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For The Love Of Manny

Manny Ramirez
Manny Ramirez

Manny Ramirez had no reason to change his public persona; after three productive years in Boston, he had proven well enough that, despite a hefty salary, he was a presence in Boston. Between Aaron Boone’s home run to end Game 7 of last year’s American League Championship series and the first day of spring training, Ramirez found his name in the news more than once. The subject of trade talks, until Alex Rodriguez ended up in Yankee pinstripes, you would have had every reason to believe that he would carry a huge chip through the season.

For those of you who hibernated from late October until late February, Boston placed Ramirez on waivers early in November in the hope of unloading his remaining $100 million salary on George Steinbrenner, who had watched his team lose its second World Series in three years. After that failed, Ramirez was all but on the plane to Texas as the Red Sox and Texas Rangers agreed to a trade that would bring Rodriguez to Boston. Instead, the player’s union intervened and, upon further review, nixed the deal because they felt that Boston was trying to cut too much of Rodriguez’s record $252 million contract.

So, after two failed attempts to send his lifetime .317 average and 337 home runs to another town, wouldn’t you expect a 12-year veteran player known for his bat and his silence to show even less emotion on and off the field? Instead, this season we are seeing something new: a suddenly affable Manny Ramirez. Is this the same player who rarely had anything to say to the media suddenly becoming the go-to guy, giving direct quotes for the media hounds to scribble on their notepads? Is this the same Ramirez that suddenly has time to give off-field interviews? Do our eyes deceive us, but is that Ramirez sitting in the dugout during the game, making comedic gestures at the camera, looking relaxed, and smiling?

Ramirez has even had a web site developed in his name, where he goes so far as to answer people’s direct questions. It’s not that he was never friendly with the fans. I recall a co-worker telling me that Ramirez, while waiting for batting practice at spring training, turned around every time a kid called out his name for a picture and held a pose and smile until he or she got the shot. He is also more than willing to spend a few extra minutes signing autographs and does considerable charity work, most of which we never read about in the paper.

What has suddenly turned a man who once shunned reporters for more than a year after being questioned about his hustle into a media darling? Does he suddenly realize how great it is to play in front of Boston fans that, through most everything, have stayed loyal to him? Have David Ortiz and Kevin Millar, who never fail to keep the team loose with the ups and the downs, cracked his shell? Did three ghosts visit him on Christmas Eve?

Though the jury is still out on how the 2004 season will end for the Red Sox, never has there been such camaraderie in a Boston baseball clubhouse. Red Sox Nation is engrossed in the everyday events of this team, 365 days a year, and it has never been more evident than the fact that, through Sunday, the team had enjoyed 103 straight sellouts at Fenway Park. Search up and down the lineup, and it’s hard to find a player that the fans don’t love.

Manny is no exception to this observation, and maybe more so now that he has become less of a mystery to the fans who chant his name when he comes to bat and erupt in celebration of a home run over the Green Monster. They’re even tipping their hats when he makes a great play like the great diving catch he made last Friday against Philadelphia with his good buddy Pedro Martinez on the mound. “Citizen Manny” (apropos after becoming an official US citizen in May) seems to have finally joined the ranks of Red Sox Nation, and no one seems happier than he.

Here Comes The Spider-Man

Major League Baseball changed its mind very quickly when, after announcing plans to put ads for the upcoming summer movie, Spider-Man 2, on every base in major league parks during a weekend in June, howls of rage from baseball purists helped decide that this was a bad public relations move. The same fans also got their knickers in a twist when ads showed up on the uniforms of players during a season-opening series in Japan between the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and the New York Yankees. The victory for these fans, however, may only be short-lived.

Go to any major league ballpark today and you can’t avoid seeing ads everywhere for newspapers, major retailers, cell phone services, and soft drink companies. A blank wall space is nothing more than a potential spot to make a few extra dollars for a club that goes towards the cost of running a major league team, of which a good percentage counts towards player salaries. I can even stand at a stall in the bathroom and read an advertisement for exotic automobiles available at a local dealer. Don’t forget, too, that almost every ballpark now bears a brand name: Tropicana Field, Comerica Park, and Network Associates Coliseum, to name a few.

So where does the line in the sand get drawn between the genuine nature of the game and the chance to squeeze as much revenue out of the fans of baseball? Is it wrong for the playing field to have an ad for Home Depot carved into the outfield grass by the grounds crew? Should baseball players double as walking billboards for Coca-Cola? Have we entangled ourselves in this web of advertising that we have accepted the inevitable, on which Major League Baseball is counting??

