No debate: Manny is one of a kind

BOSTON -- Manny Ramirez's place in Red Sox history? You might as well debate whether Twinkies are good, or Ronald Reagan was a great president.

There are, and will be, passionate arguments on both sides. In nearly eight seasons in a Red Sox uniform, Ramirez inspired, provoked, awed, maddened, amused, irked, entertained, flummoxed, angered, disappointed, delighted and ultimately saddened the only generation of Sox fans in nearly a century that can claim to have witnessed not one World Series title, but two.

Ramirez was an indispensable part of both of those titles: World Series MVP in 2004, a force of nature propelling the Sox on the road to a Series sweep in 2007 (two home runs in the division series, including his first walk-off in a Sox uniform, two more home runs and 10 RBIs against his first team, the Indians, in the ALCS).

"He was laughter," Sox owner John W. Henry said earlier this week, "and RBIs."

Henry addressed only a slice of Ramirez's legacy in those words, though it was a huge one. What went unmentioned was a rancorous relationship with management, one in which Manny frequently asked to be traded and the Sox often looked to find a match. The times when his incomparable ability was compromised by indifference, petulance or rebellion. When his seemingly childlike aura was exposed as something darker, in those moments when he referred to his bosses as "white devils," shoved the team's traveling secretary to the floor, or later, in L.A., was found to have used a female fertility drug often taken to mask steroids.

Former teammate David Ortiz expressed enduring affection for Manny. Jonathan Papelbon called him a "cancer" in a magazine. Even Jason Varitek, who considers what happens inside a clubhouse inviolable, said publicly there needed to be closure.

"Either Manny's here or he's not," Varitek said at the time of the trade. "It became more of an issue of whether or not he was going to be here. And he was pretty adamant he didn't want to be here."

Friday night, for the first time since his trade nearly two years ago, after he said he'd grown tired of Boston and Boston had grown tired of him, Ramirez returns, this time wearing Dodger blue. He is expected to serve as the Dodgers' designated hitter in all three games of the weekend series against the Red Sox, making it extremely unlikely he'll be able to duplicate one of his signature moments, ducking into the Green Monster to relieve himself.

But there is an expectation that Manny will do something memorable while he is here, for a very basic reason.

He always has.

Manny's place in Red Sox history? The fans in attendance at Fenway Park will offer an instant referendum on that question by the reception they give him when he emerges from the visitors' dugout.

In the meantime, we solicited the opinions of a few voices to render their own verdicts on Manny, including a father-son blogging team comprised of a Hall of Fame baseball reporter, Ross Newhan, and his ex-big leaguer son, David.

Ross covered baseball for the Los Angeles Times for nearly a half-century and now collaborates on a blog, "Newhan on Baseball," with his son, who played for five big league teams over the course of eight seasons.

"I can't imagine Manny will be received with anything less than the most negative reaction," Ross Newhan said.

"For all of his accomplishments in Boston, which were considerable, he basically, ultimately, quit on the team, quit on management, forced them to trade him. I mean, the guy had a Hall of Fame legacy -- or did, anyway -- and he spit on it and the team and the fans there.

"I have no sympathy for any reaction Manny gets. Is there such a thing as a Bronx cheer in New England?"

David Newhan, meanwhile, has a part in one of the most famous of Ramirez's highlight clips: It was Newhan, then playing for the Baltimore Orioles, who in 2004 hit the gapper off Pedro Martinez that Johnny Damon heaved toward the infield, only to have a diving Ramirez cut off the throw. Newhan wound up with an inside-the-park home run.

"At a certain point," he said, "you understand there are double standards in the game.

"Obviously there are. This is a guy who can do whatever he wants, in the outfield or anywhere else, but when it's second and third and two outs in the ninth, who else do you want up there? As long as he's doing that, he's doing his job."

Ramirez was a "generational" hitter, Newhan said.

