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Manny mania hits a fever pitch

Special to

December 22

BOSTON -- Twins Enterprises is the landmark baseball memorabilia and apparel store that has sat across Yawkey Way from Fenway Park for generations of fans. Thursday morning, the store was lined with Manny Ramirez No. 24 Red Sox jerseys and caps. "It is," said a man named Barry who had driven into town from Cornish, Maine to buy tickets, a Nomar Garciaparra uniform and a whole bag of Manny paraphernalia, "this year's Christmas gift."

At Gold's Gym, on the street behind The Mwaanstah, an electrician stopped to talk about what Ramirez has meant to his winter. A law student at the free-weights gym wanted to talk about Manny's impact on Nomar possibly hitting .400.

For all his quirks, (Dan) Duquette would die to be the GM who brought a World Series championship to Boston. Which, in reality, makes him just like three million other people from Cheshire to Caribou.

"I never was a baseball fan until I moved here from New York a year ago," said a thirtyish woman named Sandy, who at the time was on a Stairmaster. "The Red Sox pervade the whole city's personality, whether you're 12, 25 or 65. People are so happy about Manny Ramirez. I don't know anything about him but I like him just because he's made people so happy.

"You'd think in Massachusetts, the Democratic bastion of bastions, people would be upset about Al Gore. Not so. Everyone's happy about Manny. The only time everyone seemed upset and depressed was when that pitcher (Mike Mussina) signed with the Yankees."

That is the way it is here. In the Polo Shop at Copley Place, a male and female Elizabeth Hurley clone argued over who'd ring up a sale to talk about Manny; she obviously has a very rich boyfriend who's big into The Olde Towne Teame. In Tiffany's, a woman in her fifties said, "whatever they do, don't let them trade Trot Nixon." The guy on the back of the trash truck screamed out, "Manny's gonna do it." Sitting at a light on Beacon Street, a Boston cop rolled down his window and said, "if Manny needs a police escort to the park, I'll give it to him."

On the corner of Newbury and Exeter, a seventyish man stopped to ask, "is Jose Offerman healthy enough to be on base for Nomar, Manny and (Carl) Everett?" The man at the register at Restoration Hardware said, "while I'm ringing this up, can I ask you a question? When are the Mets going to get a No. 2 starter? I want a Mets-Red Sox World Series."

In Tower Records, a Limp Bizkit soulmate, stopped by to ask me, "is ((Hideo) Nomo enough? How about (Derek) Lowe in the rotation and sign (John) Wetteland?" I didn't have the heart to tell him Wetteland is a very good drummer, but into head-banging Christian rock.

At the Pour House on Boylston Street, the waiter told us that there was a table over in the corner that wanted to buy us a bottle of champagne, a bottle of wine -- anything. "How about a Presidente?" I asked him. We can buy Presidente -- the best beer the Dominican Republic brews -- everywhere in Boston these days, and the two guys and a woman from the table came over. "Dominican Champagne," I said, and the guy named Carl said, "all I need to get through the winter with the hope that the Red Sox have a chance. I woke up one morning the day Mussina signed with the Yankees and you were saying the Red Sox could and damned well might sign Manny Ramirez. My winter's been bright ever since."

St. Louis probably is the best baseball town in America, and was long before Bill Dewitt, Walt Jocketty and Tony La Russa brought in Mark McGwire, even back when a local brewery was also watering down the baseball product. All those people who dress in red are more unswerving in their devotion, but New Englanders are right there with their Cardinal brethren. Oh, Red Sox Nation is a lot more acidic, their crowds can be blighted with drunken louts. Yes, there are a lot of folks who like to incant the "woe is me, 1918" as if they have been financially and morally wronged by a baseball team. Yes, many of the local talk-show callers savage any positive feelings, but that is the nature of talk radio, and while Boston's WEEI radio is entertaining, its 18-to-40 white male demographics are a small minority of the Red Sox demographics; during the election mess, 90 percent of the stations callers were Republicans, a remarkable feat in a state that is 80 percent Democratic. Do many suffer from New York envy? No doubt.

But among those who watch and listen to Jerry Remy and Joe Castiglione and whip out the money for the highest-ticket prices in baseball, there's something so deep-seeded about the Red Sox that George Bush's sister Nancy Evans has a hot stove winter dinner at a local women's club and 21-to-30 year olds sold out the Paradise for a night of baseball and rock'n roll highlighted by a deafening chant of "Manny, Manny" the night before Dan Duquette and Lee Thomas flew to Florida to meet Ramirez and his agent, Jeff Moorad. These people, who grew up in a region where what Roger Angell calls "the Calvinist clouds of self-doubt" is pervasive, deserve to know what it's like. These people deserve not to have to listen to the taunts of "1918, 1918," or have to have their long history of jilted emotions spun back at them every time they have a one-game lead in the American League East.

