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NUTS AND BOLTS

Times Staff Writer

On a luminous Sunday morning at the end of July, the Back Bay stirs as the first black and gray luxury sedans glide over the pitted pavement, between the stores with jerseys on racks and the bars with jerseys in frames.

Fathers hold the hands of their little girls, whose pigtails are threaded through the backs of their Red Sox caps, a look that is altogether Boston. Young men bend at the neck and fold pizza slices in half, and orangy grease streams from the pinched ends and pools on paper plates, which are set atop the foulest of garbage cans.

The Red Sox themselves materialize from their cars, having weaved through people and barricades for the final block, and they wave or smile, just enough to satisfy the shrieks of “John-eee!” or “Pap-iii!” or “Mr., uh, Olerud!”

There is nothing quite like the perimeter of Fenway Park on game day, the Red Sox in first place, the New York Yankees looking quite fragile, smoke pushing barbecue aromas through the crowds, the shadows shortening toward the first pitch.

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Even the crisis-a-day Red Sox seem pleased, given the benefits of daily calamity over century-long heartache. They are still, mostly, God bless them, the Team That Did It, no matter how it plays out a year later, no matter how they bear up under the trappings of fame and fortune and Manny.

The city loves them, crusted-over fans love them, the game loves them and so what could possibly ever go wrong?

Well, Johnny Damon wrote a book and Bronson Arroyo released a CD. Curt Schilling never got over the whole bloody ankle thing, which maybe means it was worse than anyone realized, and the doctor who put him back on the mound was let go. They added David Wells to the pitching staff, which could not have been more appropriate.

Kevin Millar provided the usual running commentary and comic relief, and Keith Foulke chipped in with some nice, pointed rants, one of which managed to hurt the feelings of Burger King swing-shifters, and who knew that was even possible? Matt Clement was hit in the head by a line drive, Foulke went to the disabled list, Gabe Kapler went from Boston to Japan to Boston again, Damon shaved (sort of), team Chairman Tom Werner and Katie Couric broke up (according to People magazine) and if that sounds like a top-heavy load, we haven’t even touched on Manny Ramirez yet.

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As all of this piled up between his C-4 and C-5 vertebrae, the manager, Terry Francona, watched his office fill with reporters on this morning and said, “I think the best I can hope for is that one of you guys bump each other and you get into a fight.”

Anything for a diversion.

A baseball game would do, actually. Any baseball game. And the Red Sox, somewhere between spooky sane and out-of-their-hammocks nut bags, have followed a World Series championship with pretty consistent, pretty capable baseball. They arrive in Anaheim tonight leading the Yankees by 4 1/2 games in the American League East. A year ago today they were in second place, nine games behind the Yankees, the 86th season since their last championship looking a lot like the previous 85.

They managed to fill up the final 2 1/2 months. They qualified for the postseason as the wild card, hardly paused at the Angels, eliminated the Yankees at Yankee Stadium and swept the St. Louis Cardinals, and the party hasn’t really stopped.

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“There’s always stories here,” Damon said without regret. “We’re a Hollywood team. We’re big news.”

Whether they find the news or it finds them depends on one’s perspective, or the moment.

To wit:

Ramirez’s midseason trade request is leaked to Sports Illustrated. News finds Manny.

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Ramirez becomes so distraught that he agrees he probably shouldn’t play for a couple of days. Manny finds news.

Ramirez announces to media, “I’m back!” Manny finds news.

Ramirez, as a pinch-hitter, singles home the eventual winning run as the trading deadline passes. News finds Manny.

“Manny being Manny,” becomes popular Boston catch phrase. News finds Manny.

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Ramirez holds up a sign in left field that reads, “Manny being Manny.” Manny finds news.

Asked whether it ever becomes too much, not just Ramirez but all of it, third baseman Bill Mueller appears nearly shocked by the question.

“No,” he said earnestly. “I think you’ll misunderstand the foundation of most of these guys, and how quality they are. That’s why this was the way it was over the last two or three years. ... It’s just a wonderful, wonderful thing.”

So go the Red Sox, either holding up under the burden or drinking it in, drawing 201 consecutive sellout crowds at home, and winning when it matters, including the last 13 in a row at home. This is a team, after all, that won eight of nine playoff elimination games in the last two postseasons, that fought the Yankees virtually even in the regular season over three years, that finds offense to pound its way through games when the pitching -- and the bullpen, in particular -- does not show up.

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Given the routine tumult, the failure at the trading deadline to acquire bullpen help, the free-agency losses of Pedro Martinez and Derek Lowe and the inability to adequately replace them, and the handful of injuries, Red Sox management has only to look to the AL East standings for comfort.

“Some people actually believe we get a free ride through this year,” assistant general manager Josh Byrnes said. “I’m not sure that’s the case. In some ways, we feel as much or more pressure. It feels like a unique time, setting aside a 90-year history for the franchise, to accomplish as much as we possibly can. Day to day, it seems like a lot’s going on. It hasn’t felt like a smooth ride. But somehow, these guys go along picking up the wins. ... It seems like they have an ability at these important junctures to play great.”

Ramirez and David Ortiz are most-valuable-player candidates; Damon, in his walk year, could win his first batting title; and Jason Varitek could hit .300 for the first time. The Red Sox lead the league in batting, runs and walks, important because they rank near the bottom in pitching and defense.

As a result, they can have a month such as August, when they give up an average of 6.5 runs in 14 games, win 10 of them and keep the Yankees at arm’s length.

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“As long as we worry about what we have to do, we’re going to be fine,” Damon said at the trading deadline, which passed without Ramirez being dealt. “We know the team we had out there was good enough to get back to the playoffs and possibly win another World Series.

“It sure seems like whatever problems we have on the team, they get let out in the open somehow, someway. But somehow, everything’s good now.”

By late this Sunday afternoon, as the townsfolk are replaced on Yawkey Way by long shadows and empty plastic cups, it is clear the Red Sox have made it another day. Everybody’s laughing again, everybody’s willing to give it another go tomorrow. It is quiet by Red Sox standards, leaving only a few under-the-radar guys quite happy with that status.

“I don’t pay a lot of attention to that stuff,” John Olerud said. “I concentrate on getting ready for the game. I’ve never been accused of having my finger on the pulse of the team. I usually find out from my wife, who’s at home watching on TV.”

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Not far from the veteran, composed Olerud, two small children bounce from locker to locker. They are armed with Sharpies and brilliant, wide eyes. They arrive at the foot of Tony Graffanino, who only recently arrived from Kansas City, where three reporters constitute a horde.

One of the children, a boy, looks up and holds out a new cap, the B bright red against the hard blue.

“Can you sign my cap?” he asks the man before him.

“Are you kidding me?” Graffanino says. “I’m your dad.”

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Yeah, it’s always a little nutty.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Red-hot Sox

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The Boston Red Sox rank first in the American League in five major offensive categories:

*--* Category No. AL rank Batting avg. 284 1st Runs 676 1st Hits 1,159 1st RBIs 640 1st Doubles 250 1st Total bases 1,891 2nd Home runs 144 5th

*--*


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