Cal Ripken Sr., Larry Bowa, Dick Williams, Chuck Tanner - managers assumed to be in desperate situations before the first pitch was thrown this season - are gone.

Now, it seems, the executioner's sights are being refocused. On John McNamara, manager of the Boston Red Sox.His Red Sox have been under pressure from Day One of spring training to live up to the great expectations that had built up since the exciting, youth-filled second half of 1987. But there's no excitement this season for McNamara, only anxious waiting. The Red Sox are floundering, and so are his chances of keeping his job.

"That's the nature of the job," a stoic McNamara said recently.

"When you're backed into the corner, you either fight your way out or you lose," McNamara, a former boxer, said. "You don't want to be fired. Nobody wants to be fired. Whether it happens or not, I know it's the nature of the job. I take it as such."

But is it fair?

That's one of the ageless dilemmas of baseball. Pitchers don't pitch well and the manager is fired. Hitters don't hit and the manager is fired. Teams lose their leadership and direction - something players jealously guard as their own domain - and the manager is fired.

The Red Sox have all the classic symptoms. Now they must decide if the traditional remedies apply.

San Diego, Atlanta and Baltimore are devastated teams, never really in their respective races once the season got under way. Seattle, a supposed contender, got blind-sided by the runaway Oakland A's, and the players turned to anarchists under Williams' reign, so change was needed there, too.

The Red Sox? They're in a dilemma.

They're still very much in the race, not rebuilding. Interim managers aren't called for here. If a change must be made, it cannot be done just for change's sake.

If McNamara doesn't ignite passion in the clubhouse, then who would? Williams, popular in Boston, lost his job for not being aware of players' needs. Bringing his gruff attitude toward players into the Red Sox's situation would be tantamount to pouring gasoline on a fire.

Ed Nottle and Joe Morgan may be deserving organization men, but they won't put fans in the seats.

Chuck Tanner? He comes from the old-boy network, a network the Red Sox have been accused of turning to all too often.

Mr. Right does not automatically present himself. But the fact remains that McNamara does not appear to be Mr. Right, either. Maybe he was in 1986, when he was surrounded by veteran players. The mix has soured this season, however.

Yes, there are extenuating circumstances. The team seems to have lost the ability to do the little things. Such as hit home runs. Or, just once, get a meaningful RBI. Or run a Jim Rice up to the plate who still scares pitchers, not just his own teammates.

The Red Sox have stranded an alarming 450 runners and scored only 241 runs in 54 games. The Red Sox also have homered just 26 times, fewest in the major leagues.

As for pitching, Clemens and Hurst have 16 victories between them; the rest of the staff has 11. McNamara cannot hit for the Red Sox, cannot regain the prime years for Rice, make Sam Horn capable of hitting curveballs or convince Rich Gedman that it's still 1986.