For all the criticism that Duquette takes, he understands this more than he ever expresses. When he was hammered for the manner in which he pursued Mussina, he never retreated into a hole. When he called and talked baseball, he never mentioned the criticism, never defended himself, he simply accepted it and as he smothered Ramirez and Moorad with attention, recruiting calls and money, proved that he learned from the Mussina experience. Duquette does not allow his emotions to creep out, but he does understand what his mother and friends in Dalton, Mass. feel for The Townies. He hasn't priced the tickets out of the range of the Hispanic fans who two years ago made Fenway so special, he just carries out the owner's business, although the owner has yet to sign him past 2001.

Not only has Boston's demographics changed dramatically to tremendous Latin and Asian influences and population centers, but Duquette has made the Red Sox a team with heavy Latin and Asian influences. The last of the original franchises to break the color barrier -- 12 years after the Dodgers -- this season could have two Koreans, two Japanese, four Dominicans, one Venezuelan, a Cuban and three or four African-Americans on its opening day roster.

Duquette privately knew what it meant for the Red Sox to sign a premier free agent for the first time since Bill Campbell in 1976, especially in light of the 250 percent increase in ticket prices over a four-year period. He understood what Ramirez, who Indians assistant GM Mark Shapiro calls "the best hitter in baseball," means to the Red Sox lineup. And he also understands what Ramirez -- after years of Matt Youngs and Jack Clarks and Andre Dawsons -- means to the fans' psyche. Duquette's roots are those of the woman in Tiffany's or the electrician at Gold's, and never tries to blame ticket prices on Manny knowing that for one that's an unfair burden for a 28-year-old to carry and secondly the club is paying more money to players who won't play in 2001 than they are to Ramirez.

For all his quirks, Duquette would die to be the GM who brought a World Series championship to Boston. Which, in reality, makes him just like three million other people from Cheshire to Caribou.

People 'round here simply care, like their parents and grandparents before them. And that's remarkable, considering the team's ownership since the Taylor Family built Fenway and sold the team after building the club that won four World Series in seven years. The Red Sox were the worst team in baseball in the '20s, after Harry Frazee sold Babe Ruth and a host of great players off. Tom Yawkey, of Tarrytown, N.Y. spent money and worshipped players, but his inability to judge people left him with racist, drunken fools.

One man Yawkey hired was heard to order Jackie Robinson and two other blacks off the field at the end of a 1945 workout, a man Yawkey hired refused to allow the signing of Willie Mays by the great scout George Digby. In Yawkey's later years, he hired Dick O'Connell to build the best foundation of Yawkey's lifetime, but when Yawkey died in 1976, he left a tawdry ownership battle whose little dignity came because the Bingham, Dana and Gould lawyers kept most everything out of the public eye.

These people deserve a Camden Yards for putting up with narrow aisles, seats built for scrawny 10-year-olds, no room to buy concessions and the grunge of an outdated facility that last year wasn't properly cleaned, per choice of those who look down from the luxury suites. It's not going to happen, though, not with a trust owning the team or the local political delegation. There are no Tip O'Neills or Bill Welds, just city councilors who suggest using Braves Field (which hasn't existed for 30 years), and national representation summed up by a junior senator whose idea of the common man is someone who can only put $10,000 into his campaign funds, thinks low-cost housing is a $680,000 house on Nantucket, changed his middle name to be J.F.K., threw someone else's medals into the ocean in a Vietnam Veterans rally and out-Hillaried that lifelong Yankee fan by appearing on WEEI's Eddie Andelman's show and told listeners he's a lifelong Red Sox fan whose favorite Bosox player was Eddie Yost (too bad Yost never played for the Red Sox).

And through all this, these people care. Two years after Bruce Hurst signed as a free agent with the Padres, he said he couldn't believe how much he missed that passion. The March after Roger Clemens signed with the Blue Jays, his wife Debby broke down and cried when talking about Boston. Mo Vaughn would die to feel that passion again, and it's what Nomar Garciaparra and Pedro Martinez and Trot Nixon and, yes, Carl Everett love so much about playing for the Red Sox.

The fans who care.

I told a woman at Gold's not to worry, Duquette does not want another utility infielder. He thinks Lou Merloni is just fine. And she was really happy. The woman in Tiffany's seemed so relieved when I told her Trot is staying. Two Brookline firemen proudly wear their "El Guapo" shirts in down hours.

The point isn't whether the Red Sox can or will win, or whether Manny Ramirez is a mirage that disguises the fear that there is no way they can lead the league in earned run average again with Pedro and a bunch of guys named Other. It isn't about John Harrington deserving to win with house money, either.

It's that these people who so profoundly care, who for so long have deserved better ownership and management and respect from the people for whom The Olde Towne Teame has been a trust fund, deserve to know what it's like to win the World Series.

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