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FORT MYERS, Fla. – Having exhausted a discussion about his new facial hair, what he called the "Youk Fu," a drooping Fu Manchu moustache framing the soul patch on his chin, Kevin Youkilis turned to a topic more of substance than style.
"Is this team better without Manny Ramirez?'' the Boston Red Sox first baseman said, repeating the question posed to him. "I don't know. We won two World Series with Manny Ramirez and haven't won one since, though we were one big hit, one big inning, from going back.''
The Red Sox are in camp without Ramirez for the first time since 2001. He's still a free agent, although talks have intensified with the Los Angeles Dodgers, the team that got him for free last July when the Red Sox traded him as part of a three-way deal with Pittsburgh, getting Jason Bay in return while paying the remainder of Ramirez's $20 million salary.
For the two months after being jettisoned by the Red Sox, Ramirez was the best player in baseball, hitting and hustling and inspiring his younger Dodger teammates to a successful run to the National League West title. Anyone who watched Ramirez after the trade surely had reason to wonder whether the Red Sox had taken leave of their senses, giving away a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
But the Red Sox, with Ramirez unhappy about his contract and sending signals that he would use sore knees as an excuse to shut down – much the way he appeared to do at the end of the 2006 season – were persuaded they would be better off without him. Ramirez's altercation with the team's traveling secretary and an in-dugout tussle with Youkilis might have been symptomatic of the mercurial outfielder's growing unhappiness in Boston – or might have been just isolated moments of spontaneous combustion – but when the clubhouse also turned on Ramirez, the Red Sox felt they had to make a move.
"I'm not going to comment on ," Youkilis said. "There were things you question, but all I know are the things I know, the question marks are the question marks.
"But [last season] there was a question: Is he going to play for this team or is he going to sit out? We never had to find out, which is the best answer. And we got a great player in Jason Bay.
"Is Jason Bay going to be Manny Ramirez? Probably not, but he's a great player, he's going to help this team win, and he did."
Red Sox slugger David Ortiz, who said he hasn't spoken with Ramirez in some time, laughingly agreed that Manny, never a fan of spring training, was hardly lamenting the fact that he has not yet had to report.
"That's 35 and 120 [home runs and RBIs] not out there every day," he said. "We'll see. Hopefully we'll do good and we won't have to think about it anymore. We have guys here capable of hitting in this lineup. If everybody stays healthy, we'll go from there."
What is undeniable, and startling, is that the Red Sox were more productive without Ramirez than with him. They averaged almost a run more per game (5.79 to 4.94) after his departure, even though Ortiz was subpar because of injury and outfielder J.D. Drew, who had carried the club in June, also was hurt. They went on an 18-9 tear in August and played .643 ball without Ramirez.
Dustin Pedroia had an MVP season. Rookie Jacoby Ellsbury led the league with 50 stolen bases. Bay stepped in, hit nine home runs and drove in 37 runs while scoring 39 in 49 games. Rookie shortstop Jed Lowrie had some big hits. And Youkilis, taking over the cleanup role, put up the best power numbers of his career, finishing with 29 home runs and 115 RBIs. His .399 on-base percentage and .569 slugging percentage as cleanup hitter eclipsed the numbers Ramirez put up the first half of the season.
"There's not one player who can ever make up a team,'' Youkilis said. "Manny Ramirez cannot singlehandedly win, or the Dodgers would have won the World Series. It's not about one player. Manny singlehandedly put that team on his shoulders, but other guys had to do stuff, too.
"Some of those guys were put on the back pedestal because of Manny, and some of those guys played well.''
Some day, when Terry Francona pulls a Joe Torre and writes his memoirs, he may well reveal the challenges that came with managing Ramirez, who remains a beloved figure among those Boston fans who praise him as arguably the greatest right-handed hitter ever to wear a Red Sox uniform. For now, Francona doesn't venture beyond what he said after Ramirez was traded last season, that he is presiding over a clubhouse pulling in the same direction.
"What we look to do is not only strengthen one aspect of our team, but find more ways to win games, and I think we've accomplished that,'' Francona said.
The Red Sox tried mightily this winter to fill the Manny vacuum, and set themselves up for the next decade, by signing Mark Teixeira, but were outbid by the Yankees. Ortiz says he is fully recovered from last season's wrist injury, and while he came into camp weighing his usual 265-270 pounds, his body fat is lower and the weight is noticeably redistributed.
"Getting older, you've got to do that,'' Ortiz said. "You don't get any younger. But people who are taking shots at me, saying I'm old. Gol'dang, I'm only 33. Let me tell you, one thing I know I can do is hit. If I'm healthy, I know I'm going to hit, and I'm fine. The wrist is good and I'm hitting.''
A healthy Ortiz, a motivated Youkilis and an increasingly comfortable Bay form a formidable middle of the order. Add Pedroia, outfielder J.D. Drew and other complementary pieces, and questions about the absence of Ramirez might soon cease.
"Any time a batter like Manny Ramirez leaves your lineup, I don't think it's fair to say this guy's got to pick up the slack," Francona said. "Well, one guy, that's probably not going to happen, but I think we can improve ourselves as a ballclub.''