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Manny matters to Red Sox

The biggest question from the latest episode of The Manny Ramirez Saga, now in its third season in reruns, doesn't concern the Boston Red Sox shopping him or where he might go or whether they would decline a $20 million option on him at season's end.

No, after all the parrying and feinting over the past three days, what we're left wondering most is: Do they really have baseball in Iraq?

Manny went off Sunday in the manner in which only Manny can, a winning combination of stupidity, absurdity and petulance, and amid one particular tirade to ESPN Deportes, in which he said he doesn't care where he plays, uttered this gem: "I can even play in Iraq if need be."

When you turn on the windshield wipers and wash away the posturing that surrounds every Manny outburst and Red Sox retort, the fact remains: Boston needs Manny more than Manny needs Boston, and for that reason any talk of trade, even with Ramirez saying Sunday he would consent to a deal, will end up the same place it has in the past.

As talk, and nothing more.

Oh, certainly it's juicy to engage in the banter, fuel the speculation, play the game that, though it should be tiresome, still carries a perverse charm. The personalities involved allow it. There's the indefatigable Manny, idiot savant, who has requested trades in 2005, '06 and '08. Then the Red Sox's unflinching general manager, Theo Epstein, who has tried repeatedly and unsuccessfully to deal him. And an owner, John Henry, who for years has stood behind Manny – until the outfielder's recent gripe about his contract limbo following this season. Plus everyone on the periphery: manager Terry Francona, who has to juggle these nuggets of nonsense daily; and Ramirez's teammates, who answer more questions about him than the games; and the Red Sox fans, who must feel like they're in a custody battle, what with side-taking the only option.

Either you're with Manny or against Manny.

For years, the Red Sox have stayed with Manny and tolerated his idiosyncratic behavior because he produced. Loaf in the outfield? Sure. Jog instead of run? By all means. Show up late? Play space cadet? Live by his own rules? Check, check and check. Because they could book the .300 average, 35 homers and 100 RBIs, and special privileges extend to special players, even if the $20 million a year salary should be privilege enough.

Now, Red Sox brass must re-evaluate the shenanigans, not to mention the dollars.Manny turned 36 in May, and history tends to be unkind toward sluggers in their late 30s. Granted, grouping Manny – he of the 509 home runs and, with 1,669 RBIs, an outside shot at catching Hank Aaron at 2,297 for the most all-time – with anybody doesn't do justice to his unique talent and how good he has been.

Thing is, the Red Sox have won two of the past four World Series because they don't base evaluations on the past. They operate efficiently and stoically, even coldly. Unless he's willing to take a significant pay cut, Jason Varitek, the Red Sox's captain, will walk this offseason because he'll be a 37-year-old catcher with diminishing skills, and that doesn't play in Boston's world.

Ramirez, on the other hand, remains a premier slugger, even if he's not what he once was. Power is expensive, and the Red Sox's options to replace Manny – either now or this offseason – are limited.

It's doubtful they'd go with an outfield of Jacoby Ellsbury, Coco Crisp and J.D. Drew and count on either Drew or Kevin Youkilis to play No. 2 to David Ortiz's No. 1, especially when Ortiz's health is flagging.

Trading for a left fielder such as Matt Holliday makes sense in the short term, though he'd cost three top prospects – something the Red Sox are loath to give up – and could command $20 million a year for seven years when he's a free agent following 2009.

And the outfield free-agent market this offseason is barren of power, unless the Red Sox want to offer Adam Dunn five years, which, with Jonathan Papelbon, Dustin Pedroia, Jon Lester and others reaching arbitration over the next few seasons, is the type of deal with a greater chance of backfiring than a '72 Pinto.

All of which adds up to the idea that Manny, for one year at $20 million, isn't such a bad deal. The commitment is short term, and if he straightens his act out, the Red Sox own another $20 million option in 2010.

Of course, that may be wishful thinking. One Red Sox source said the organization is torn as to the best course for dealing with Ramirez. Do they gather offers from the Mets and Dodgers and Cardinals and all the other National League teams that need a bat and pull the trigger? Or do they look past his recent chicanery – shoving the team's sexagenarian traveling secretary and pulling himself out of the lineup with an allegedly bum knee that showed clean on an MRI – and accept things the way enablers do, with a disappointed shake of the head and little else.

As if to answer the question himself, Manny smacked an RBI double in the first inning of Boston's 9-2 victory Sunday against the Yankees that pushed them within one game of the American League East lead. He followed with another double, tacked on a run-scoring single and finished 3 for 5 with two runs and two RBIs.

Perhaps this is a precursor to a nasty divorce. Manny hired agent Scott Boras this offseason, and Boras loves nothing more than taking clients with big numbers to free agency and cleaning up. Ramirez seemed to challenge the Red Sox to pick up his option, as though a double-dog dare might incite them.

Or maybe it's just another lover's quarrel, the kind that ends with the Red Sox and Manny understanding that even though he's a square peg and they're a round hole, everyone else is triangular or octagonal, an even worse fit, and trading him now would only hurt their chances at a second consecutive championship.

"Boston is not stupid," Manny said. "They're not going to do it. They can say whatever they want. But when it comes to make a deal, they're not going to pull the trigger, because they know what they've got here."

He's right. No matter how much of a distraction Manny is, the detriments don't outweigh the benefits. So he might as well stay put.

Iraq's a pretty dangerous place these days.

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