Monthly Archives: July 2008

No More Manny

In Theo I trust.

If he thinks this trade will help the Red Sox win another World Series ring, then I guess it really is time for Manny to go.

That said, it’s hard to fathom that the Boston Red Sox just let one of the greatest right-handed hitters of all time — a guy who helped the team win two World Series rings — walk out the door in the middle of a pennant race. The Yankees love this trade. Their fear of the Red Sox vanished at 4:20pm yesterday. Oh, and Joe Torre went to bed last night with a BIG smile on his face.

I am a fan. I am an emotional fan who loves Manny’s joyful, teddy bear personality, his majestic presence in the on-deck circle and batter’s box, and the way he wrecks pitches in the strike zone. I acknowledge that he was not the perfect competitor during his years in a Red Sox uniform. His jogging to first base sometimes drove me crazy. But in the same way a parent keeps loving his kids no matter what they do, nothing Manny ever did or said made me dislike the guy. It wasn’t blind affection. It was eyes-wide-open appreciation for a marvelous player I “knew” better than any other.

I will miss Manny and I will root for him as a Dodger. I hope he finds peace in L.A. and that this trade ends up being a great thing for him and his family.

Time to turn the page on the Manny years, one of the most amazing chapters we’ve ever experienced in Red Sox Nation. It’s Jason Bay time. The 2008 World Series MVP.

The Truth About Manny (If Only It Were That Simple…)

Is the following quotation from a book review that will eventually be written about the events that finally led to Manny Ramirez’s brilliant Red Sox career ending in a ball of flames?

“The story examines the variations a mistruth can go through when filtered through person after person and illustrates how different people can have multiple perceptions and interpretations of the same event. The various points of view the reader sees provide insight into the story that none of the individual characters possesses.”

No, this is an excerpt from a review of the book, Nothing But The Truth, by Avi, which is one of the books I read with my class when I was a 9th grade English teacher. But the lessons of this profound book apply directly to this whole Manny Ramirez situation. All of you who have read this book understand that there is NOT “one truth” in the drama that has played out over the last week — and over the last eight years. There’s Manny’s truth. There’s Manny’s wife’s truth. There’s John Henry’s truth. There’s Theo’s truth. There’s Francona’s truth. There’s each teammate’s truth. There’s Dan Shaughnessy’s truth. There’s Jerry Remy’s truth. There’s the stat-man’s truth. And there’s YOUR truth, based on everything you have read, heard, and seen — and the mindset you bring to this situation.

The book reminds us that everything you hear from a second-hand source has been distorted in some way, often a small way and and often unintentionally. It reminds us that two people can witness the same scene and describe it totally differently — and both descriptions can be accurate. It reminds us that all reporters, players, and fans perceive the things Manny does and says — and the things that are said about him — through the lenses of their own prejudgments and cultural values, so all reporters, fans, and players see and hear different things. It reminds us that we almost NEVER know the true context of the quotations we read and the actions we witness, and that reporters can tell you the complete truth — and mangle it at the same time. It reminds us that a small misunderstanding can snowball into an out-of-control mess when one warped interpretation leads to multiple responses that are even more off-base, and the original players in the drama react to these responses in ways that make the situation even worse, and on and on it goes, the downward spiral of miscommunication and misinterpretations compounding in a horrific way.

Ultimately, it’s futile for reporters (and fans) to state unequivocally what’s going on in this Manny Ramirez situation — BUT because it’s their job (and because they’re programmed to think their version of the truth is “the right” one), that’s what they do. And this often takes us even further from “the real truth.”

We should be careful about judging people based on shreds of information (from second-hand sources in the media) that barely scratch the surface of a complex scenario. (For example, Manny Ramirez and Sox traveling secretary Jack McCormick have worked together for eight years – there’s a history there that we know nothing about.) The press is paid to tell us what happened — but only the BEST reporters dig below the surface to find the REAL STORY. There are conversations that have taken place that we don’t know about (Scott Boras?) and factors at play that we can’t comprehend (culture differences?) that, if we were aware of them, would shift whatever opinion we currently have about Manny Ramirez and others who have played a role in this saga.

