Wad of chewing tobacco in his mouth, Manny Ramirez lazily jogs over to pursue a fly ball. You're certain that this ball will fall in for a hit. Manny has a long, loping stride, enough to convince you that he decided long ago that long strides expend less energy. Then, Manny kicks it into the next gear, into a sort of run, clumsily falling into a dive to make the catch. Manny rolls into a sitting position, glove arm raised, his bushy mess of hair poking out of his loose cap. With the Oakland A's complaining (and rightfully so, Manny clearly trapped the ball), Manny performs his customary double armed point to a teammate, grinning. Three thousand miles away, Red Sox fans grinned along with Manny, looking at each other and shaking their heads.
You've got to love that crazy Manny. He's clueless, lazy, and possibly the greatest hitter I've ever seen. I love watching this guy play.
I don't understand. Last year, with many of the same antics, Manny seemed a much more ambivalent character. In fact, he was almost evil. His twenty-million dollar per year contract, second highest in baseball history, seemed to be weighing the team down. During a crucial series with the New York Yankees last year, a supposedly sick Manny was witnessed sharing drinks with Yankee utility man Enrique Wilson. In another series against the Yankees, Manny missed the cutoff man completely, nearly throwing the ball into the Red Sox dugout, costing his team precious runs.
The Sox found him so expendable that Theo Epstein hung Manny on waivers, bait available to anyone who wanted him, but no one bit. Not even the biggest fish, the Yankees, in need of a superstar right fielder (Manny's natural position, if he has one), took up Manny, instead opting for the cheaper and slightly riskier commodity of Gary Sheffield. After all the trade talks, the waiver wire transaction, and the regular season problems, prognosticators on Boston radio stations deemed that this negative buzz around Manny would create an unhappy, disgruntled superstar, as happened to Nomar Garciaparra.
What has changed since then to make him more accepted? He still does stupid things. Last week, Manny was thrown out in a force play at second. On a ball that dropped into right field. Granted, it was a bloop single, but most ballplayers would make it to second. Earlier this year, on a high pop fly, Manny ran past first base, continuing for fifty feet past the bag down the foul line, eliminating any chance to advance if the ball had been dropped.
Have Red Sox fans simply forgotten Manny's past and present indiscretions? Certainly not. Red Sox fans rarely forget anything and even more rarely forgive. Boone, Buckner, Dent, and Clemens are still hated. Mookie Wilson is a curse word in some towns in Massachusetts.
Is he showing more effort? Certainly not. Is he hitting better? Not really. Looking at his career averages, he is on pace for a slightly above average season. Right now, Manny is batting .317 with 38 home runs and 111 RBI. Per 162 games played, Manny averages .317 with 41 home runs and 134 RBI. Does he actually wear a uniform conforming to league regulations? Nope, still wearing baggy pants. So what has changed about Manny?
Nothing, really, but the contrast of his and Nomar's attitude this year after the trade rumors, combined with the new coaching staff, has made Manny shine. Whereas Nomar sulked and fussed, spending two months on the disabled list, Manny was upbeat, always smiling, always happy, seen joking with Pedro in the dugout or talking with fans in the Monster seats. Apparently, Nomar did not talk to anyone, teammates or otherwise. Nomar excluded himself; Manny included himself.
Boston fans demand great loyalty and visible effort from their players, or the offending players can expect disapproval. The hard working Nomar, always one to run out a pop-up, expected similar loyalty from the Red Sox organization and was offended by their willingness to replace him. The long-strided, little hustle Manny, seems to have been unaffected by the Red Sox trading him. It doesn't really seem as though he cares where he plays, as long as he can have fun doing it. In a city where players are expected to care about the game, the player who seems not to care is among the most beloved. While we're winning.
It seems as though the off-season antics had the effect of making Manny looser than he was last year. Under Terry Francona, players are encouraged to be themselves, and this casual atmosphere has been the key to Manny's continued comfort in Boston. He seems to be having more fun than last year, visibly smiling and joking with his teammates.
Clearly, as was not so lucid in July, Theo Epstein made a wise decision in his choice of managers. Is Terry Francona the best tactical manager in the game? No, but he brings other assets, besides even Curt Shilling. Widely regarded as a player's manager, Francona trusts his players and allows them to enjoy the game, which results in the fans enjoying the game and the players equally. Many players, such as Johnny Damon and the Pedro Martinez, have visibly taken advantage of this policy of freedom of expression with their hair choice, prompting some to complain that the Red Sox have become a disgrace to baseball. They argue that such a loose attitude towards the game disrespects the rich heritage of baseball, tarnishing the purity of the sport.
For a sport which has already been surpassed in popularity by football, the only disgrace to the game would be if the players were not showing fans that the game is still fun. Manny looks like he's having fun, and that's why it's easy to root for him.