The day Manny Ramirez reported to spring training, he asked a reporter, "do you think I'm a cancer, or a bad guy?" He was told no, that all those labels were talk show speculation, that, indeed, Ramirez is a well-liked member of the team. "You know," Manny said, "you were critical of me the day I didn't come to the park. But if I had your job, I'd have said the same thing."
Manny Ramirez will have to find some new representation.
So began one of this season's most intriguing stories. Manny Ramirez, who was placed on waivers and unclaimed, traded to Texas only to remain with the Red Sox when they could not work out Alex Rodriguez's contract, has become the life of the team and a key contributor to their strong start. "They can do whatever they want, that's business," says Ramirez. "I'm just glad I'm still here. This is a very good team. These are good teammates."
Prodded by Kevin Millar and David Ortiz to be more forthcoming, Ramirez has shed his inhibitions about speaking in his second language. It was Ramirez who went to the media to explain that Pedro Martinez had lost his uncle and that is the reason for his early-season reluctance to talk. It was Ramirez who the Globe's Bob Hohler nicknamed "the go-to guy."
And with Nomar Garciaparra and Trot Nixon hurt and no one else on the Red Sox hitting .280, it has been Ramirez who has carried them to their 12-6 start. He has played every game. His mammoth homer off Javier Vazquez on Sunday made Martinez a 2-0 winner that swept the Yanks in The Stadium on a day when the Red Sox started an infield of David McCarty, Cesar Crespo, Pokey Reese and Mark Bellhorn. His OPS is 1.121, second only to Carlos Beltran in the American League. With the exception of a dropped fly ball, he has played extraordinarily well in left field. "I have worked hard to become a good left fielder," he says. "It means a lot to me."
Martinez says "there are three players for whom I would put my arm in the fire for the way they work and the way they are there for the rest of us -- Jason Varitek, Trot Nixon and Manny Ramirez."
Boston's pitching has been the biggest story, especially the bullpen that through the Yankee series had 24 consecutive shutout innings and had allowed 34 hits in 58 2/3 innings for the season. Martinez is now 3-1 with consecutive strong performances, while Bronson Arroyo stood in twice against Kevin Brown and the Sox ended up winning both games.
"I just want to be known as a winning player," says Ramirez. In the month of April, that is precisely what he has been. No pouting about the offseason. Just a responsible ballplayer who happens to be arguably the best right-handed hitter in the game.
"He's the best story of the season so far," says Millar.
The Coors Effect on arms
No one knows the winning formula in Colorado. "We've tried a lot of things," says GM Dan O'Dowd. "I don't know if we'll ever get it right, although I'll say this: if we can get into the playoffs, we'll be tough to beat because of our ballpark."
The offensive formula O'Dowd leans toward is more slugging than on-base, contrary to his normal roots. "Ideally," he says, "we'd have three outfielders who can run and hit for power, but those aren't easy to find."
Offense -- finding players who can hit on the road and finding the Denny Hockings of the world who can play several positions to make up for the need for 12 or 13 pitchers --can be a problem away from Coors. But it is the pitching that ... well ... check Jason Jennings. He was 20-9 in his brief debut in 2001 and his stellar rookie 2002 season. Then 12-13 last season and 1-2 with more walks (14) than strikeouts (12) in 2004.
It is not just that the ball travels so well. It's that bodies don't bounce back. "I threw an eight-inning shutout in my first game there," says Mike Hampton. "And the next day I couldn't move." O'Dowd figures 180 innings equals 200 to 210, on up.
Only five pitchers have thrown 200 innings for Colorado, and since Pedro Astacio did it twice before his arm blew out makes his accomplishments remarkable:
Pedro Astacio, 1999
12-9, 5.27 ERA. Traded to Houston. In 2001, hurt arm.
Darryl Kile, 1998
8-13, 6.61 ERA
Kevin Ritz, 1996
Won six games the rest of his career.
Pedro Astacio, 1998
17-11, 5.04 ERA
Jamey Wright, 1998
Threw only 94.1 innings. Hurt.
Mike Hampton, 2000
7-15, 6.15 ERA and outta there.
