Their last drop of goodwill wrung dry, the Red Sox and their brooding star parted ways. It was July 31, 2004, and the newly traded Nomar Garciaparra was headed out the door when Manny Ramírez embraced him and whispered a few words of encouragement in his ear.
Ramírez then turned to reporters and, in a rare moment of public reflection on the cold business of baseball, said, "That's why I never fall in love with one team."
Fans love the Sox, but Ramírez never did. For nearly eight years, he was a contract worker in the Fens, a magnificently paid enigma who helped revolutionize New England's baseball culture by powering the long-suffering Sox to two world titles before his threadbare bond with the franchise snapped and he went the way of Garciaparra, cast off in a crisis of mutual contempt.
The Sox are dead to him now, Ramírez said as he tried to help his temporary employer, the Los Angeles Dodgers, reach the World Series for the first time in 20 years.
"I moved on with my life," he said.
His next stop: anywhere but Boston. With a new giant contract awaiting him in free agency, the highest-paid athlete in New England history - the Sox lavished more than $160 million over eight years on Ramírez - has spent nearly every waking hour since he was traded July 31 trying to make the baseball world forget about the dark side of his days on Yawkey Way.
Better to enter the open market perceived as a Cooperstown-caliber slugger with a model work ethic and leadership skills than as a great hitter whose actions at times reflected a jaded respect for the game. Better to be the marvel of Mannywood than a malcontent whose Sox teammates finally all but mutinied against him.
The man with the memorable biceps tattoo - "Only the Strong Survive" - has returned to his multimillion-dollar manse near Florida's Gold Coast, where he plans to wait for superagent Scott Boras to sell his services to the highest bidder. The price could top $100 million.
"When you think about the parameters of who should be the highest-paid player in the game, Manny Ramírez fulfills them all," Boras said.
Boras said Ramírez, 36, wants to play at least six more years and expects to command a salary similar to Alex Rodriguez's. Boras negotiated a 10-year deal with the Yankees last year that guarantees Rodriguez an average of $27.5 million a season through 2017, when he will be 42.
Boras also struck a five-year, $90 million deal for Barry Bonds with the Giants in 2002 that ran until Bonds was 42.
"There is no question that Manny is in the same category of those extraordinary hitters," Boras said. "And Manny has done something those hitters have not done. He has won two World Series rings."
Let the bidding begin
The line to sign the future Hall of Famer will begin when the Dodgers exhaust their exclusive period to negotiate with him 15 days after the World Series (only a shockingly exorbitant offer would prevent Ramírez from testing the open market). With the Dodgers likely to remain in the mix, the rush of competing suitors may be led by American League teams, the Blue Jays among them, who could use Ramírez as a designated hitter as he ages, though the Mets and Phillies rank among several National League teams with potential interest.
Buyer beware? Not if Ramírez is judged by his performance since Aug. 1. After he purportedly fabricated a knee injury with the Sox in late July to bench himself for two games, Ramirez all but single-handedly propelled the Dodgers to the playoffs by batting .396 with 17 homers, 53 RBIs, and a .469 on-base percentage in his last 53 games of the season.
Recasting himself as an ebullient leader, he also rallied a moribund clubhouse by bridging the generation gap between a cadre of aging veterans, including Garciaparra, and a core of promising young players. He persuaded manager Joe Torre to drop his ban on music in the clubhouse. He regaled the media day after day, shifting the spotlight from struggling teammates. He boosted ticket and souvenir sales, and he made the Dodgers relevant again in Tinseltown.
"LA is a city with a fan base that is tremendously attracted to a star," Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti said. "But the star being a star is meaningless unless he produces, and Manny did that. From the first day he showed up, there was an excitement in the building, and it was felt by the other players on the club."
Ramírez's impact came as no surprise to Garciaparra. The former Sox All-Star asserted in an interview that the Boston brass unfairly tried to demonize Ramírez, just as team executives tried to do to Garciaparra, Pedro Martínez, and Mo Vaughn, among others, when they left town.
"Just follow the pattern, it's easy," Garciaparra said. "Some people should look in the mirror."
Sox officials have denied orchestrating negative publicity campaigns. But Garciaparra was not assuaged.
"I told the guys here, 'Don't believe everything you read about Manny, because it was wrong,' " Garciaparra said. "I said from day one that he was going to come in smiling, he was going to be great in the clubhouse, and he was going to be fun to watch, and I was right about every single thing."
New England was Garciaparra country when Ramírez debuted in Boston in 2001. But while Garciaparra sat out with a wrist injury, Ramírez quickly won over the region by batting .400 with 15 homers and 56 RBIs in his first 47 games. He went on to drive in more runs (920) during his eight-year contract than anyone in baseball but Rodriguez (1,011) and Albert Pujols (977).
Ramírez also flourished in the postseason, winning MVP honors in the 2004 World Series, and batting .321 with 11 homers and 38 RBIs in 43 games over four trips to the playoffs with the Sox. (For the Dodgers, he hit .520 with 4 homers and 10 RBIs in eight playoff games.) He also holds the all-time record for postseason home runs (28) and ranks 17th in career homers (527).
"Manny did what we hoped he would do when he signed with the Red Sox," said former Boston general manager Dan Duquette, who negotiated Ramirez's $160 million contract. "He may have been the best cleanup hitter in the American League during his time with the Sox."
