Thursday, May 20, 2004

Game 40 - Red Sox
Renaissance Manny

Red Sox 4, Devil Rays 1
Record: 24-16

In October, the Red Sox placed Manny Ramirez on waivers, making him (and his $20 million per year contract) available for anyone who was willing to take on his salary. Then, throughout the holiday season, the Sox actively and openly shopped the enigmatic slugger to the Texas Rangers as part of the ill-fated quest for Alex Rodriguez. Last season saw Manny involved in a seemingly endless spate of minor controversies - expressing his sort-of desire to play for the Yankees, sitting out a game with a sore throat, meeting Enrique Wilson in a hotel bar while sick, and so on ad nauseum. Add all this to Manny's career-long reputation as a flake - deserved or not - and anti-superstar public profile, and Red Sox Nation was less than clueless about what to expect from the team's most prolific offensive force.

Sox fans desperately want to jump on the Manny bandwagon. He's goofy, he's fun-loving, he's an offensive machine. But he's always lacked the one thing that puritanical Bostonians and their spiritual ancestors adore: passion. Boston loves the gritty, gutty guy more than the supremely talented guy who makes it look easy. It's why Larry Bird's the pinnacle - he combined massive talent with an equally massive work ethic - and why Ted Williams had a bit of a love/hate relationship with Sox fans. Despite reports extolling his hard work, Manny's gametime actions have always seemed to lack urgency, from not running out a groundball here and there, to a laconic personal style, even when he was actually hustling.

This year, though, things look a little different. First of all, he's hitting the cover off the ball, posting a .368/.443/.632 (Avg/OBP/Slg) line, good for the 6th-best OPS in the majors. He's also started hitting longballs, with his 9th homerun last night. We expected those things. What's been unexpected, and joyous to watch, has been Manny's transformation into a fan favorite and clubhouse presence. He's been speaking out to the media, defending his teammates, and displaying a sense of humor we hadn't seen previously. He became an American citizen a few weeks ago, and celebrated by running to his position in leftfield at Fenway carrying a little American flag, basking in the cheers of Red Sox Nation as the wind whipped the banner behind him. He'd better be careful, or he's gonna find himself loved by Boston soon.

Schilling goes 7 strong, Manny hits a tater, as does Damon, and Foulke lowers his ERA to a staggering 0.40 with another 1 1/3 scoreless innings. At the quarter pole, the Sox are in a better position than I'd expected. Good times.

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