Sports Nut

Burning Manny

Who’s crazier, Manny Ramirez or the Bostonians who grew to despise him?

Ex-Red Sox player Manny Ramirez

I was driving home late in the last afternoon of the Manny Ramirez Era in Boston, listening to the local ESPN radio outlet, when, suddenly, it seemed that the two hosts had decided that what the situation called for was the opinion of Margaret Hamilton’s character from The Wizard of Oz.

… disgrace to the game … I get sick of people in Boston adoring a guy who didn’t play hard. … blackmailed the Red Sox … an affront and an embarrassment … What about the integrity of playing the game right? … When it comes to the Hall of Fame, there will be a lot of people who have a lot more questions about Manny Ramirez than they do about Mark McGwire.

And his mangy little dog, too, one supposes. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that one of the sources of this particularly violent magma displacement was ESPN’s Peter Gammons. This is like being heckled by one of the heads on Mount Rushmore. It’s also gloriously unmoored from reality. Gammons’ own record on covering the Steroid Era is a decidedly mixed one. Not that I care, because that cause was never my frenzy of choice, either.

But, glorioski, it’s transcendentally silly to argue that Manny Ramirez has done more palpable damage to the game of baseball than Mark McGwire did simply because McGwire dragged his well-perforated ass to the plate every time he was asked. Anybody who casts a vote for the Hall of Fame on that basis, or who counsels someone else to do so, not only should be kept far away from the process, but probably shouldn’t be allowed to handle their own money, either. (Can we please, finally, pry the ballot out of the hands of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America and hand it to somebody less self-important, like the College of Cardinals?)

Nevertheless, Gammons’ outburst was the perfect coda to a symphonic performance of local hysteria that had been building for at least a month and that will now continue for a while. How long will depend entirely on how the trade works out. The more Ramirez hits in Los Angeles, or the worse Jason Bay plays in Boston, the more stories will come filtering out of the Red Sox establishment about what a schlub Ramirez was, although, admittedly, the bar’s already set fairly high. (The gist of a column in today’s Boston Herald: Manny hates kids with cancer.)

For the nearly eight seasons he was with the Red Sox, Ramirez was as essential as he was infuriating, something he shares historically with two other Red Sox left fielders, Carl Yastrzemski and Ted Williams. Yastrzemski was accused of dogging it in the field for most of his early career, and Williams was eight kinds of strange on the most normal day he ever lived.

In any event, if the two not-at-all-coincidental world championships that the Red Sox have won with Ramirez somehow do not justify what once appeared to be the monstrous eight-year, $160 million deal, then his numbers in Boston—274 home runs and 868 RBIs—more than make the case. Nevertheless, it’s been no secret that Theo Epstein has been trying to get out from under the contract ever since he became general manager. He put Ramirez on waivers in 2003, making him available to anyone who would assume his contract. (There were no takers.) He tried to trade him to the Mets. He even tried to trade him for Alex Rodriguez, who, of course, certainly would have been less trouble off the field than Ramirez was. In all three cases, circumstances saved Ramirez for the Red Sox and Epstein from himself.

This year, however, Ramirez did indeed shoot his way out of town, as Bill Parcells once described the process in another context. Apparently vexed that the Red Sox wouldn’t pick up a $20 million team option for next season, he spent two full months demonstrating that the different drummer to whom he’d always marched had turned into Keith Moon. He took a swing at Kevin Youkilis in the dugout. (At the time, the overwhelming opinion was that Youkilis, a notorious red-ass who regularly pitches a fit after a bad at-bat, probably had it coming.) Then, Ramirez jacked up a sexagenarian traveling secretary in the clubhouse. (That this story leaked at all should have been the first clue that things were different this time around.) He took himself out of the lineup twice, once against the New York Yankees and once more, against Seattle, when the lineup card had already been posted. Finally, and most comically, at least to me, he took 5.7 seconds to get down to first base on a ground ball against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. Among eccentric Boston right-handed sluggers, Jimmie Foxx could have made it faster, and he’s been dead since 1967.

Alas, this all coincided with a gruesome series in which the Angels took the Red Sox apart. Apparently, a delegation of veteran Boston players went to general manager Theo Epstein and told Epstein what Epstein has wanted to hear for five years—that they were fed up with being the supporting acts in a circus. So, off went Ramirez to the Dodgers, in exchange for a bag of doorknobs and Bay, a talented, Canadian-born Pittsburgh Pirate who, I guarantee you, with his 153 strikeouts per season and his .216 average with men in scoring position this season, has no idea what he’s walking into. Welcome to Fenway, Jason. Now have fun and don’t suck.

It is the delegation of “veterans” who came to Epstein declaring, in essence, “We cannot work in this ambience!” (then perhaps huffing off to their trailers for a massage and some chamomile tea) that’s the most bizarre element of the whole affair. For all the murmurings from the fainting couch by the local baseball romantics about how Manny Ramirez failed to respect The Game and did his teammates dirt, these same people seem more than willing to accept the proposition that the rest of your defending World Champions are made of candy glass. Is the poisonous presence of Manny Ramirez the reason catcher Jason Varitek is petrifying almost by the hour, or why Josh Beckett hasn’t thrown a changeup in six weeks, or why most of The Kids have been playing like people who got lost on the way to the AAA park? (Jacoby Ellsbury, the speedy young center fielder who was such a sensation in last year’s World Series, is hitting an abysmal .186 since the All-Star break and has stolen one base since June 17.) And has Epstein himself been so distracted by Ramirez’s performance that he’s failed to notice that his middle relief corps is a landfill? As near as anyone can tell, as the Rays and the Yankees both strengthened themselves for the final weeks of the season, the only thing the Red Sox front office worked on in the days prior to the trading deadline was finding a way to ship Manny Ramirez and his 20 home runs out of town.

Alas, for the hysterical master narrative, the catastrophic series against the Angels was every bit a team effort. Ramirez took the slow road to first base in a game in which the opposing pitcher, the Angels’ John Lackey, whom Boston had usually treated as though someone had rung the dinner bell, carried a no-hitter into the ninth inning. In the final game, a grisly 9-2 loss, Beckett was an empty suit. He had nothing on the mound and compounded that by failing to back up home plate at a critical moment. Boston committed four errors, none of them by Manny Ramirez, and generally looked as dead-assed as the Romney campaign. Apparently, this was The Last Straw after which the veterans came to Epstein and delivered themselves of a burden that had grown intolerable. For this, it should be noted, they have been roundly cheered by a local media that generally hate the notion—but not the cliché, god knows—of “the inmates running the asylum” and which spent the past two weeks concocting a Manny-centric alibi for the most underachieving good team in baseball. The inmates are indeed running the asylum here, and they’ve run out one of the most entertaining inmates of all, and now they have no excuses left. I still wouldn’t be Jason Bay for all the money Manny Ramirez ever made.