Ramírez quietly endeared himself to his Boston teammates in other ways, from opening his wallet to help young players like Dustin Pedroia upgrade their wardrobes to withdrawing from the race for the 2003 AL batting title to benefit Bill Mueller. Mueller entered the final day of the season batting .327 to Derek Jeter's .326 and Ramirez's .325.
Ramírez, rather than compete for his second straight title, opted to sit out the final game after the Sox clinched a playoff berth.
"I haven't said this to anybody until now, but Manny told me, 'I want you to win, I'm not playing,' " recalled Mueller, now a special assistant to Colletti. "How great is that?"
After Jeter went 0 for 3 and dropped to .324, Mueller batted once, grounding out weakly, to finish at .326, 1 point ahead of Ramirez.
"My knees were shaking, I was a wreck," Mueller said. "If Manny played that day, he would have won it easily because he's so good."
When Colletti asked Mueller for a list of power hitters who could help the Dodgers, Mueller's list began with Ramírez.
"It was a pretty easy assessment," Mueller said. "Being around Manny for three years, I knew what kind of person he was and how hard a worker he was."
But there was another side to Ramírez - a side that caused his employers in Boston to wonder why paying him $20 million a year never seemed enough to compel his full commitment. He dogged it at times and lapsed into legendary gaffes on the base paths and in the field, much as he did in Cleveland before the Indians reportedly tested him for attention deficit disorder.
He angered some teammates when he sidelined himself with mystery ailments. Other times he invoked a tangled litany of family illnesses and deaths to evade his responsibilities, a pattern that President Bush cited in February when Ramírez skipped the team's visit to the White House.
"I guess his grandmother died again," the president joked.
Ramírez played only 30 games after the trading deadline each of the previous two seasons, and he appeared poised to stage another late-summer sitzkrieg this year as he grew angrier about the team's refusal to drop its options to retain him through 2010 for $20 million a year. Tensions escalated as he clashed with Kevin Youkilis in the dugout in June, angrily shoved 64-year-old traveling secretary Jack McCormick to the floor in July, and gave every indication he would continue to make life miserable for the team unless the Sox moved him.
"The Red Sox don't deserve a player like me," he told ESPN Deportes.
In the end, Sox management agreed.
"I would have liked to see him stay for a couple more years, but it wears on some of these guys to play a long period of time in Boston," Duquette said. "It looked like Manny was ready for a change, and it looked like he forced a change."
The Dodgers were more than happy to accommodate Ramirez, especially since the Sox waived his option years and paid the balance of his salary.
Boras described the ugly end of Ramírez's days in Boston as an inevitable breakdown between a star who repeatedly informed team executives that he wanted to play elsewhere and a front office that had yet to grant his request. He likened Ramírez's physical altercations with Sox personnel to Randy Johnson initiating a clubhouse fight with teammate David Segui in 1998 while Johnson pressed the Mariners to trade him (Seattle dealt him to Houston).
"Randy Johnson hit one of his teammates when he wanted to get out of Seattle," Boras said. "But you don't hear anything about Randy Johnson's character because he was unhappy in a particular place at a particular time."
Boras noted that Ramírez played in 22 of Boston's 24 games in July and that only Pedroia played in more games (107) among Sox players this season than Ramírez (100) before the trade. Boras dismissed as "speculation and allegation" the notion that Ramírez would have shut down after the trading deadline if he had not been sent elsewhere, and Boras said he could produce a volume of flattering quotes about Ramírez from his teammates through the years.
"When you talk about his character, the totality of the circumstances will ring true," Boras said.
As it turned out, Boston was good for Ramírez's bottom line. In addition to his $160 million salary, he earned more than $1.2 million in incentive bonuses ($150,000 as the World Series MVP, $100,000 for finishing third in the 2004 AL MVP race, $75,000 for finishing fourth in the 2005 MVP balloting, $75,000 for each of his eight All-Star selections, and $75,000 for each of his six Silver Slugger awards). He received nearly $600,000 in playoff shares, $1 million as a relocation bonus for moving to Los Angeles, and millions more in endorsement deals.
Endearing himself in LA
Despite the windfall, Ramírez has yet to fulfill his pledge to the Sox that he would donate $1 million to programs for Latino youth in the Boston area. Asked twice during the playoffs in Philadelphia to explain the lapse, Ramírez declined. (Boras said he was not familiar with the matter.)
Meanwhile, Ramírez projected himself with the Dodgers as a man of charity. He told the Los Angeles Times he would donate to various nonprofits the $40,000 the Sox fined him for shoving McCormick. He also said he would give the Mattel Children's Hospital at UCLA $1,000 for every home run, $300 for every RBI, and $100 for every single he recorded with the Dodgers, which would have amounted to $36,700 during the regular season.
Angelenos loved Ramírez so much that he seemed destined for a star on Hollywood Boulevard. The fans, many of whom chanted "Manny stay" in his final game, placed considerable pressure on the Dodgers to retain him. But team officials said they recognize the possibility that they saw only the best of Ramírez and may need to brace themselves for another side of the dreadlocked slugger if they gamble the franchise's future on him.
"I'm not naive enough to believe that people don't do what they have to do when they have to do it," Colletti said of Ramírez's contract drive. "I know his personality can be different from what I've seen. But I also have a touch of confidence that when you sit down with somebody face to face, you have a chance to build a relationship where there's accountability at both ends of the table."
The table stakes could be enormous.
Bob Hohler can be reached at email@example.com.