I’ve had the privilege of attending three major homecomings at Fenway Park. The first was Pedro Martinez’s, in 2006 as a member of the Mets; he was enthusiastically welcomed, but his start that game foreshadowed the injury woes that have plagued him through the latter part of his career. The second was Nomar Garciaparra, just last season as a member of the A’s; that appearance was a harbinger of the reconciliation that was to come during the 2009-2010 offseason. Then, Friday, I was in attendance at Manny Ramirez’s return, his first since the 2008 trade that finally ended the ongoing soap opera that was his Boston career. The reception he received at Fenway was mixed, and a perfect metaphor for his Boston career, which featured tremendous highs alongside controversy, character assassination, and the bitterest of Boston goodbyes.
This will be my third ‘numbers’ article, focusing on long-time former Sox players – from Pedro to Nomar and now to Manny. This, in many ways, is the hardest to write, as Manny is the hardest of those players to encapsulate. I would argue that alongside Pedro and Nomar, no single player is more responsible for the current popularity and success of the Red Sox as Manny Ramirez, and yet very few former players are as reviled and hated. A stunning talent, Manny was just as often a frustrating presence, never quite allowing the kind of iconic treatment other Sox players have received. His relationship with his teammates, the media, and the town itself was often contentious, and his dedication and loyalty were often questionable, but his production was always astounding. His career in Boston highlights a division among fans — would we rather see a successful but unlikeable player, or a mediocre but loyal one? How much do things like morality, kindness, and selflessness matter in modern sports, and to what degree are we viewing Manny’s career through those lenses?
When he arrived in Boston, Manny was already controversial. The signer of what was, at the time, baseball’s all-time largest contract (it still ranks seventh all time in terms of total outlay), Manny came to Boston as the center of attention in a town already owned by Pedro and Nomar. Manny was the new kid on the block, but he was also an inscrutable superstar — Cleveland fans and media had spent years trying to parse him and analyze him, and in many cases they happily passed that task along. Manny’s early tenure didn’t help either: though his 2001 season began strong, he would eventually bench himself and, sullenly, complain about the leadership of then-manager Joe Kerrigan. Other players echoed his sentiments, but Manny had already set a precedent and created an identity: he was the new diva, and the voracious Boston media could not get enough.
As per usual, the stories didn’t focus on his production, which was as good as you’ll ever see. Manny Ramirez will go down in history as among the ten greatest right-handed hitters of all time: a career 1.000 OPS with 554 HR, 12 All Star nods, over 1800 career RBI, and over 2,500 career hits. He holds a career WAR of nearly 67, and a career RC (Runs Created) of nearly 2000, the highest of any active player and 21st all-time. Among RHH, he ranks 8th all time in Runs Created, behind only a list of Hall of Famers (including Hank Aaron, Wille Mays, Jimmie Foxx, and Frank Thomas). Yet despite all of that accomplishment, the focus with Manny is always on his perceived flaws; his accomplishments seem almost predictable or savant-like, leaving us free to fixate on his personal shortcomings.
They started early, with stories from Cleveland of his space-cadet like qualities. That first season in Boston, he withdrew from the media quickly, likely beginning his long adversarial relationship with the knights of the keyboard; as usual, Manny was his own worst enemy when it came to reporters. He sat for dubious injuries, he was petulant and capricious. I’m a high school teacher, and in many ways he reminded me of my students — naively convinced that their excuses could get them anywhere. And like the smartest students, Manny’s talent often allowed that to happen.
Between 2003 and 2008, the Mannygate sagas dropped in on the sports pages on an annual basis. He was nearly traded over the winter of 2003-2004, after being put on unconditional waivers by the team (an astoundingly brazen move by then rookie GM Theo Epstein). In 2005, rumors swirled that he was as good as gone after a public feud with owner Larry Lucchino and the world’s most famous bathroom trip. In 2006, many believed that he exaggerated a knee injury toward the end of a sinking season. 2008 saw an inexcusable incident with clubhouse attendant Jack McCormack. Grandmothers died, hamstrings hurt, and home runs flew: this was the contradiction of Manny Ramirez, who caused such tempests, and yet seemed the least affected of anyone by them.
My favorite Manny controversy came during the 2007 ALCS against Cleveland, when the media seized upon comments by Manny regarding his approach to the rest of the season.”Pressure? What pressure? We’re confident every day.” said Manny, as the team sat a game from elimination. “It doesn’t matter how things go for you. We’re not going to give up. We’re just going to go and play the game, like I’ve said, and move on. If it doesn’t happen, so who cares? There’s always next year. It’s not like the end of the world or something. Why should we panic?”
If it doesn’t happen, so who cares? That thought can be contrasted with Manny’s hitting line from that series — .409/.463/.727. Two home runs, ten runs batted in. 16 total bases in 22 at bats. This is someone who doesn’t care? Again, it was what he said, not what he did, that made headlines. In the end, though, it was that ability — to ignore even the insanity that he himself created — that made Manny the perfect Boston player. We eat our stars alive in Boston, but Manny… Manny may have come closest to eating us back. For ten seasons, he was the backbone of both the Red Sox offense and the Red Sox rumor mill. More on-air hours were chewed up by passionately haughty denunciations than were spent discussing his actual performance. But in the end, he got what he wanted — a ticket out, to a team that still saw him as eccentric, in a town practically built on eccentricity. Manny brushed us off his shoulders, like he brushed everything off his shoulders. Was he right? Not in the slightest. Was he great? There’s no question. It’s that contradiction that makes it so hard to know how to react to his visit. I cheered, others booed, and yet we all fundamentally agree on the above. Manny managed to confuse us right to the end.
My last memory comes also from the 2007 postseason. I was sitting in section 12 when Manny Ramirez took a fastball from Francisco Rodriguez and made it disappear into the October night over Landsdowne Street. Manny reacted as Manny would react — he threw his hands in the air and stood, watching his home run fade to black. The crowd reacted as it would react — pandemonium. And the media reacted as it would react — condemnation of his showboating, his arrogance, his disrespect. All of these things were part of the Manny Ramirez Experience. I’m glad I got to go along for the ride, and in a way I’m glad the ride isn’t finished yet. Manny is one of baseball’s purest ‘characters’, and for better or worse, he always makes the game fun. And in the end, isn’t that what it’s supposed to be?