Manny Ramirez: next worn-out welcome
How long will it take him to alienate fans of the Rays? We have answers for Tampa Bay
It's hard to tell if this is another fine mess or another fine situation Manny Ramirez has gotten himself into as spring training arrives next week. The 38-year-old slugger has Hall of Fame-worthy statistics. Yet even by Manny-being-Manny standards, his recent behavior has been so wayward that he was without a team until just a few weeks ago, when superagent Scott Boras and Tampa Bay Rays GM Andrew Friedman agreed to make Ramirez and his former Red Sox teammate Johnny Damon an Idiots Redux package deal.
Even after coughing up a combined $7.25 million for Damon and Ramirez, the Rays have executed one of the greatest payroll slashings in recent times. They've gone from about $73 million in player payroll last season to a projected $43 million or so in 2011. Tampa Bay's ability to sign Ramirez to a one-year, $2 million contract (less than new teammate Kelly Shoppach) has been sold as a low-risk/high-upside deal that could allow the Rays to defend their AL East title after all -- except that, you know, he's still Manny, the same man who forced himself out of a good situation with the Red Sox and irritated his once-besotted fans and teammates in LA by begging off work so often that he was given the bum-rush out the door amid accusations he quit on the team, only to be claimed off waivers by the White Sox for the last month of the 2010 season.
Ramirez was hardly chastened when he arrived in Chicago. He insisted on conducting his first press conference in Spanish and using White Sox coach Joey Cora as his interpreter -- although Ramirez speaks English perfectly fine. Then he gave them exactly one home run for the reported $3.85 million the White Sox paid him for September.
So what should we expect in 2011? Will Ramirez rake, or is he through? Will he justify the current guardedly optimistic reaction that he can help the Rays, or will he go back to being Manny -- which is to say, his usual whackadoo self?
Baseball has any number of highly sophisticated statistical metrics to predict player performance. But you won't find our special invention for Manny -- the Arc of Disillusionment Predictor (ADP) -- anywhere but here. When we spin the dials to find out what to expect for him and the Rays this season, here's what we get:
Feb. 21: Manny reports with great fanfare to spring training and, in an inspired twist on his get-to-know-you press conference with the White Sox, announces that he will speak to reporters only in Farsi this time -- forgetting that he doesn't speak Farsi. Manny blames the low-budget Rays for calling the whole thing off, saying that in Boston or LA they would've hired a Farsi interpreter for him. It is an awkward start.
March 10: Manny is penciled in to play against the Red Sox, but calls off work with the recycled excuse that he has to tend to his ailing mother -- then is spotted making a paid appearance at a classic car show in Orlando, eating a corn dog and negotiating to buy a 1948 Packard. "How did you know?" a stunned Ramirez yelps. Angry Rays execs wave an Orlando Sentinel promotional ad touting his appearance in his face.
April 1: Opening Day -- the pageantry, the excitement! As a reward for Manny's torrid spring, Rays manager Joe Maddon, who used 129 different starting lineups last year, gives Ramirez the start in left field against the Orioles. During the seventh-inning stretch, Ramirez disappears behind the outfield wall for a bathroom break. Within seconds, there is a shriek -- then the sight of stadium workers frantically evacuating the live sea rays from the team mascot "touch tank" in right center field.
April 11: Tampa Bay's first trip to Boston. Can you say "Nostalgia Lane"? Damon evokes the good times by announcing he's growing his hair out again, and Manny revives memories of the time he tried to sell a BBQ grill on eBay by arriving just minutes before game time, then explaining he was clearing out a storage locker that he's kept in Framingham ever since he left the Red Sox. Curt Schilling, hearing that, calls into WEEI radio from his car and goes ballistic, ripping Manny for his 2008 dugout fight with Youk, the 50-game suspension Manny caught in 2009 for taking women's fertility drugs to mask his (alleged) performance-enhancing drug use, and Manny's failure to endorse John McCain's 2008 run for president. Schilling hangs up after making a hot-flash joke.