Tom Caron stated the truth he perceives on last night’s post-game show: “”Manny has acted and spoken his way right out of this clubhouse.”

Or, maybe WE’VE acted and spoken Manny right out of this clubhouse by our tainted and sensationalized reporting of “the truth” and our lack of understanding about a unique personality who, through it all, drives in runs with a smile on his face. That’s certainly Manny’s truth. He said last night, “Mental peace has no price and I don’t have peace here.” When I put myself in his shoes, that’s a truth that’s easy to see.

Mamas, It’s OK To Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Mannys

Over at Boston.com’s “Extra Bases” blog, there were over 50 comments on Monday from fans reacting to all of this Manny business. A few of them accused Manny of being a bad role model for kids. For example, here’s what commenter “Paul W.” wrote:

“When I tell my little leaguers to model themselves after a major leaguer, I leave off Manny. I don’t want my players to think that selfish behavior is a positive attribute for a team. Follow Varitek, Pedroia, Schilling, or Beckett’s example, even Jeter’s or Posada’s. Any of these guys because they love and respect the game. But never Manny.”

I’ve taught middle school and coached a total of about 30 youth sports teams over the years, and I know where Paul W. is coming from. Yes, in ONE obvious way, Manny’s approach to the game of baseball is not what I would teach my young players. His obvious flaw is that, frequently (but not always), he fails to sprint down the first base line as soon as he has hit the ball. Sometimes, he hangs out in the batter’s box and admires the ball he has just hit, and sometimes he runs at less than 100%. This isn’t OK in the majors, but it’s a cardinal sin in little league. (I know that Paul W. is also referring to Manny’s alleged lack of “team spirit,” but no matter how confident sportswriters and fans are about the details of this most recent story about Manny’s knee, we don’t know the whole story).

Yup, Manny loafs sometimes. Yup, that can be maddening and costly. However, in many ways, Manny sets a positive example for young baseball players. Here’s what I would say to players on my youth baseball teams about what to emulate about Manny Ramirez.

1. He approaches every at-bat with a clear mind. Manny’s not thinking about his last plate appearance and he’s not thinking about his latest gaffe in the field. He’s not even thinking about his contract and what his agent, Scott Boras, wants him to do. No, Manny leaves that all behind when he strides towards the batter’s box. He’s in his own MannyZone, and he’s thinking about two things: seeing a strike, and hammering it. Even with two strikes, Manny’s focus is unbelievable.

2. He expects to get a hit, every at-bat. The way Manny walks to the plate with an air of self-confidence, settles into the batter’s box, taps the plate with his bat, assumes his regal batting stance, and stares out at the pitcher… everyone in the park knows he’s already envisioned the line drive that he’s about to smash. This summer, my co-coaches and I taught our eight year-old players to chant the words, “I crush balls in the strike zone,” while standing in the on-deck circle and stepping into the batter’s box. Why? We were teaching them to think like Manny.

3. When he strikes out or grounds into a double play, Manny immediately puts the failure behind him and moves on. No frustration, no cursing himself or the baseball gods, no wasting emotional energy on “what-ifs.” (Maybe this is why Youk and Manny don’t get along.) Manny just accepts his fate, takes a seat, and starts preparing for his next at-bat. Sometimes his lack of frustration is interpreted as a lack of intensity or competitiveness, but anger just doesn’t work for Manny – and anger and frustration don’t work too well for kids, either. The play is over, now move on in as positive a state of mind as you can. That’s Manny.

4. Manny plays baseball joyfully. Just about every little league coach in the land tells kids, “Have fun out there!” But do they really mean it? The truth is, it’s simply not O.K. in our U.S. athletic culture to appear to be having fun in certain game situations. Manny is happy all the time, whether the team is winning or losing, whether he’s just hit a grand slam or grounded into a double play, whether he’s benched or facing a 3-2 pitch in a clutch situation, whether the media is writing character-puncturing articles about him or cozying up to him for “being Manny.” As a coach, I really DO want my players to have fun playing baseball, and Manny’s a tremendous role model in this way.

