FORT MYERS, Fla – Spring training is now a week old. It’s been an unremarkable first week for the 2006 Red Sox, but this coming week promises to be a bit more interesting.

The real fun begins Wednesday, when Manny Ramirez rolls into camp. We think. It’s a classic Manny moment – he’s a week late, but (thanks to the Major League Collective Bargaining Agreement) he’s right on time.

This will be the first opportunity for many Sox newcomers to check out Manny’s act. As we all know, it’s a unique sideshow. And that was before Ramirez asked to be traded.

A day later, as many as eight members of the Sox roster will be leaving for their respective countries’ training camps in preparation for the upcoming World Baseball Classic.

The Sox may be affected by this inaugural event more than any other team. They will be without key players for as much as several weeks. Jason Varitek will be leaving for his stint behind the plate with Team USA. With a new top-of-the-rotation starter (Josh Beckett), several key young arms (Jonathan Papelbon, Jon Lester, and Craig Hansen) and a new trio of middle relievers (Julian Tavarez, Rudy Seanez, and David Riske), the Sox need their veteran catcher more than ever. He will be missing vital time with these pitchers.

The consensus among players is that there is no good time to hold a tournament like this. Baseball is unique in the stress on pitchers’ arms. It is almost impossible to ask a pitcher to throw meaningful innings without the appropriate preseason work. Trouble is, when else could you stage an event like this? You couldn’t do it after the season, when hundreds of innings begin to take their toll on those arms. Pitchers sorely need to be shut down by October. Owners aren’t ready to lose games by having the Classic in mid-season, and shutting down the sport for two weeks – like hockey is doing for the Olympics – would force the World Series deep into November.

The 800-pound gorilla hanging over this idea is the possibility of serious injury. The first-place Ottawa Senators watched in horror while Dominic Hasek suffered a serious injury in the Olympics. He’s expected to miss more than a month. Imagine David Ortiz suffering a season-ending injury while swinging the bat for the Dominican Republic?

Players, sensing the real threat of injury, are beginning to hedge on the event. Ramirez is expected to withdraw from the Dominican team, and Pedro Martinez has already announced he’ll miss the first round. The WBC is starting to crumble before training camps have begun.

The World Baseball Classic is a good idea, but teams have too much money invested in superstars to allow them to put their seasons on the line. Ownership and management will watch with fingers crossed, hoping their players are not overworked and return from the WBC uninjured.

The Classic should be fun to watch, and if there are no injury setbacks, it will probably become a permanent part of the sport’s landscape. If there is a major injury, we may never see these games again.

Let’s just hope Ortiz, Varitek, Mike Timlin and the rest of the Sox return healthy, and represent their employer as well as they represent their countries.

Lewiston native Tom Caron Covers the Red Sox for NESN.


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