has been nothing from Manny. And please remember that we're all OK with that.

Everyone assumes Manny is going to show up this week and act as if nothing happened last year. That's the ideal scenario for the front office, and certainly in the hearts and homes of Red Sox fans. Manny has two years left on his $20 million-per-year contract, and he's always been a good soldier in spring training.

This presumes that there's no carryover from his unexplained sit-down strike of 2006 and the ball club's subsequent (aggressive) attempt to trade him in the offseason. Theo and the Minions worked overtime to move Manny in November and December (allegedly at the request of Manny's agent, though none of us has ever heard Manny ask to leave), but closed shop in the middle of the winter meetings when it became apparent that they would get nothing close to commensurate value in return.

And that's the rub with Manny. You hate to hold on to any player who blatantly demonstrates that he doesn't care, but how do you go about replacing Jimmie Foxx and keeping lineup protection for David Ortiz?

Manny has the Nation over a barrel and he knows it. His talent has allowed him to go through life without the rules that apply to the rest of us. It's not going to change. Sox fans and Manny's teammates can only hope there's not another inexplicable decision to shut it down in the middle of this 2007 season.

Once again, this is not about Manny talking or not talking. You don't care, and we don't care, if he talks. And let's restate the observation that there doesn't seem to be anything evil or contrived about Manny's moods. He is not a negative presence. He comes to the park, whistling all the way, does his work, and goes home.

But he also has a propensity to shut it down, and we never know why. And please, don't be a stooge and attempt to perpetuate the farcical theory that Manny was too wounded to play last September. Every man in the Sox clubhouse knows what went down; teammates simply wouldn't say anything on the record, lest they risk "losing" Manny.

The amazing part of the Manny-fan relationship is that most Boston baseball customers, who are normally critical and discerning, have lost their minds when it comes to Mr. Ramírez. The timeless rules and standards don't apply. Manny can hit. It's a joy to watch him hit. And it's pretty clear that he's incapable of offending the sensibilities of most Sox fans.

So here we go again. Manny and the Red Sox. Year Seven. He's 30 homers shy of the magic 500. He's going for 30 homers and 100 RBIs for a 10th consecutive season. He's only 34 years old. It's been six months since he quit on his teammates, and more than two months since the Sox actively tried to trade him. He allegedly has taken his Boston condo off the market. We think he's going to be here this week.

Hope so. Can't wait for that Manny Moment when he sees Daisuke Matsuzaka for the first time and asks teammates, "Hey, who is that Japanese guy and why is he wearing Johnny Damon's number?"

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

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