5. Manny works hard in the off-season to get his body ready for spring training. He takes about ten days off after the season ends, then begins a strenuous workout regimen with one of the toughest trainers in the business. All good youth athletics coaches tell their players, “You want to get good? Work hard.” In 2007, The Boston Herald interviewed Seattle’s Raul Ibanez about his off-season workouts with Ramirez in Florida:

“In between sets, everything is timed, and he would always be reminding [me] to keep working. He works his tail off. I knew he was hard-working, but he exceeded my expectations. We would start at 10 and he was coming at 9 to do his workouts. He was working out an hour more. He influenced everybody to come in and work out earlier.”

Now is Manny a perfect role model for young baseball players? No. And neither am I, and neither are you. I would tell little leaguers, “Manny does some things badly, and some things exceptionally well. Let’s learn from what he does well.” Over the last decade, the closest MLB has come to a flawless role model has been Ironman Cal Ripken. Great leader, great worker, played hard, played hurt. But to create an ideal role model for young players, I’d want to combine Cal with Manny. Mix Cal’s determination and toughness with Manny’s jubilant, expectant frame of mind, and you have a powerful, positive role model.

My idea about what to DO with Manny (keep him, or trade him?): Pick up his option for 2009 and tell him we’re NOT picking it up for 2010. Get one more productive year out of him at $20M and ensure his self-motivation by guaranteeing him free agency in 2010. I love Manny and don’t want to lose him, but his age (and the physical decline that inevitably comes with age, unless you are Roger Clemens) worries me.

Did You Expect “Manny Being Yaz?”

Everyone is furious with Manny Ramirez because he asked for a day off on Friday night (our first game of this important series vs. the Yankees) saying his knee hurts. Dan Shaughnessy captures the controversy well, writing in today’s Boston Globe, “Something’s got to give. The owners are mad. The manager is frustrated. The GM is frustrated. Teammates are angry. Even with sycophants who excuse everything, Manny may have finally exhausted his reservoir of goodwill. He quit on the team in 2006 and now it looks like he’s quitting again. Is that OK with you, Red Sox Nation?”

Well, I certainly don’t speak for Red Sox Nation, but as the VP of RSN, I have two reactions to this whole Manny situation.

1. We can believe that Manny is telling the truth about his knee, or we can believe that he’s lying about it (or exaggerating). Either way, none of us knows whether his knee is truly hurt or not, so we might as well TRUST Manny. Why? For the simple reason that there is no good that can come from doubting him. And even if his knee isn’t sore enough to miss a game, the guy obviously has SOME reason that he needs a day off, a reason big enough to ask for a day to recover (and possibly even lie about an injury), so let’s just give him his day off and move on. We’d rather not play him anyway if he’s not feeling motivated and can’t get motivated. There’s no point in doubting Manny, and since the only data we have is his word, we might as well trust that.

2. Hello, sportswriters, team ownership, front office, and Red Sox Nation, is this whole “I need a day off” stuff from Manny really still surprising you? Did you think that Manny would suddenly undergo a metamorphosis this season and beg to play 162 games? Why haven’t we gotten over the outrage at this point and just accepted him as “Our Manny” and saved ourselves from the bother of getting angry every time he acts like…. Manny.

There’s a code of athletic conduct that I grew up with, and that’s part of the culture of U.S. professional sports, that says, “The team is the most important thing,” and “When you’re hurt, you play anyway, dammit.” But guess what? Manny didn’t learn this code in his childhood, and it hasn’t grown on him during his years in the Big Leagues. He’s a different animal. Way different. We all know this about him. So why do we keep driving ourselves crazy by getting mad at him? It’s sort of like getting mad at a two year-old for drawing on the walls with a crayon. That’s what two year-olds do. All of them. And that will never change.

Of course, the difference between Manny and two year-olds is, two year-olds learn to modify their behavior to comply with society’s norms. Manny never will. He’s a grown-up now, this is who he is.

