Manny has arguably been orchestrating his departure from Boston ever since the new ownership took over. Thousands of man-hours and gallons of ink have been used describing his role on the Red Sox, his place in Boston, his behavior, his personality, hell, even his hair. Tack on even more of the same when it comes to the various Manny trade deals that have been speculated about, every year without fail, for the last five years.
And yet, even in the face of all that, the initial feelings I had about his actual departure were shock and confusion.
Shock - The analogy I've used to describe it is that it's like if Boston decided to get rid of the Citgo sign. In reality, the Citgo sign is just an advertisement that has been sitting there for decades. It's not what makes Fenway Park Fenway Park -- it would be ridiculous to suggest we couldn't go on without it.
And yet it feels like it's always been there. And like it's permanent. Maybe it's because he survived so many attempts to oust him--Manny felt like that, too. Having him gone, no matter how long, public and arduous the process that led to it, still feels a little bit surreal.
Confusion - So many different viewpoints, so many different story lines, so many different ways of looking at the situation.
"Manny's behavior, which at its best is endearingly quirky, now falls somewhere between indifferent and insubordinate," Chad Finn wrote compellingly in the days leading up to the trade. "I always thought his antics were mostly harmless. Right now they're toxic.
How many times does he need to rip the organization to his personal media mouthpiece, Enrique Rojas? Twice isn't enough? How many times does he have to insult the men who pay his salary? How many more impossible situations must he put Terry Francona in? How many more times must he leave his exasperated teammates to face questions only he can answer?...
The Manny situation might not be wearing on his teammates, but they're sure playing like it is.
"The guy with the 500 home runs, the guy who brought you two championships after you lived your whole life without seeing one?" responded Jere from another corner of the Internet, in a Socratic dialogue he titled Red Sox Fan Meets Voyce O'Reisen.
RSF: Yeah, but I just can't take his antics anymore. It's not worth it.
VO: What antics?
RSF: Well, he doesn't work for his money. You never know when he's gonna show up to play.
VO: Manny's consistently played in more games each year than most of his teammates.
RSF: Yeah, but the Yanks come to town, and Manny hides, fakes an injury.
VO: He's played more games against the Yanks than any other team, with over 50 homers against them in about 200 games, and a .319 batting average and .615 slugging average. And he does not fake injuries. He loves to play ball.
RSF: Yeah, but in the playoffs, we're gonna need this guy, and I don't know if he's gonna decide to play or not.
VO: He's hit .321 with the Red Sox in the playoffs, with 11 HR in 43 games. With 31 walks, too. And two rings.
RSF: But what's he done this year? He's clearly declining. He just can't get it done anymore.
VO: He had one bad year--last year. (A year in which his team won the World Series with him hitting .348 in the playoffs.) And almost every guy in the majors would kill for Manny's "bad year." His OBP was identical to Derek Jeter's last year, and Jeter somehow finished 11th in the MVP voting. This year, he's already just about reached last year's home run total by the end of July, and is hitting .300. In fact, he's hit over .290 every year for the last 13 seasons. Hey, did you even see those Rolling Rallies?
VO: Nothing. Please continue.
This fan base has been having this argument for years. My dad and I have acted out the dialogue countless times in our respective recliners in front of the television. Over the last week, the argument reached an all-time crescendo.
Theories about character assassination, comparisons with the departures of D.Lowe, Nomar, Pedro and Damon, all had their merits, but only muddied the waters further. Depending on your way of looking at the situation, Manny was being run out of town on a rail the second his numbers had declined to the point where Sox fans could be counted on not to riot in the streets, or he had finally gotten so out of control that the Red Sox were simply trying to let fans know why they were finally firing him.
We fans know just enough about the Red Sox to be dangerous, but at the end of the day, we still don't get the whole picture of what's really happening behind closed doors. There was talk (unsubstantiated) that the team voted 23-1 for Manny to leave. But we truly can't know what it was like putting up with him, or whether putting up with him was fine, except for all the dirty laundry being aired in public.
According to the urban legend now floating around, the "1" was Big Papi. Generally, it's my policy to be against anything that makes Big Papi sad. Or, potentially, intentionally walked 400 times next year.
In the wake of the trade, a Yanks fan friend pointed out to me that "Terry Francona seems positively jovial not to have to put up with Manny anymore." I am also generally against things that give Tito any more agitathan he already has.
Then I remembered what Chad Finn also wrote:
I don't want to ponder the joy and relief fans (and a certain squirrelly general manager and his blustery boss) in New York will feel when they catch their first glimpse of their longtime nemesis decked out in [another team's] uniform.