"One thing we've tried to do is sign veteran pitchers who are coming off bad years," says O'Dowd, hence Joe Kennedy, Shawn Estes and Jeff Fassero. "I think Jennings will be all right, and I think some of the young pitchers we bring through our organization can adjust the necessary way of thinking, which is that there are only two statistics that count -- innings and wins. Forget ERA." By the end of this season, they hope to have Aaron Cook and Chin-hui Tsao in the rotation.
"It will always be a struggle," says O'Dowd. "But our system is making progress, and we know that if we get into the playoffs, our park will be a huge homefield advantage."
Getting the pitching to get there is the problem, and the reason the Rockies have never won 84 games in a season.
Baltimore bullpen impressive
Granted, the Orioles lineup is deeper than it's been since they went wire-to-wire in first place in 1997. But behind an inexperienced starting rotation, the Baltimore bullpen has been magnificent with a 2.67 ERA and 61 strikeouts in 67 innings. Rodrigo Lopez (12 2/3 IP, 12 K), B.J. Ryan (10 2/3 IP, 15 K) and Buddy Groom (6 2/3 IP, 9 K) have not allowed a run, while Jorge Julio has allowed one in nine innings.
Significantly, Lee Mazzilli is using his relievers to face left- and right-handed batters, eschewing the one-batter matchups. "Lee's managing not just for today," says team vice president Mike Flanagan, "but for the next game. In a lot of cases, our left-handers get right-handed batters out easier than lefties. That whole concept has gotten out of whack."
Another intriguing thing about the Orioles is that Matt Riley, Kurt Ainsworth and Erik Bedard have already had Tommy John surgery. "If they take the necessary 18 months to come back, they usually are better," says Flanagan. "They take better care of themselves, they are more diligent, think more about pitching. Medical science is remarkable today. I asked our doctor how many surgeries I would have had if I were pitching today, and he told me, 'about four.' " Flanagan had none.
News and notes
With Mark Prior throwing simulated games in Arizona this week and Mike Remlinger two or three weeks away, Cubs pitching coach Larry Rothschild says "over the next couple of months it's going to be like making four trades. Prior and Remlinger aren't far away. Angel Guzman may be ready in June, and so will Ryan Dempster. Those are four pretty good pitchers to add to our staff." Incidentally, the first time Rothschild heard about Prior supposedly needing Tommy John surgery he was walking in from a Prior side-session in which Prior threw very well.
The Mariners sent Rafael Soriano out to start to build up his arm, which apparently is working. "We need him near the end of our bullpen very badly," says Bob Melvin. Scouts keep insisting we watch Gil Meche and Joel Pineiro after they didn't miss starts last season. "Pineiro was down 4-5 miles an hour when I saw him in Anaheim," says one scout.
When Bernie Williams hit a ball right on the screws Saturday and it went nowhere, it leads one to believe that his shoulders are not in good shape.
Given that Ryan Wagner, Chad Cordero and David Aardsma have all been in the big leagues less than a year after being in class as college juniors, is there any doubt that in a bad draft Texas reliever Huston Street will be in the first half of the first round?.
There has been speculation that when the A's think Joe Blanton is ready, they'll bring him up and put Rich Harden in the bullpen. But right now, they think Harden needs more innings as a starter as he was a late convert to pitching, throwing one year in junior college and barely 400 innings as a pro.
The White Sox are convinced Scott Schoeneweis' cutter is so good he can get by on power sinkers and cutters, this year's version of Esteban Loaiza. As for the bullpen, Ken Williams says" "I don't like to call it 'bullpen by committee' because that sounds as if we have no one to close. But it comes down to situations, and Damaso Marte, Billy Koch or Cliff Politte can finish out games." Speaking of the White Sox bullpen, one of the most positive early developments has been the work of Neal Cotts and Jon Adkins in the long roles.
Jeremy Reed is off to a boffo start in the International League, which may give the White Sox a needed left-handed bat. And Williams doesn't give up on Joe Borchard. "It's tough to get the football player out of him and have him relax," says Williams. "But it's coming."
You have to love the Lowell Spinners, who are having a Corey Jenkins bobblehead night. Jenkins played for Lowell, went back to football and is now with the Dolphins.