Red Sox come up a #039;Little#039; short

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, October 28, 2003

BOSTON - If only Grady Little had pulled Pedro Martinez sooner, or Boston's bullpen had blown the lead in the playoffs instead of its ace. Or maybe if the ball hadn't rolled through Bill Buckner's legs or cleared the Green Monster off of Bucky Dent's bat, it might be OK for a manager to take the Red Sox to the doorstep of the World Series.

And then maybe Little would still have a job.

Instead, the Red Sox dismissed Little on Monday, less than two weeks after he left his tiring ace in too long against the New York Yankees and probably cost the team a chance to play in the World Series for its first championship since 1918. Little wasn't fired - he was sent off with kind words and a $250,000 bonus but without a new contract to replace the one that expires Friday.

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The Red Sox said that the parting of the ways, as they called it, was not solely based on what happened in Game 7 of the AL championship series. Owner John Henry has had lingering doubts about whether Little was the right person to lead the team as it came to rely more on statistics to determine strategy.

Henry held his peace, at least publicly, for most of the season.

''He's a very collaborative person who's not going to issue fiats from on high - as might be done in some organizations,'' Lucchino said, taking another in a series of shots at Yankees owner George Steinbrenner. ''This is not an organization that makes decisions of this importance based on one event.''

Still, Lucchino conceded that it would have been difficult to let Little go if he had made the World Series - and impossible if he had won it.

''It would have been ungrateful in the extreme,'' he said.

Lucchino and general manager Theo Epstein said that Little bristled at the idea of coming back for another year with no security beyond the 2004 season. He asked for the team's complete support, and a long-term contract that would demonstrate it.

''It became clear after a lengthy discussion that Grady was not going to have 100 percent support,'' Epstein said. ''Once that question was answered, the other answer was clear.''

Red Sox officials called Little at his home in North Carolina on Monday morning and told him of their decision. He took it well, and both sides continued to compliment each other even as they parted ways.

The team released a statement from Little in which he thanked the team for the opportunity to manage in the majors and stressed his accomplishments over two years in which he won 93 and 95 games.

''Yes, we came up short of our goal, and to the Red Sox Nation, I say: I hurt with each of you. It was painful for all of us,'' he said. ''Grady Little is going to be fine!

''The organization made a decision to go in a different direction. Whoever they hire to replace me will be getting the best bunch of players in baseball and a solid general manager. I love each and every one of those guys.''

Epstein and Lucchino declined to discuss Little's possible successors, but Jim Fregosi, Bud Black, Glenn Hoffman, Charlie Manuel, Bobby Valentine and Jerry Remy have been mentioned as candidates.

''There will be a lot of Grady Little in our next manager,'' Lucchino said. ''We want to have a greater balance among the tools that can be used to make a franchise successful, and we will seek to fine tune that balance as we go forward. This is not going to be a stat-geeks organization, nor is it going to be an organization run by old, salty-dog baseball traditionalists.''

Little, 53, managed 16 seasons in the minors from 1980 to 1995 and was San Diego's bullpen coach in 1996. He spent the next three seasons as Jimy Williams' bench coach in Boston then had the same job the next two seasons with Manuel in Cleveland.

He became the Red Sox manager in spring training of 2002 after Joe Kerrigan was fired. Kerrigan had moved up from pitching coach in 2001 when Williams was fired.

In 2002, the Red Sox got off to a 40-17 start under Little but finished at 93-69 and missed the playoffs. This season, they were 95-67 and led the AL in batting average, total bases and other offensive categories.

They rallied from an 0-2 deficit in the first round of the playoffs against the Oakland Athletics to advance to the ALCS, and Little's job seemed secure. But when things unraveled in New York, the passionate Boston fans called for his job.

Red Sox players, however, commended the job Little did in keeping a fractured clubhouse together and campaigned for him to return.

''There's no reason to blame Grady,'' Martinez said after Game 7. ''Grady doesn't play the game, I do. If you want to judge me or curse me or whatever, I will swallow that, because I am responsible.''