FORT MYERS, Fla. (AP) -Terry Francona can't wait to get his World Series ring.
Sure, it will be a shining reward for what his Red Sox accomplished last year. It also will be a sobering reminder that they've achieved nothing this year.
``We're supposed to be proud of what we accomplished last year. That's not this year,'' said the manager who won two of the last four World Series. ``You can't fully move on until you get your rings. It's impossible.''
By the time they receive the rings at Fenway Park, they will have played five regular-season road games - two against Oakland in Tokyo and three in Toronto. It's a grueling trip that began when they left Fort Myers for Japan on Wednesday, a journey that was in limbo until players ended their threatened boycott over what they felt was inadequate compensation for coaches and other staff.
The issue was resolved Wednesday after Boston's game against Toronto was delayed by an hour.
The return to Boston will be a relief but also a sign of how difficult it will be to repeat.
The first home series will be against Detroit, perhaps baseball's most improved team. The Red Sox division, the AL East, is strong again with Tampa Bay's young players finally at a point where the Rays can be competitive and with the New York Yankees relying more on youth, especially with their pitchers, than in the past.
Cleveland nearly beat Boston in the AL championship series but blew a 3-1 lead in the seven-game series. And two teams in the AL West picked up key veterans - Torii Hunter with the Los Angeles Angels and Erik Bedard with Seattle.
``It's just a really good league,'' Boston general manager Theo Epstein said. ``There's a lot of potential forces out there.''
The Red Sox made few changes from last year's championship squad. With a balance of young contributors like Dustin Pedroia and experienced stars like Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz, the lineup is packed. If Josh Beckett comes back quickly from his back injury, as expected, the rotation can be outstanding. And Jonathan Papelbon is the intimidating closer a consistent contender needs.
Dynasty? Boston is the closest thing to it since the Yankees won four of five World Series from 1996 through 2000.
It's also a word Francona hates.
``That's a good way to get knocked right off your perch,'' he said. ``I don't think I've ever had that thought in my life.''
He's not sure why no team has won consecutive championships since the 1999-2000 Yankees, but he had an idea.
``I've kind of been laughing because I've been getting that question, but people say, 'Oh, you know how hard it is to repeat?' Well, you know how hard it is to win?'' Francona said. ``There's just so many things that can happen and somebody else can win. You've got to be lucky. You've got to be really good. Then you've got to take advantage of some of that luck.''
But nobody else won the last seven games of last season. After winning the last three against in the ALCS, the Red Sox swept the Colorado Rockies in the World Series.
And there's plenty of room for improvement.
Rookie Jacoby Ellsbury led Boston with a .438 World Series batting average after becoming the regular center fielder in September.
``There's a world of development out there for him,'' Epstein said. ``He hasn't really done anything in the big leagues except for a very nice contribution over a short time last year.''
Manny Ramirez is coming off one of his worst seasons statistically - .296 with 20 homers and 80 RBIs - as he struggled to correct a flaw in which he kept his hands too far apart on the bat.
``I'm one of the best players in the league. That's last year,'' Ramirez said. ``This game is easy. It's been easy for me all my life. Why should I worry. I'm ready to go.''
It should be easier for key players who had to adjust last season to their first year in Boston.
Japanese pitching star Daisuke Matsuzaka had to adjust to a new culture and a different league in front of passionate fans with high expectations. Right fielder J.D. Drew and shortstop Julio Lugo signed long-term deals that many fans thought were too expensive. They struggled for long stretches.
``Most of the things that were a source of stress for me last season have disappeared,'' Matsuzaka said. ``Now I'm just able to practice, just feeling really good about it.''
His life got even better when his wife gave birth to their second child, a son, four days before the Red Sox left for Japan on Wednesday. And he'll be on the mound in his homeland as the starter on opening day Wednesday for the first of two games against Oakland. Each team scheduled two exhibition games against Japanese teams before then.
Matsuzaka and the rest of the starters should get plenty of support from a lineup that includes World Series MVP Mike Lowell, rookie of the year Pedroia, Ortiz and Ramirez. Ellsbury may be the only new starter, if he secures the spot from Coco Crisp, who missed most of spring training with a groin injury.
There's more continuity: Early in spring training, Francona signed a contract extension through 2011 with team options for 2012 and 2013.
``He's an intelligent man,'' catcher Jason Varitek said. ``He's been able to mix and match and allow us to do things on the field that brought two championships to an organization that had to wait 86 years.''
But neither of them, Francona has preached to his players, means anything this year.
So bring on the ring ceremony then forget last season.
``They're giving you rings during the game. You just can't do it,'' Francona said. ``But then it's a great day, hopefully we win, and then you can kind of move on.''

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