You can't overlook the role of Scott Boras in all this, either. The uber-agent wouldn't stand to profit from Manny's contract unless he left Boston. It is not beneath Boras, in my opinion, to put a little bug in Manny's ear this year.
And on and on it went. Ping-ponging back and forth between sadness and overanalysis. That was my initial reaction. It's fitting, actually, if you think about it--Manny left town as much of an enigma as he'd always been.
In some ways I'm approaching the Red Sox from an unusual perspective. Some people who follow the team have athletic experience, and know what it's like to play on a team themselves. Me, the closest thing I have to that experience (besides some town-league soccer I was spectacularly bad at as a kid) is playing in an orchestra or singing in a choir. Most often, the best comparisons I can make to the select few individuals with the talent to do what they do in baseball are with the select few individuals I've met who have exceptional musical ability.
While studying music, I learned that someone with a genius for a particular skill is not necessarily going to qualify as a genius at anything else. That the ability to make an instrument sing like a nightengale doesn't translate into fundamental appeal as a human being. This could be especially true in the case of people who'd been brought up since toddlerhood in the single-minded pursuit of musical mastery--people who could be said to be savants.
In the sports world, the expectation sometimes seems to be different. It seems that for some, the exceptional ability to hit a round object traveling at 100 miles per hour with a round bat should be accompanied by something equally special about a person's fundamental character. In Boston, the expectations are further that they will be media-savvy, articulate, educated and mature.
Nobody in a musical audience gives a shit if the principal oboeist thinks the second chair oboeist is out to get him (and she probably is). Nobody coming to hear a Beethoven symphony wants to know if the rest of the orchestra finds the trombone section disruptive and 'not team players' in rehearsals.
So maybe this is where my analogy falls apart. Or maybe this is where sports culture, and baseball culture in this area, take a turn for the unfathomable. As a musician, you learned to separate the human vessel from the talent it contained. Otherwise, you'd never enjoy much music at all.
A couple of days have passed since The Great Divorce, and I kept turning all this over while watching the Sox face Oakland in a weekend series. Once the team was back on the field, things just boiled down to a fundamental question: did the trade make the team better?
Jason Bay this season:
BA .283 HR 23 RBI 67 OBP .379 SLG .528
Manny Ramirez this season:
BA .303 HR 21 RBI 70 OBP .400 SLG .536
Not necessarily. At least, not on paper. This is where the "but he's a clubhouse cancer" or "yeah, when he decides to play," are necessary justifications. This is where an off-day with nothing else to think about fanned the flames of conjecture and debate.
Then Jason Bay came in, on a Friday night, to a standing ovation from the crowd at Fenway Park. All over the blogosphere that day, I saw welcoming posts, happily topped with plays on words like "Baywatch" or "Bay State." Signs at the ballpark followed suit.
The game stretched into extra innings, tied at one. The bullpen had performed well enough for Francona to save Papelbon for the 10th. On No. 58 came, sporting that linebacker's number and his matching linebacker's intensity, to another hero's welcome from Fenway.
I sat back and watched him work, that ruthlessly simple motion of his and the miracle of his delivery, the release point out in front of his body "a gift from God", the blazing, hopping fastball a similarly divine blessing.
Off the field, Jonathan Papelbon sometimes sticks his foot in his mouth. On the mound, he's a pillar of fire. He makes a baseball sing like a nightengale.
It was while watching Papelbon that it suddenly felt to me like I was getting acquainted with this team all over again. I might not be glad Manny's bat is gone, but I was, at that point, very glad that the Subject of Manny was gone. The team looked like it had collectively exhaled for the first time in a week.
Watching how the team came together for the Oakland series finally convinced me the trade really had been the best thing. It will still be a while before I'm used to not seeing the Dreadlocked One fussing with his glove and hat in front of the Green Monster, or taking his leisurely walk to the batter's box while Fenway lights up with his presence. But on Friday night, I just knew that they were going to win the game. It hasn't felt like that this season in quite a while.
Fittingly, it was Jason Bay who hit a triple off a Ghost of Sox Past, Alan Embree, in the bottom of the twelfth, and then scored on a bloopy infield single from Jed Lowrie. Jason Bay also homered in a 12-2 shellacking of Oakland last night.
At a bar in Brookline after last night's game, I saw four guys come in together sporting brand new BAY 44 number tees. They'd been at the game, they told me, watching Jon Lester deliver another nails performance, and watching Youkilis go yard twice in the midst of an all-singing, all-dancing offensive jamboree.
Let the healing begin.