But please also keep in mind that the very personality flaws that some of us find so frustrating in Manny also contribute to his greatness. There’s never been a more carefree, happy-go-lucky player, and I believe that that state of mind is a big reason why he’s so cool under pressure. Two strikes, two outs, down by a run in the bottom of the ninth with a runner on second? The whole stadium might be freaking out, but not Manny, he’s just chilling out in the batter’s box, looking for a pitch he can drive. And we all know, he’s better at this than 95% of all Major Leaguers.

Am I excusing Manny’s occasionally bizarre behavior just because he’s a Hall of Fame hitter? No. But Manny is a complex package, and after eight years with the guy, it’s a package we should all know well: Manny drives in runs. In the outfield, Manny waves to fans between every pitch. Manny demands days off regardless of the game’s importance. Manny strikes fear into every pitcher he faces. Manny enjoys himself all the time, even when he’s just made a huge error. Manny stands at home plate to admire his home runs. Manny sells grills on e-Bay. Manny is always among the league leaders in outfield assists. Manny rarely breaks a sweat running to first base. Manny doesn’t talk to the media, and when he does, he says the “wrong” thing. Manny is one of the greatest right-handed hitters of all-time.

Oh, and let’s not forget, Manny has two World Series rings. As Terry Francona said yesterday, “You know what, we have run into bumps in the road [with Ramirez] ever since I’ve been here. And there’s been some before I’ve been here. The result, two of the times, has been a World Series ring. And how you get to the end is what counts.”

If Theo Epstein thinks the Red Sox will win more games without Manny, he should trade him or not pick up his option for next year. (In Theo, I trust.) But please, no more outrage, no more surprise….. unless you really expected that someday we’d revise our favorite Manny phrase to, “It’s just Manny being Yaz.”

In November, 2007, I posted a great story about Manny being a good guy, a story that my father received in an email from a friend of his who randomly spent 15 minutes chatting with Manny following the 2007 Rolling Rally. It’s entitled, “Manny Being Magnanimous.”

The Yankees Make Life Sweeter

The Yankees are in town for a weekend showdown, and Boston Globe columnist Kevin Cullen has written a well-timed article making a case for the forced extinction of the chant, “Yankees Suck!” I couldn’t agree more with Kevin, and his article reminded me of a piece I wrote in March, 2008 for the Sox and Pinstripes blog, about why Red Sox fans actually love the Yankees more than we hate them. Here’s an excerpt from that article:

I’m Vice President of Red Sox Nation, and I love the New York Yankees. Are you a Red Sox fan who’s shocked by this statement? Guess what, you love them, too. In fact, the longer you’ve been a Red Sox fan, the greater your love is for them.

Close your eyes for a moment and imagine a world without the Yankees. Imagine there’s no rivalry between the Boston and New York baseball teams; in fact, there’s no legitimate “rivalry” between the Red Sox and any other team. Goose Gossage was never a nemesis and David Ortiz never hit those dramatic walk-off homers. Mariano Rivera played for the Reds so we hardly knew him, and George Steinbrenner owned the Phillies so his name merely rings a bell. 1978 never happened, but neither did 2004.

Do you find this vision enticing? Nah. Like me, you appreciate the way things have turned out so far (the painful times made the jubilant times more jubilant), and you’re dying of anticipation as you think ahead to future seasons of the greatest rivalry in all of sports. You’ll never root for the Yanks, but you’ll be happiest when they’re a top-notch team that buys whatever superstar they want…. then loses to the Red Sox in games that really count. And you’ll give Derek Jeter a “standing-O” in his last at-bat at Fenway Park because, like me, you deeply appreciate what he has contributed to your enjoyment of The Game – as a Yankee.

To read the article from Sox and Pinstripes in its entirety, click here.

There IS Crying In Baseball

Yes, with (almost) all of our pro sports teams winning and winning and winning, it’s a great time to be a young sports fan in Boston. Winning feels so darn good, doesn’t it? But losing is part of sports too, no matter how good our teams are, and its potentially painful effects are most transparent in the way kids respond to losses.