In other sports, advertisements have become commonplace in areas that baseball fears to tread. At professional hockey games, you find large ads painted under the ice and possibly even a product name glued to the side of player’s helmets. Uniforms sported by European soccer teams have ads for adidas, Sony, petrol companies, and many other businesses. NASCAR is the best example of product placement gone mad; ads are plastered on every square inch of the cars, painted on the infield grass, and sewn to the jumper suits worn by the drivers. Regardless, the popularity of NASCAR grows every year. Would baseball be able to adopt some of these practices in a manner that does not detract from the game?

Those who favor the tradition and integrity of the game of baseball will eventually lose this battle because Major League Baseball, through no fault of its own, puts the bottom line above all else. At the end of the day, no matter which team ends up on top and who finishes last, the question will be: how much profit did we generate this season? What we, as fans of the game, can hope for is that the game itself does not change. A grand slam by Manny Ramirez scores the same number of runs whether or not an ad for Claritin prominently adorns his pant leg. A diving catch by Johnny Damon in the outfield is recorded as an out whether or not he slides across the Golden Arches painted on the grass.

Still, I want the field and the uniforms to remain untouched. I love the beauty of the green grass in the outfield, the red dirt in the infield, and the white glow from the bases and the foul lines under the sodium lights. I also love the white home uniforms of the Red Sox, with BOSTON boldly printed on the front and the players’ numbers printed square on the back. It would be a shame to have to deface the iconic images of America’s pastime in the name of revenue.

2004 Season Preview

Now that another wild and crazy off-season is finally coming to an end, it’s time to dust off the binoculars and look over the field of players that will be putting on a uniform for the Boston nine this season. For you holdovers from last season, you won’t see many differences; the only significant loss being 2B Todd Walker, who left as a free agent and signed with the Chicago Cubs. Where the Sox have improved the most is with the pitching staff, having added starting pitcher Curt Schilling and closer Keith Foulke to give the Red Sox a solid staff on the mound. On paper, you have to like what you see, but this column would be relatively uninteresting if we didn’t take a closer look, let’s answer some self-imposed questions first.

1. Who will be the number one starter, Schilling or Pedro Martinez?

The truth is that there is no “number one” on this team, but Pedro will have the honor of opening the season against Baltimore on 04 April. While a definite rotation has not been set to my knowledge, there is a good chance that Schilling and Martinez will NOT pitch in back-to-back games this season. More likely, we will watch Tim Wakefield‘s knuckleball flutter between their starts. So does that make Schilling a number three starter? The good news for Red Sox nation is that Boston has one of its strongest rotations in years; when you toss in Derek Lowe, you have four proven starters that between them could easily collect 70 wins.

2. Will Bill Mueller have another career year?

It’s unlikely that Mueller and the rest of his team will repeat the offensive output that they had last season, when they out-slugged the 1927 New York Yankees and were first in runs scored in the majors. Still, it’s very likely that he can hit .300 again and continue to use the Wall to his advantage. He’s probably also good for another 10 to 15 home runs. Most importantly, he has proven himself at third base, one of the trickiest positions in baseball to play.

3. Is manager Terry Francona on the hot seat already?

Given the fact that there are several big contracts that expire at the end of this season, the pressure is on for the Red Sox to go all the way, if you ignore the fact that history and the other 29 teams are not on their side. Francona was not the first choice that the Red Sox had but, if consider that Grady Little, who had no major league coaching experience when he was named manager two years ago, won nearly 200 games in two years, you just need to have enough knowledge and personnel skills to repeat that success. As long as he is smart enough to pull a pitcher who is obviously fatigued late in a Game Seven, then he should do fine.

4. Who will see more time at first, David Ortiz or Kevin Millar?

Ortiz would like to spend more time covering the bag, but he will come second to Millar. However, when Ellis Burks is used as the DH, Ortiz will win over Millar on this battle. Ortiz just has better numbers at the plate and the Sox will not want to keep his bat out of the lineup too often.

5. What free-agent signing will have the highest impact?

Although Curt Schilling’s presence in the lineup will make the starting rotation an opponent’s nightmare, having Keith Foulke come in to shore up the closer role will mean the most to this club. Since Derek Lowe’s 2000 season in that role, the Sox have been very weak in this respect. Lowe faltered the following year, Ugueth Urbina was anything but solid in 2002, and the closer-by-committee experiment last season was, while a sound idea in theory, a complete failure in practice. Foulke collected 43 saves in his one year in Oakland and that means that the rest of the bullpen can be used better to set him up to close the door.

