|Wednesday, September 18
Updated: September 20, 11:53 AM ET
Red Sox in a bind with Ramirez's bloated contract
By Sean McAdam
Special to ESPN.com
Almost from the time it was signed in December of 2000, Manny Ramirez's landmark eight-year, $160 million deal with the Red Sox had the ring of a marriage compact, right down to the implied "death do us part'' aspect.
Unfortunately for the Red Sox, they didn't include a pre-nup for themselves.
With (nearly) two years down and a full six (ugh!) years remaining, the Red Sox and Ramirez must continue to honor one another. At $20 million per season, the contract is as close to untradeable as any in the game, never more so than after the recent collective bargaining agreement was signed.
Thanks to the new CBA, Ramirez's deal is actually more weighty than before, since, by definition, any team assuming the remainder of the contract would logically be pushed over the luxury tax threshold and therefore assessed an additional penalty.
"I can't think of a single team that would take him off their hands,'' said a rival major-league executive. "It looks like their stuck.''
Based solely on his performance and production, the Red Sox wouldn't be looking to get out from under Ramirez's deal, pricey though it may be. Last year, Ramirez hit .306 with 41 homers and 125 RBI. He ranked among the league leaders in on-base percentage, total bases and slugging percentage.
This year, despite missing a full quarter of the season because of a broken finger, Ramirez will finish with better than 30 homers and 100 RBI and is a contender for the AL batting crown.
But if Ramirez's contract is all about the numbers, his troubles aren't. A discriminating baserunner who decides when he should run hard and when he shouldn't, Ramirez enraged teammates and the entire organization on Sept. 9 at Tropicana Field when, after hitting a check-swing tapper back to the mound, he made an abrupt turn a half-step out of the batter's box and returned to the dugout.
No pretense. No half-hearted jog down the line. This was a shameful "no mas,'' enough to make legendary loafers Alex Johnson and Joggin' George Hendrick look like Pete Rose wanna-bes.
Ramirez later offered apologies to teammates, coaches and manager Grady Little, vowing that it would never happen again. But while some applauded his contrition ("Manny became a man tonight,'' catcher Jason Varitek said), others wondered about his recidivism.
"Something else will happen with Manny,'' said a weary Red Sox official later in the week. "I don't know what, but it will be something.''
Few doubt that. With Ramirez, it always is something: an indifferent pursuit of a fly ball; the failure to score from second on singles to the outfield; the trademark early peel-off going from first to second on a double-play ball.
To be fair, Ramirez exhibited these exact tendencies while with the Cleveland Indians, so the Red Sox should have known what they were getting -- and buying -- into. Caveat emptor.
But in baseball-crazed Boston, where fan interest and media scrutiny can be unforgiving, Ramirez's lackadaisical approach has attracted more attention.
Ramirez made it clear that he was unhappy with his first season in Boston, and in particular with former manager Joe Kerrigan, who replaced Jimy Williams in mid-August. According to club sources, Ramirez had to be talked out of jumping the club late in the season. He nursed a minor hand injury through the final 10 days of the season, and according to some, never showed for the team's final game of the season in Baltimore.
After agent Jeff Moorad revealed that Ramirez wasn't "comfortable'' at the winter meetings, the new Red Sox ownership soon went to great lengths to accommodate him. They enlarged the clubhouse for additional room, built an interview area to lessen media traffic, imported longtime friend and former teammate Carlos Baerga as a role player. Even the selection of Little, who served as a bench coach with Cleveland for the previous two seasons and enjoyed a good relationship with the slugger, was partly designed to appease Ramirez.
But for all their efforts, Ramirez remains unchanged. In the batter's box, his real comfort zone, Ramirez remains unmatched as a run-producer. He leads the league in batting average with runners on base. Even when the team failed to ignite in August as its playoff hopes slipped away, Ramirez couldn't be blamed -- he hit over .400 for the month and led the team in RBI.
Still, his approach can be maddening. He frequently trots to first on grounders. In an early-season game, Baltimore's Melvin Mora flubbed what appeared to be a routine grounder, only to have plenty of time to still catch the almost inert Ramirez at first. Last month, while fielding a backhander from Ramirez, Oakland third baseman Eric Chavez saw his momentum carry him well into foul territory, almost in front of the visitor's dugout in Fenway, but he still caught Ramirez at first.
In what ranks as one of the most frustrating losses of the season, the Sox erased a 7-0 lead in Cleveland to tie the score, only to lose the game when center fielder Johnny Damon had to dash well over to left to field a ball that everyone agreed was the province of the left fielder: Ramirez.
And yet, the Sox don't have much in the way of weapons with which to combat his casual play. Little said he thought about removing Ramirez from the game against Tampa Bay, but ultimately decided not to, citing the player's remorse and the need for the Red Sox to win every game possible to keep their flickering playoff hopes alive. (Ramirez later hit the game-winning homer in the seventh, proving Little's point and underlining the double-edge nature of their dependence on Ramirez's talents).
Making matters worse for the Red Sox is the growing frustration of the fan base, which looks 30 miles to the south and sees the Super Bowl champion Patriots, who are ultimately beholden to their boss, head coach Bill Belichick.
Where the Patriots are both successful and accountable, the Red Sox are viewed as overpaid and underachieving, to say nothing of unresponsive.
But comparing the two sports is an exercise in futility, a point lost on many fans. Baseball has guaranteed, long-term contracts and a pro-active player's union. Football has mostly one-year deals, no guarantees and coaches hold the ultimate hammer when it comes to playing time and job security.
Football coaches can take away a full game check. In baseball, the maximum fine allowed that can't be grieved is a paltry $250.
"In some ways,'' said Red Sox CEO Larry Lucchino, noting the differences, "I envy the NFL.''
For now, the Sox are forced to find ways of maximizing Ramirez's production while minimizing the distractions he can cause. They may request a meeting with Moorad after the season to try to get some changes to take place.
One thing is certain: at these prices, no one is going to take their troubles off their hands.
Sean McAdam of the Providence Journal covers baseball for ESPN.com.