April 12: Manny asks, "Who is Curt Schilling?" and, "Did I ever play with him?"
April 13: People can't get enough nostalgia. Damon and Ramirez conduct a rollicking joint interview for MLB.com. When Ramirez is reminded of Damon's signing-day joke that the best thing about Manny being the Rays' DH is "he can't be the cutoff man" -- a sly reference to the infamous play on which Ramirez, playing left field for Boston, cut off a throw from Damon, who was in center -- Ramirez says, "Man, you never wanna tell a true competitor like me he can't do something. You're gonna see."
Sure enough, in the fifth inning, Ramirez is thrown out of the game for bolting out of the Rays' dugout to back up Damon's overthrow to third base and then firing the ball back to Damon in the outfield while screaming, "Hey Johnny! Best two out of three!"
April 29: Manny wakes up the echoes by hitting two home runs in three at-bats against the visiting Angels, then is unflappable when Los Angeles reporters want to revisit the final weeks of his run with the Dodgers in 2010. Ramirez is asked to justify how he begged out of the Dodgers' starting lineup, then seemed to purposely get himself thrown out of a game by arguing a called first-pitch strike when forced into pinch-hitting duty with the bases loaded that same night. Manny answers that his LA exit was his fault, but it just goes to show Joe Torre wasn't a player's manager. Damon, not for the first time, is asked to interpret what Manny means.
May 16: Maddon, reminded that he took Ramirez out to dinner to lay out the team's ground rules early in spring training, now admits if he'd known Manny better then, he would have realized that when his new DH "just continued to repeat the mantra that at 7 o'clock, he's going to play hard and compete," Ramirez was actually referring to the Rays' pregame card games, and not busting his hump once the team's actual games began. "What, he doesn't understand English?" Ramirez asks reporters. "Sheesh."
June 11: Manny, eying his 63rd start of the season, begs out of the lineup by cryptically referring everyone back to his first Rays press conference with Damon. Sure enough, the transcript shows that after Damon said the Rays were still AL East contenders and urged Ramirez with "Let's do this!" Manny smiled at him and said, "You play 100 games and I'll play 62!"
July 7: With the Rays in New York, Maddon calls Manny into his office to discuss Ramirez's just-announced decision to quit running out home runs now in addition to ground balls. Manny, citing his three trips to the disabled list in 2010, says it might be safer for him this way. When the manager's office door swings open, Manny re-enters the clubhouse chirping, "Anyone see my leg warmers?" and Maddon is seen strumming his bottom lip with his index finger.
Aug. 4: With the Rays now eight games back, Friedman, who is rapidly approaching his wit's end, too, decides to put Manny on waivers, same as Boston GM Theo Epstein did every year from 2003 through '08. No takers. Boras -- hoping to quietly find his client another new home -- e-mails a detailed statistical model to other teams, conceding that Manny probably won't pass the 600 home run plateau before 2020 now but adding that the good news is he intends to still be playing then. Only the St. Paul Saints, an independent league team, respond.
Sept 9: The Red Sox pull into Tampa 11 games up in first place and the Arc of Disillusionment is nearly complete. PETA is still picketing the stadium because of Manny's touch-tank mishap in April, and now a local radio station is urging disgruntled Rays fans to gather outside the Trop before the game to toss their $28 Manny dreadlock wigs (which the Rays got at a cut-rate price from the Dodgers) into a pile that will be woven into what the Guinness Book of Records says would be the world's largest rope ladder. The idea is that Manny will use it to rappel down the side of his rented condo building to a waiting limo, which will spirit him to the airport for a flight to St. Paul.
By now, even Damon is inclined to wave goodbye and say, "Do it, Manny."
But Manny, being Manny, says, "Leave Tampa? I love it here!"
Johnette Howard is a contributing columnist to ESPN.com and ESPNNewYork.com, and is the author of "The Rivals: Chris Evert vs. Martina Navratilova, Their Epic Duels and Extraordinary Friendship." She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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