"I bet they give him a standing O," he said. "I bet they're good to him. For some reason, people love him, you know? One of the oddities in life, you get busted for doing steroids, you show up for a game in Albuquerque, and people cheer for you. Go figure. People love him."

Seth Mnookin is the Harvard grad, author and magazine writer who gained unprecedented access to the Red Sox's clubhouse and offices while researching his book, "Feeding the Monster: How Money, Smarts and Nerve Took a Team to the Top."

"I had wanted to come up to Boston for the weekend," wrote Mnookin, who is facing another book deadline and can not come for the series, "because to me one of the fascinating things about this ownership group is how they've managed to publicly embrace former players who left under, shall we say, less than ideal circumstances.

"The prototypical example is, of course, Pedro [Martinez] -- and I actually found his return to Fenway with the Mets to be pretty stirring. JWH [Henry], et al, even found a way to make nice with Nomar [Garciaparra], which to me seemed like a trickier proposition because (A) he was traded away and (B) he's a prickly [expletive].

"Manny is, of course, utterly unique in this (and every other) regard. Pedro's return was a theatrical success because Pedro is nothing if not a showman (as his s-l-o-w walk in from the dugout that night showed) and because he loves being adored as much as Sox fans love adoring him. Manny, on the other hand, is about as easy to predict as a drunk teenager on acid. He was a singular distraction to the off-field personnel, and by the end of his always, um, interesting tenure, he'd become a pain in the ass to his teammates as well. And it's certainly hard to imagine him sitting down with [the Sox] to plan a warm and fuzzy acknowledgment of his time in Boston.

"A prediction I will make: He'll receive a boisterous standing O from the crowd. In that regard, at least, I've always thought the reputation Boston fans have for being hard-nosed is a load of crap."

Doug Glanville is another former big leaguer, who played for Terry Francona in Philadelphia, wrote columns for the New York Times, and is now an analyst on ESPN's "Baseball Tonight" and author of a new book, "The Game From Where I Stand."

Glanville first encountered Ramirez in 1992, when both were playing in the Class A Carolina League -- Ramirez for Kinston, Glanville for Winston-Salem.

"He was already regarded as a phenomenal hitter," Glanville said of Ramirez, who had just turned 20. "He was a presence from Day 1. He hit a ball to right-center that I thought I could cut off. It hit halfway up the light tower.

"Across baseball," Glanville said, "I think he was always regarded as a phenomenal hitter, one of the best right-handed hitters who ever played. You respected the caliber of the player. Some of the eccentricities, you can't figure out.

"The phrase was always perfect: 'Manny being Manny."'

Glanville said that when he played for Francona, the manager exhibited great patience.

"He used to always say to us, 'Whatever else, I need you to play a certain way.' He'd do everything to reflect things away from his players. It had to have reached a heavy level for [his relationship with Ramirez] to be irretrievable. Irreconcilable differences have to be serious."

And yet, Glanville said, it is hard to ascribe a harsher tint to Ramirez's "eccentricities."

"There is kind of a naïve obliviousness to his approach," Glanville said, "that is more on the side of eccentricity than selfishness.

"He does have a switch, a very big switch, if he gets disenchanted with something. But he is capable of completely changing a season for a team. People have patience with that kind of dominance."

Glanville believes that last season's 50-game suspension, and the apparent link to steroids, taints Ramirez's legacy.

"But Manny has a special kind of shield over him," he said. "A naïve flavor that makes people think, 'OK, he didn't know what he was taking.' There's an innocence to him that gets him a lot of latitude, and treated very differently."

How will he be received Friday night in Boston?

"He's not going to get the hall pass he probably should get," Glanville said, "but I still think he'll get a lot of love. 'Manny being Manny' tells the whole story.

"And I bet he'll play well."

Gordon Edes is ESPNBoston.com's Red Sox reporter. He covered the Red Sox for 12 years and has reported on baseball for 25 years. Ask a question for his next mailbag here.