KANSAS CITY, Mo. – One week A.M. – After Manny – and the Boston Red Sox have survived. Jacoby Ellsbury is playing cribbage. David Ortiz is leafing through Us Weekly. Mike Lowell is scrolling through his iPhone. The only tension in the room comes from the bands pitchers use to strengthen their arms. Everything, if not copasetic, seems awfully close to normal.
"Normal here is not normal for anyplace else," manager Terry Francona reminds, and his point is well-taken: Life for the Red Sox, baseball's defending champion and model franchise, registers differently, whether an average day or one, like last week, when management realized it would take a lot more than a call to Terminix to prevent Manny Ramirez from boring a hole through the team from within.
The brass obliged at 3:59 p.m. ET, one minute before the July 31 trading deadline, and shipped Manny to Los Angeles, a trip that surely cost a fair bit, what with airlines charging for the extra baggage Ramirez carries. When Manny landed at Dodger Stadium and announced he felt like 5,000 pounds had been lifted from his back, imagine the weight excised from the Red Sox, their problem child vanquished, the rest of their season unencumbered, and Jason Bay their replacement.
Certainly an able one at that, twice an All-Star with the Pittsburgh Pirates and playing like one again this season. The comfort inside the Red Sox's clubhouse today has as much to do with Bay as it does four wins in five games since the deadline. He's hitting .429 after a four-hit game Tuesday night, has scored eight runs in five games and rather enjoys the expectations that come de rigueur with a Boston uniform.
"They traded Manny and they needed a left fielder," Bay said. "That's the way I look at it. Somebody had to come and play after him. I'm kind of glad it was me."
At the meet-and-greet with Francona following his arrival, Bay heard the usual instructions to a new player, one of which sounded ludicrous: Don't try too hard. Francona laughed. Of course Bay was going to strain. No one comes to Boston and struggles without incident.
Francona kept the conversation short. He'd heard enough – that Bay arrived at the ballpark earlier than anyone on the team aside from Dustin Pedroia, and that he'd already be overwhelmed with learning the team signs, and that, yeah, Fenway Park was going to unleash a torrent of cheers on him that first night because it expects Bay to be like Manny, fairness a casualty of the American League East's three-team race.
"It'll be fun to get to know him," Francona said. "But I don't know if the best way to do that is for me to full-court press him. It'll happen. That loyalty, that trust – it comes. It's not supposed to happen overnight."
Francona is still gathering his bearings from the last month, when the Red Sox felt Manny had quit and squandered hours playing bootleg Shakespeare: To trade or not to trade? Ultimately, it wasn't so much a question as a logistical mess. As time progressed and the deadline neared, Ramirez turned up the churlish quotient, the hounds descended and his teammates revolted.
What resulted was equal parts surprising and impressive: The purposeful Red Sox, the ones who normally act, not react, admitted they were in an untenable situation and made the best of it. They were conciliatory without conceding.
"I wouldn't say there was this change, like people were happy to see Manny go," Lowell said. "There was a little bit of a discomfort in the clubhouse. … There was a turn-the-page-type attitude.
"Manny was a very good player. But there was a weird feeling in the clubhouse."
To allow such feelings to permeate would be tantamount to announcing that, yes, one man is bigger than the team, and no matter the thunder in Ramirez's bat, the lightning in his mind and mouth were even more destructive. Francona had sensed mental lapses in a Red Sox club that carries itself with a swagger.
"We needed to do some things differently as a team, and I think we have," Francona said. "Regardless of what happened on that trading deadline, we were going to have a meeting that next day, make sure we paid attention to detail, put our energy into things we could control – everything that every manager probably talks about in spring training, we needed some reminders on.
"I do think our energy's been good. It's been in the right direction. Hopefully, that will translate into a lot of wins. That's the whole idea."
While the Red Sox's success goes back to pitching – to Josh Beckett looking more like his 2007 self, to Daisuke Matsuzaka finding a way to last beyond the seventh inning, to Jon Lester surviving the grind of his first full season after beating cancer – all eyes, at least in the present, are cast toward Bay.
Fenway Park greeted him with a standing ovation the first time it heard his name over the P.A. system, then slathered him with another after he scored the winning run in his first game. No, he wasn't Manny – "Very few guys have the star power Manny has," Lowell conceded – but he'd do.
Because he had to.
Over the next seven weeks, Bay will show whether he's more than that, and the Red Sox, too, as they try to hold off New York and catch Tampa Bay. The former, with Joba Chamberlain joining Chien-Ming Wang on the shelf, looks realistic enough. The latter, with the Rays scoring six in the ninth inning Wednesday afternoon to win and extend their division lead, isn't such a forgone conclusion, even if the Red Sox's version of normalcy has returned.
Life A.M., no matter how good it seems now, won't be easy.