NEW YORK – Nope. He wouldn't bite.
"I'm not smart enough to try to dissect whether I'm happy or sad," Brian Cashman said, and somehow he held a straight face.
Manny Ramirez was off to Los Angeles and gone from the American League – ding, dong, the witch is dead! – and Cashman, the New York Yankees' general manager, was at his composed best, even if everyone in the room knew that he'd have spent the entire day cart-wheeling around the Bronx were his true feelings on display.
"This game will break your heart when you think you can get ahead of it and figure it out that way," he rationalized, and maybe he's right, and – oh, who the hell is he kidding? Cashman spent all of July making moves to strengthen his team, trading for Xavier Nady and Pudge Rodriguez and Damaso Marte, and with one move, his team's greatest rivals, the Boston Red Sox, did more for the Yankees than Cashman could.
Gone, at least for the next two months, is their greatest foil. Take David Ortiz and his dramatics if you will, but know that there was no one – no one – Yankees pitchers feared more than Manny, and the feeling of horror that once came along with the facing the middle of Boston's lineup exists no longer.
Whether Boston traded Manny because it feared he would channel Derek Bell and pull an Operation Shutdown or because the Red Sox went against their style and valued the personal side over the business side, the fact remains: Boston, in all likelihood, weakened itself in the throes of a three-way race with Tampa Bay and New York, and the vivisection was remarkable to watch.
Once word leaked around Yankee Stadium at 4:30 p.m. that Ramirez was headed to the Dodgers, prospects to the Pirates and Jason Bay to the shadow of the Green Monster, players approached one another to see if they'd heard the news. The conversations were spiked with glee. Batting practice turned giddy, if only for a moment.
Not just from the idea of Manny playing for Joe Torre, the longtime Yankees manager now in Los Angeles. It's difficult, really, to qualify how thoroughly Ramirez hit the Yankees, other than to say: He wasn't a thorn in their side. He was the whole rose bush.
In 200 games against them, Ramirez hit 55 home runs, the most against any team. No one knew how to solve him. Mike Mussina? Nine home runs in 101 at-bats. Andy Pettitte? A .416 batting average. Chien-Ming Wang? Even better: .536.
"They're going to be good with or without Manny," Pettitte said, though he later admitted: "A lot of people like to see him gone."
Funny thing is, Pettitte could have been talking about New York or Boston.
The Red Sox shopped Ramirez all over the league and tried swinging a three-way deal with the Florida Marlins before the Dodgers stepped up their pursuit about 90 minutes before the 4 p.m. ET deadline. They were determined to deal him after a series of events over the last month convinced them that no matter the production nor the fear factor, they would not allow behavior they considered selfish to poison their team.
So out went one of the great right-handed hitters of all time, like the Red Sox had squeezed a few spritzes of Shout and washed away the stain he left. The organization hemmed close to its practice of ending relationships with enough acrimony to make divorce cases look civil. Just look at the list: Manny, Damon, Pedro Martinez, Wade Boggs, Roger Clemens, Nomar Garciaparra, Mo Vaughn, Jim Rice, Mike Greenwell – all left on less-than-cordial terms.
"When they're ready to get rid of a player," Damon said, "they do it."
Usually, too, they're right in the timing, at least this incarnation of Red Sox front office, and to get Bay on the cheap this and next season was a fair haul for two months of Ramirez, his $7 million salary over the next two months, outfielder Brandon Moss and pitcher Craig Hansen. Bay hits for power, he walks, runs well, plays defense, hustles, listens, cares. On paper, he's Manny with a little less bat, a little more athleticism and a lot more commitment.
Still, Bay isn't Manny, won't be Manny, can't be Manny.
It's unfair to continue pointing to this mystical aura around Ramirez, something so difficult to quantify. Manny didn't hit more than 500 home runs because he sprinkled pixie dust on himself at 7 p.m. every night.
"He's incredibly smart," Yankees pitcher Darrell Rasner said.
As groundbreaking a moment as that is – someone linking Manny Ramirez with the phrase "incredibly smart" – Rasner tried to explain himself. He is the Yankees' fifth starter. He has spent bits and pieces of the last four years in the major leagues and faced Ramirez three times. One resulted in a single, the other two walks.
Before that, though – before he ever threw a professional pitch – Rasner used to break down Ramirez's at-bats and admire the slyness with which he flaunts his baseball IQ.
Sometimes, Rasner said, Ramirez swings and misses at pitches on purpose.
"Good hitters out there will do that," Rasner said. "Because you start to think, 'Oh, I've got the guy on this one.' Then you throw that pitch again, and, bam, it's gone."
For the rest of Ramirez's life, such stories about him will percolate, because he really is a hitting marvel, not some overhyped, bat-swinging Visigoth. At 36, Ramirez, when motivated, can produce at an elite level. And with the two club-option years of his contract wiped out per the terms of the trade, Manny is now playing for what should be the last contract of his career, which ought to inspire him plenty, thank you.
So every night, after their game, the Yankees will return to their clubhouse and flip on the television. They've got more reason now to watch Dodgers games, just to make sure Manny really is wearing blue and white, and this isn't some sort of a trick the Red Sox pulled to get a good laugh.
And the Yankees will see him in that new uniform, all the way across the country and in the National League, hitting peas around the field, and say that yes, indeed, the old cliché really does hold true: The greatest trade was the one that they didn't make.
- Manny Ramirez
- Brian Cashman