In case you’ve missed it because you’re too caught up in the Celtics championship run or because the incessant drone of vuvuzela noise has knocked all other thoughts out of your head, the Dodgers are coming to Boston this weekend. Now ordinarily, this would be just another stop on Bud Selig’s “The Novelty Wore Off This Interleague Gimmick a Long Time Ago” Tour. But this series is going to be different. Dare I even use the word “special”? Because this one marks the return of Manny Ramirez.
(Before I go any further, let me offer up a trivia question that no one has ever successfully answered without looking it up, not even Red Sox lifer Mikey Adams when I asked him on his show. But the question illustrates a point. Who was the Sox cleanup hitter the year before Manny came to the Sox? Answer below.)
As different members of the legendary 2004 Cursebusters Red Sox team have come back to Fenway, one thing that always strikes me is how consistently wrong the Boston media is about the fan reaction to these guys. Nothing points out the BP oil spill-sized gap between the local press and their target audience like one of these ’04 Sox appearing at Fenway.
Every time one of the major players from the championship teams comes back, I’ve heard the pundits debate how they’d be received. The consensus on WEEI and on the sports pages was that, at best, Pedro Martinez would get a “mixed reaction.” Same with Nomar Garciaparra. The professional media in this town all seemed to think there was some lingering resentment toward these guys.
But I — and every fan I know — was looking forward to greeting those guys like they were beloved relatives showing up to the family reunion. Nothing but man hugs, handing them a burger and a beer and talking about old times. Even Derek Lowe, whom I thought was a wildly inconsistent underachiever, deserved a hero’s welcome. With any past issues forgiven, hatchets long since buried, and all bygones definitely bye and gone.
And I was right. Every returning former champion Sox player has gotten the kind of reception that Lindbergh got. Or the Apollo astronauts. Or Justin Bieber could expect at an all-girls middle school. Because one thing the press doesn’t always seem to get is that we have a different agenda from them. We don’t care about guys blowing off interviews or red lines drawn in the clubhouse carpet. All we want is players to work hard, perform and deliver. Do so and you’ll never be able to pay for your drinks in this town again. It’s that simple.
Which brings me to Manny, whose time in Boston was anything but simple. In fact, if you were making a chick flick about the dysfunctional love triangle that existed between Manny, the Sox and the fans, the only title that would fit is “It’s Complicated.”
Because while Manny had his detractors ... in the press box, on the airwaves and in the stands ... no one in the history of sports ever came exactly as advertised the way he did. From the day Dan Duquette practically stalked Ramirez into submission to make him come to Boston, we knew exactly what we were getting. You can say his time in Boston was exciting, frustrating, exhilarating, maddening and tumultuous, but you can’t say that it surprised you.
Everything Manny did in Boston we saw coming, because he did them all in Cleveland. We knew he’d hit as well as anyone in the game. We knew he’d drive in a dump truck full of runs every year. We also knew he’d refuse to run out grounders. That he’d goof off at times. And that he wouldn’t so much “play” left field as he’d sort of wander it aimlessly for eight years, like Jeffy from “Family Circus” running around the neighborhood leaving that dotted line behind him. And he did all those things.
And we also knew that he would pull a ridiculous nutty at least once a season where he’d fake an injury, refuse to go into games and cause a gigantic Category 5 excrement storm. Manny’s mental breakdown every year was so reliable, scientists could use it to calibrate the atomic clock.
So like I said, his episodes ... when Happy-Go-Lucky Manchild Manny would suddenly transform into Smoke Monster Manny ... weren’t a surprise. Signing Manny Ramirez long term was like marrying Lindsay Lohan. She’ll be lots of fun most of the time, but don’t act all shocked when you wake up to find out she set fire to the sofa in the middle of the night and now she’s passed out with her head in the toilet. With both of them, the craziness is part of the package.
And I think that’s why fans always forgave Manny’s nuttiness in a way the media never did. Not because we were under any delusions that he was a great human being. On the contrary, Manny always struck me as a bizarre, immature, selfish misanthrope. Fun to be around at times, but mostly just plain loco. I always thought Pedro summed him up better than any clinical psychologist ever could when he said, “Manny is weird, man.” Let’s face it, when a guy with a guaranteed $160 million dollar contract sells a used gas grill on eBay, it doesn’t exactly scream “mental health.”
But mostly, we forgave him because he produced. The thing about those contentious fights he’d have with the team where he’d threaten to walk out on the relationship was that the makeup sex was always incredible. Every time he’d come back from his annual nervous breakdown and put on a laser show at the plate. But then again, he hit under every circumstance. Look at the numbers. His worst year in a Red Sox uniform was probably 2003, when all he did was hit .325 with 37 HRs and 104 RBIs. Oh, and he led the league in OBP. That’s a season 99 percent of Major Leaguers could only dream of. But for Ramirez it was an off year. And that kind of production was exactly the reason he was brought here and he delivered. Always.
In fact, I’ll also go one step further and make the following statement without fear of contradiction: Manny Ramirez was the most successful free agent signing ever. Think about it. Name any free agent signee who played out an eight-year contract and was as solidly productive as he was in Boston. It’s never happened in any sport.
(Quiz Answer: Troy O’Leary. Who by all accounts was a peach of a guy and someone you’d love to have as a next-door neighbor. But he was good for about 90 RBIs a year, which Manny gave you by August 1st every year. THAT’S why we embraced Manny the way we did.)
Then again, during those eight years Ramirez also set the official Sox team record for Most “ WTF?” Moments that will never be broken, which is why they couldn’t even give him away, try as they might. On at least three different occasions they left him at the end of the driveway with a “Free Mercurial Slugger” sign taped to him, but got no takers. Probably because no other team felt like they could fit Manny and his considerable baggage into the back of a pickup.
But those of us in the stands welcomed him back every time. And if things with Manny had ended better, we’d welcome him back with open arms this weekend like we’ve done with his ex-teammates. But things ended anything but well. It was a horrible, contentious, nasty breakup and he walked out on us when we needed him most. And for that we can’t forgive him. Not yet anyway.
Of course, my Sweet Irish Rose and I have the perfect marriage, so I have no idea what a messy divorce is like. But I imagine it feels a lot like this. I wish I could look past the ugly way things ended, forget the spiteful things that were said back and forth, and just focus on the good times we had together, but I can’t. And I think most Sox fans feel the same way.
I’m guessing the reaction at Fenway will be pretty much what it would be if your ex-wife showed up at you house with the dirtbag she dumped you for. You’d take the low road, wish the worst for both of them and hope they give each other some horrible disease and split up. When he tested positive for PEDs, there wasn’t a fan among us that wasn’t happy it happened on the Dodgers’ watch. Serves ’em right. Maybe someday, years from now, we’ll be able to move on, get together with Manny peacefully and reminisce about the our days of rings, champagne and Duckboats. But right now is too soon. Now, with the possible exception of a few Pinkhatters in the crowd, we’ll just boo our lungs out.
Because like everything else about Manny’s career in Boston, our feelings about this reunion are complicated.