6. What bench player will have the highest impact?

My money is on Gabe Kapler, who enjoyed a solid spring and will actually start the season in right field as a replacement for the injured Trot Nixon. Once Nixon returns in May, Kapler will likely take a seat on the bench but will called out for service if Manny Ramirez is thrown into the DH role or is given a seat by Francona to rest for a day. He also makes a nice pinch hitter should the opponent throw out a left-handed reliever, having hit .326 last season against southpaws.

7. Will the Red Sox be able to hold off the Yankees and win the AL East?

As strong as the Red Sox have become with several key additions, you cannot ignore the Yankees, who have also made key additions for another chance at a World Series title. They certainly have a stronger lineup with the addition of Alex Rodriguez and Gary Sheffield. The only real question for the Yankees will be if Kevin Brown can have an injury-free season and if newcomer Javier Vazquez, recently of the Montreal Expos, will prove unflappable under the lights of Yankee fans and the front office. As Sox fans have seen for the last six years, you can never underestimate New York; every year, they remain tough. It helps when your owner is willing to shell out nearly $200 million to pay for the collective salary of this team.

8. Overall, is Boston good enough to… you know?

Anybody who has followed the Red Sox as long as I have knows enough NOT to start opening the champagne bottles prematurely. However, with all that happened during the off-season, good and bad, Boston has made significant strides to improve on a team that came very close to tasting a championship in 2003. It will be critical for Boston to play to this potential if they are to stay ahead of the Yankees. With the addition of Schilling, the starting rotation looks strong and, with the addition of Foulke, so does the bullpen. Although it will tough to match last season’s offensive output, there are plenty of bats available to score runs when needed and, defensively, the Red Sox are better than average at most positions and should keep the untimely errors to a minimum. In conclusion, the 2004 edition of the Boston nine is good enough, but let’s not say any more than that.

Moneyball, Part 1

(Note: This article was published by the author on another Red Sox web site prior to the establishment of this site.)

Who could have imagined the collective surprise of New York Yankee fans and the horror of Red Sox Nation when we picked up our Sunday papers and read that Alex Rodriguez, recently named captain of the Texas Rangers, would accept a trade to the Yankees in exchange for Alfonso Soriano (my personal Yankee favorite) and a player to be named later. Only two months before, it seemed certain that Rodriguez was coming to the Red Sox in exchange for Manny Ramirez to help bolster Boston’s chances of winning a World Series title for the first time in 86 seasons. Suddenly, the Sox brass are left to wonder if it was worth squabbling over a $4 million gap in exchange for his services. Even worse, Sox fans now wonder if this will rival the sale of Babe Ruth to the Yankees in 1920.

While the fallout of this trade is yet to be determined, I am again saddened to think that this is yet another example of why Major League Baseball is heading down a slippery slope from which it may never recover. The Yankees’ payroll now top the majors at $190 million and the Red Sox sit in second place, a mere $65 million short of that mark. Unfortunately, official numbers are not at my disposal, but after you get past the top five, I’m willing to guess that payrolls for the rest of the teams are less than half of the Yankees’ and, past the top ten, less than half of the Red Sox’s.

Believe me, I want to see the Red Sox win a World Series title at least once before I die. 2004 may be the best chance since… well, last season… for them to do this, and, since the disappointing end to the 2003 season, the Sox have brought in players like Curt Schilling and Keith Foulke to help bolster the pitching staff, the one chink in the armor from last season. The Yankees, of course, want to win another title even more, and this trade demonstrates that Yankees owner George Steinbrenner is less than satisfied with losing two of the last three World Series and will stop at nothing to stockpile his team with perennial All-Stars.

But, to paraphrase some of the Democratic candidates in this year’s election, there are the rich teams and then there are the other teams. While the Yankees, the Red Sox, and a handful of other teams continue to compete, the lesser teams fall by the wayside, having found themselves out of contention before the season begins. A team like Kansas City or Milwaukee may start the season on a hot streak, jumping ahead of the pack after a month or two, but by the time the All-Star game rolls around, these teams have been brought back down to earth and find themselves struggling to stay above .500 the rest of the way.

Just by ranking the payrolls of each team, it’s easy to see who are the haves and who are the have-nots. Teams with promising talent cannot retain them after initial contracts expire, so these players are snatched away by the big boys just to warm the bench, ready to step in when called. Other teams who find themselves with poor revenue and faced with offers of cash or other promising talent, unload what current stars they have at the trade deadline, hoping for some positive long term results that eventually fizzle.

It’s easy when you root for a big-market team like the Red Sox to underappreciate what you have. When a team can easily win 90 games or more per season, you overlook that fact and focus on the failures of the postseason. But, for what do the fans of these other teams cheer? Three-game winning streaks? All-Star selections not made to meet the quota of one-representative-per-team? Greg Vaughn bobblehead doll day? From the looks of half-empty stadiums all around baseball, it’s hard to see a reason to root, root, root for the home team.