When he was six, my oldest son cried and cried and cried into my shoulder as we left Fenway Park following the last out of game three of the 2005 A.L. Division Series, a loss that gave the Chicago White Sox a sweep of the Red Sox. And when the Patriots lost the Super Bowl earlier this year, his whole 8 year-old body crumpled into a weeping blob in front of the TV. Losing was clearly a concept that he found difficult to grasp, let alone deal with.

But those were losses of teams he was merely rooting for. Losing a big game in which HE had played a major role hadn’t happened to him yet…. until last week, when his 8 year-old summer travel team lost its first game of the summer (after starting with five wins).

What a scene, as our opponents piled up runs at the end of the game to complete their impressive comeback. Boys sobbing on the bench, boys sobbing into their gloves in the outfield. Deep down, each boy had believed in the possibility of an undefeated season, so to them, it felt like an elimination playoff game. As they saw their hopes slipping away, the tears flowed and their bodies shook uncontrollably. It was almost comical.

And what can a coach say to an entire team of 8 year-olds that’s bawling, down by five runs with its last at-bat coming up? Part of you wants to say, “There’s no crying in baseball! STOP IT!” Part of you wants to say, “Come on guys, focus on your next at-bat, we can still come back,” and part of you wants to just hug them all and say, “It’s OK, it’s OK, it’s just a baseball game.” After the last out of the contest, the other team celebrated as though they had just won game 7 of the World Series, which made the loss even harder for our guys. Their distress was palpable.

I recently heard the famous, veteran Channel 4 sportscaster, Bob Lobel, say that that over the years, he learned a lot more from Boston’s biggest losses than he did from Boston’s biggest wins. I have no doubt that my son and his teammates learned a lot more from that loss than they did from any of their wins. And since it was my son who came in to “close” the game (after doing so successfully in two previous games) and ended up allowing the eventual winning runs, then striking out to make the final out of the game, I suppose he had the greatest learning opportunity!

I’d love to know the content of other parents’ conversations with their demoralized children on the long drive home from the game, but here’s how ours went:

Me: “Son, you should be proud, you did what we asked you to do – you threw strikes. That’s the only thing you could control. You did your job.”

My son: “All the coaches said the same thing. You did great, Crawford, because you threw strikes. But I know they really don’t mean it. What they really wanted was for me to get outs, not just throw strikes. I mean, it’s better if I throw balls out of the strike zone and the batters get out, than if I throw strikes and they get hits and score runs.”

Me: “But if you throw pitches out of the strike zone, you’ll walk batters and those always turn into runs. All you can do is throw strikes, and you did that.”

My son: “Daddy, the bottom line is that a pitcher is supposed to get people out. I mean, I don’t care if I strike out a kid or if he lines out to center field, an out’s an out. Just like it doesn’t matter if we win 20-0 or 2-1, a win is a win and the score doesn’t matter.”

Me: “Well, I won’t argue with that. But listen, it’s not your fault that the team lost. There were some errors behind you and the umpire made a questionable call. You had to pitch much longer than was necessary to get out of that inning. And give the other team some credit – they won the game by getting some key hits. It’s not your fault.”

My son: “You can say it’s not my fault, but the bottom line is that it IS my fault. I had control over how the game ended up. I could have made different pitches at different speeds and at different locations that would have made them not hit the ball or not hit it hard. And I also made the last out. If I had gotten a hit, maybe it would have started a five-run, two-out rally. So it IS my fault, Daddy, no matter what you say to try to make me feel better!”

Amazed at his mature sense of ownership and responsibility, I just told him, “Well, I’m proud of you – for how you played, and for having the guts to pitch in that situation.” We drove on in silence.

And as he drifted off to sleep in his booster seat, clutching his blankie, I said to myself, Losing a close game just stinks – whether you’re an 8 year-old in little league or a 28 year-old in the Major Leagues, and there’s nothing a mom or dad can do to help his/her child avoid losing, nor anything he/she can say to eliminate losing’s sting. A good night’s sleep and another game to play, it turns out, is the only remedy. Children, welcome to the wonderful world of competitive baseball, the most spectacular roller coaster ride ever invented…

To read a classic series of poignant articles chronicling a father’s observations of his 12 year-old son’s little league season (by Mark Kramer, featured in The Boston Globe), click here.

