Manny Ramirez is in midseason form.
The big bopper with his own style - on and off the field - showed up at camp Thursday, marking the first time in three seasons he's beat Boston's deadline for reporting to spring training. Right on cue, he came out with a curious comment.
``I might be late two years in a row,'' Ramirez said with a straight face, ``but I'm always on time.''
Whatever, his latest Yogi-ism came in Fort Myers, Fla.. Plus, there was this pronouncement: ``I want to finish my career here.''
MVP of the 2004 World Series, Ramirez helped the Red Sox win another championship last fall. The star left fielder is entering the final season of his eight-year, $160 million contract that has team options for 2009 and 2010 at $20 million each.
``I want to stay here, but it's up to them if they want to bring me,'' Ramirez said. ``But if they don't want to bring me back, that's fine. I know I'll be a free agent after '08 so that's another thing that I'm looking forward (to).''
He added: ``It's up to them to say, `OK, we're going to take (the option). It's not up to me to go into the office and demand a four-year deal, whatever. No, I'm going come here to play the game, finish my year. If they want me to come back, I'll come back.''
General manager Theo Epstein also prefers to wait.
``We're focused on 2008,'' Epstein said. ``Manny's contract provides for the first of his options to be decided upon at the end of the year and there's a time for that, but it's certainly after the season. And we're looking forward to Manny continuing to work hard and have a great year.''
Manager Terry Francona isn't too worried about Ramirez losing his concentration over future contracts.
``Once he steps in the batter's box, that isn't an issue,'' Francona said. ``Or if there's something that is an issue, when those two feet get planted in the batter's box, he's ready to go.''
Ramirez is coming off one of his worst offensive seasons - a .296 batting average with 20 homers and 88 RBIs. He's 26th on the all-time list with 490 homers and should move into the Top 20 this year.
Ramirez wasn't moving much on Thursday. Francona merely laughed when asked about Ramirez skipping the team's conditioning drills.
``I give Manny credit for being smart enough to sneak out of here,'' Francona said.
At Dunedin, Fla., Frank Thomas said he's not ready to call it a career - a switch from a year ago when retirement was on his mind.
``Not at all, not at all,'' he said. ``I take care of myself and work hard. I still have my hand-eye coordination and can see a baseball great. Those are the things that make guys retire.''
Thomas hit .277 with 26 home runs and 95 RBIs last season in the first year of a two-year deal with the Blue Jays. Toronto holds an option for 2009.
At Surprise, Ariz., Texas Rangers right fielder Milton Bradley practiced for the second day without limitations on his surgically repaired right knee.
``He's hitting, doing outfield drills and running,'' manager Ron Washington said. ``There are no restrictions at all, but we are going to keep an eye on him.''
Bradley had offseason surgery after tearing up his knee on Sept. 23 when his manager, San Diego's Bud Black, spun him to the ground while trying to keep him from going after an umpire.
At Tucson, Ariz., the Chicago White Sox announced they will honor the victims of a shooting rampage at Northern Illinois University by wearing the school's baseball caps in their opening spring training game next week.
After facing the Colorado Rockies on Feb. 27, White Sox players will autograph the caps, which will be sent to the DeKalb, Ill., school and auctioned off to benefit a scholarship fund in memory of the five students who were killed.
``It is our way of showing a little bit of support and understanding,'' general manager Ken Williams said. ``While it's a simple gesture on our part, we just want to let the NIU community know that it continues to be in our thoughts and prayers.''
At Peoria, Ariz., the San Diego Padres held their first full-squad workout of spring training, and top prospect Chase Headley is being given a chance to win the starting job in left field. He made five starts at third base for the Padres last year, but has never played left field in his pro career.
``We think athletically it's worth taking a look at,'' Black said. ``I think the baseball instincts are there. On the physical side, we think he can do it. You combine that with the will and the determination to give it a shot, it's there with this kid.''
At Kissimmee, Fla., Atlanta Braves third baseman Chipper Jones joined the can-you-top-this prediction competition between the Mets' Carlos Beltran and Phillies' Jimmy Rollins.
``I really don't care what's being said,'' he said. ``The Phillies and the Mets know we'll be competitive. They know we'll be heard from.''
The Braves have finished third each of the last years after winning 14 straight division titles.
Philadelphia claimed the East championship last season, backing up Jimmy Rollins' preseason prediction. New York then acquired ace Johan Santana from Minnesota, prompting normally soft-spoken Carlos Beltran to proclaim the Mets are the undisputed favorite for 2008.
No one seems to be mentioning the Braves.

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