From this, it’s easy to see why the National Football League, where parity is the flavor of the day, is swimming in the success of its popularity. True, on a cold Sunday afternoon in November, you’re more likely to be watching TV than holding a backyard barbecue or taking your boat out on the lake like you would on a summer afternoon. But, the balance in the NFL means that while your team may not make the playoffs one season, there is a good chance you will see them there next season. Thanks to a salary cap, it isn’t team spending that determines the top teams, it’s the ability to assess talent, like the New England Patriots have done, that helps to build champions.

If MLB wants to become America’s pasttime once more, I believe that it needs to do two things. To be fair, I’ve listed the most important change each side, players and owners, need to make.

1. Accept a payroll-equity solution

A luxury tax for teams over $150 million? Please! The only team that was forced to pay it after last season was… yes, the New York Yankees, and they don’t care because they have enough revenue to offset the cost. A salary cap that is within easy reach of all teams would force owners and management to start reassessing talent again and stop the big-market teams from tipping the scales. Not that a team could not afford more than a few superstars, but it’s hard to put together a quality team around these All-Stars with a weak supporting cast. The players union would, of course, be unhappy about this, but I scratch my head every time I see a second or third-tier player making $8 million or more per season; that makes no sense.

2. Hire a competent commissioner

Since Fay Vincent was forced out of office, the owners have ruined this game, no thanks in part to Bud Selig who, if not the most hated man in the baseball world, is in contention for that title. Whereas in the past, the commissioner has vetoed trades that were not felt to be in the best interest of baseball (Vida Blue, Red Sox fans?), Selig has allowed the owners to swap players with carefree glee, helping to escalate salaries and create the imbalance. Owners may be crying poverty, but when given control of the game, they were unable to agree on the best course and now they are in danger of running it aground. A stronger, independent-minded presence in this office is needed once again, as it was with Bowie Kuhn, Ford Frick, and Kenesaw Landis, to help steer baseball back on course.

The Pedro Principle

Pedro Martinez
Pedro Martinez

(Note: This article was published by the author on another Red Sox web site prior to the establishment of this site.)

While most of Red Sox Nation spent December focused on the negotiations between Texas and Boston for a proposed trade of Alex Rodriguez for Manny Ramirez, respectively, a Red Sox veteran sat on the sidelines wondering what his future held. It seemed like only yesterday that his wish to finish his career as a Red Sox player was certain, but now that appears only to be a distant memory.

No, I’m not talking about Nomar Garciaparra, a central figure during these talks, who would have spent his recent honeymoon with Mia Hamm shopping for as new home on the Left Coast. Instead, I refer you to Exhibit B, one Pedro Jaime Martinez, age 32, with 12 years of big-league experience and winner of 101 games in six years with the Red Sox. Year number seven comes as a result of Boston picking up a team option on him last spring, a few days after the regular season began.

2004 may be the make-or-break year for the Red Sox. Several star Boston players are under contract through the end of this season and then they become free agents. These are names that have become synonymous with the winning ways of the Sox: Martinez, Garciaparra, Derek Lowe, and Jason Varitek, to name a few. One or more of these players will either have to accept the “hometown discount” to keep this core intact or, in a more likely scenario, find a new home in 2005.

It’s quite possible that, before the season begins, Garciaparra will be gone if trade talks between the Rangers and the Red Sox are resurrected and an agreement is reached; that would settle one issue. However, at what point will the Sox begin to address a contract extension with Pedro… or will his chapter in Red Sox history be completed? For all he’s done for this team, and even with the knowledge that he helps draw the crowds to Fenway Park, will the front office let him walk? Thanks for everything – good luck in the next life?

Yes, the question of his health remains the primary focus. Pedro spent most of the 2001 season nursing a sore right shoulder and has missed more than a few starts thanks to occasional discomfort or concern from the team doctor. What price tag do you put on a guy who, with all his success, may someday throw one pitch and that’s it?

However, in late November, we watched as the Sox brass did backflips to land 37-year-old former Red Sox prospect Curt Schilling here in Boston for the remainder of his career. You cannot ignore the fact that he spent part of 2003 on the disabled list. However, the Red Sox saw a chance to bring aboard another potential 20-game winner to work beside Martinez and Lowe. Schilling was also assured that the Sox will continue to field a championship-caliber team well after this season ends.

It would be hard to believe that Pedro did not watch the events of this trade and wonder if Larry Lucchino and Theo Epstein would sit down across the dinner table from him and offer a similar package in the near future. For what he has meant for this organization, does he not deserve this?