As he drags his .179 average to the plate, Rich Gedman hears them. "Hey, Gedman, why don't ya hold out again next year?" As the scoreboard flashes his season totals (no homers and four RBI in mid-June), he hears them. "When are you gonna start earning those millions?" When he chases a passed ball to the screen (and he had five in five games last week), he hears them again. "Just like the World Series, huh?"

The Fenway Faithless have found Rich Gedman. He's in their cross hairs now -- the symbol, the scapegoat, the reason their beloved and beloathed Red Sox are in fifth place, 10 games out of first, and, all in all, playing down to New England's worst expectations.

Should we snicker or cry? The Boston catcher, a hard-working, straight-arrow kid from Worcester, Mass., has already grown accustomed to suffering for the sins of all the Red Sox. Sure, Marty Barrett, Don Baylor, Dave Henderson and Jim Rice are in terrible slumps, batting far under .250. Yes, Oil Can Boyd's injured. Calvin Schiraldi has been a relief arsonist.

But it's Gedman who's getting the gaff. And it's Gedman who's being eaten alive by it. He's the one who turned down the Red Sox offer of $2.65 million for three years so he could try free agency. In New England this was apostasy -- an incomprehensible betrayal of the locals' melodramatic bond with the Red Sox.

Look at it from the point of view of the fan in the bleachers or bar. Who is this Gedman? He's a guy who lives in Framingham, Mass., a regular shot-an'-a-beer Joe with a barrel chest. He grew up listening to the Impossible Dreamers of the '60s and the Over the Wall Gang of the '70s. He knows what everybody's endured. Even Gedman said, "I was around for it every day as a boy. I didn't read about those {collapses}. I remember 'em."

So, one strike away from the first Red Sox world title in 67 years, who let a pitch bounce off his glove as the tying run scored for the Mets? Yup, Gedman. Sure, it was Bob Stanley's wild pitch, but Gedman gets 49 percent of the blame.

And what does this Gedman do? Does he stand on the corner in sack cloth? No. He turns down a contract Carlton Fisk never dreamed of and throws the whole organization into a winter of turmoil and controversy. It's back-alley justice that nobody wanted him, that nobody offered him two cents and that he had to return to Boston on May 1 to pick up the pieces.

"It's difficult playing at home," said Gedman, who returned to the Red Sox and went one for 31. "Everybody wants to be accepted. I just hope if I can get to where I should be {statistically}, it'll all pass.

"But I know I can't measure up to everybody's expectations. If I say, 'I have to satisfy these people,' that'll just bury me worse."

If ever a player seemed to have everything against him, it's Gedman. And if ever a player seemed worth rooting for to beat the odds, it's also Gedman. First, he's no natural talent. He's a plugger, a battler, a plate blocker, a weight lifter and BP addict with a goofy swing (head down, hands high at the finish) that makes him look like a left-handed Arnold Palmer. Gedman has averaged 19 homers, 72 RBI and a .275 average over the last three years by honest labor, little else. He even made the AL all-star team the last two seasons, helped by an arm that's thrown out half of all thieves.

When Gedman, who isn't even mentioned in the team's media guide, returned to the club, the slump was already in full bloom. "It was like panic time," he said. And he caught it.

"I have a tendency to try too hard. I get so angry, so aggressive, that I can't even see straight," he said. "This game is played on confidence and, when you constantly dwell on the negative, or have it brought up to you, well, I got to the point where I didn't feel like I had a chance. You almost wish you could just give up and not try at all, because then you might play more like yourself."

But saying "What the hell" isn't in his nature. "I've always had an ideal of what I expect a ballplayer to be," he said. "Not somebody who goes four for four and is all smart-mouth and happy or goes zero for four and acts like somebody died. If you let the peaks and valleys dictate your moods, they'll break you down.

"Right now, those peaks and valleys seem too extreme. I can't get 'em flattened out."

Two more matters eat at him. "The team I played for last year won together and lost together. Why should that change? Why is it that now people have to point fingers?" he said. "If you can't go down together, you're not {really} a team."

While the Red Sox point at one other, those outside the club often seem to want Gedman to recant, admit some error in using his free agency rights. "It's easy now to say, 'We should have done it differently.' But if nobody tests it, how will you know if free agency even exists anymore?"

He is close to saying he wishes he could do it over, sign that contract, but it's not in him to buckle. "When people get on me," he said, "I tell them, 'I believe what I believe. You're not the one that stuck your rear end out there on the line.' "

The panic stage is past now, Gedman said. Roger Clemens, who missed spring training with a salary holdout and is now 4-5, although with a good 3.07 ERA and 82 strikeouts in 94 innings, knows how that progression goes. "My first two or three starts, I tried to do much too much," he said. "It was the same with Rich. . . . You get on edge after a while. I'm still cranky a lot. Even my dad wants me to enjoy the game more. . . . I am pitching pretty well again, but at crucial times my strikeout pitch, that low-away fastball, just hasn't been working for me. . . . Little by little, you get more consistent. I just want to get back so I feel in control again."

Gedman has not yet approached Clemens as far as reconstructing his confidence is concerned. "If I don't believe in myself, who's going to?" he asked rhetorically, giving himself a pep talk. "I just want to go back and find one thing at the plate that I know I can do right and concentrate on that."

"Confidence" and "patience" are the words he says over and over as he tries not to hear the naysaying around him. "I always do the best I can," he said, something no one in baseball would dispute. "If I didn't, I might have trouble dealing with what happened in the World Series . . . . Or with what I'm going through now. But I know I give my all. Hey, I can live with me."

Now, if only others could find it in their hearts to agree.