All-Stars Under the Stars

No, the Vice President of Red Sox Nation did not get a ticket to the All-Star Game at Yankee Stadium. Old friend Hank Steinbrenner never called. Neither did any of my other pals in New York. And as the day of the game approached, I dreaded the possibility of sitting on my couch and experiencing another baseball game on TV with the third grade-level commentary of Tim McCarver and Joe Buck. (Why doesn’t Remy ever get these national gigs, like he should? And doesn’t it make you laugh the way Joe Buck looks at the camera and smiles in precise 6-second intervals when McCarver is speaking?)

But my prospects brightened when I received an email from my son’s summer day camp: “Come watch the All-Star Game on an eight-foot screen under the stars — 7:00pm Kids’ Candy Ball, 7:30pm Kids’ Home Run Derby, 8:30pm Game Time. Popcorn, hot dogs, watermelon, and lemonade will be served. $5 per person.” Frankly, this sounded even better than a long trip to and from New York. And with all due respect to The House That Ruth Built, I’d have paid more for this “camp” baseball experience than for a front row ticket to Yankee Stadium from a scalper.

When I arrived at the All-Star event with my nine and six year-old sons, about 40 kids had gathered on the field for a game of “Candy Ball” — a game I had never heard of until then, which is odd because it’s just about the most enticing game for kids that’s ever been invented. The way this works is, one adult holds a tennis racket and whacks a tennis ball high into the air above a crowd of kids. All the kids gather under the ball as it dives towards Earth, smiles on their faces, then they all leap at the same moment to try to catch the ball. The player who DOES catch the ball (before it bounces) runs in and digs a piece of candy out of a big white bucket. (It’s a fabulous game for tall kids, and a really demoralizing one for short ones.)

Then came the Home Run Derby. With visions of Josh Hamilton in their heads, all kids got to take seven swings at slow lobs, and while most didn’t come close to hitting a baseball over the stone wall (perhaps 100 feet to the left and right field poles, and 150 feet to center), a few hit one to two dingers. My favorite moment was when my six year-old son took his whacks. He was (by far) the youngest kid there, but he stood up there and swung a heavy aluminum bat with all his might, and on his fifth swing he hit a line drive right back at the pitcher’s head (see photo). Pride and dignity swept over his face after that frozen rope.

The All-Star Game itself, the main event, was pretty cool. The kids and their parents gathered on a small grassy hill that looked down on a soccer goal, onto which a huge white sheet had been duct taped. A small silver box projected the game onto the sheet, and as the sky got darker and darker, the image on the sheet became sharper and sharper. A crowd of kids gathered at the very front and cheered loudly when Sox players were introduced. Of course, Yankees players were booed vociferously.

Three moments from the player introductions stand out. After the boos for Derek Jeter died down, I overheard one child wearing an Ortiz t-shirt say to the kid sitting next to him, “He’s my favorite Yankee, and I still hate him.” And when Kevin Youkilis was introduced, the whole crowd on the hill howled “YOOOOOOOOUK!” (What a stroke of luck for a player when he has a name that rhymes with “boo.” Remember the way we cheered for Lou Merloni? And when the fans ARE booing you, you can remain happily ignorant.) The most surprising moment during the team introductions was when Terry Francona trotted out of the Yankee Stadium dugout. He got the loudest cheers from the kids and adults assembled there — louder than Manny’s, louder than Youk’s, louder than Pedroia’s. The man is a true rock star.

Yeah, it would have been amazing to be in Yankee Stadium for all the farewell fanfare, to cheer for our hometown guys, and to see a great all-star game in person. But I was even happier being right where I should have been — with my kids, along with a herd of young Sox fans and their parents, sitting on a blanket about two miles from Fenway Park, under the full moon, watching the game on a bedsheet while munching on popcorn and watermelon, after a game of Candy Ball and a Home Run Derby.

“Is this Heaven?” Kevin Costner’s character asks his father in Field of Dreams. “No…. it’s Red Sox Nation. The heart of Red Sox Nation.”