After his inaugural 49 games as a Boston Red Sox, this much we are certain of regarding Jason Bay: He is a very easy ballplayer to admire, particularly in direct comparison to his petulant predecessor in left field.
By all accounts and appearances, Bay is a pro's pro, a natural fit in Theo Epstein's post-Idiots, businesslike clubhouse. He runs out every last grounder, wields a more-than-capable glove in left field, and deftly makes his way around the bases without requiring a GPS system.
There are no whispers that he needs to be talked onto the team plane, and he seems to lack a toddler's imagination for coming up with fictional injuries. Chances are he'll never be the subject of a Curt Schilling "Clubhouse Confidential'' report on a sports radio station near you.
His statistics -- 31 homers and 101 RBI this season between Boston and Pittsburgh -- insist he's a star, but his demeanor suggests Friendly Next-Door Neighbor.
Yes, Jason Bay is the anti-Manny. And that, Sox fans, is the catch as the Sox immerse themselves in their American League Divisional Series matchup with the Los Angeles Angels.
There is not an ounce of hyperbole in the suggestion that Bay never played a meaningful major league game before he arrived in Boston. He spent much of the first five years of his career stuck in baseball purgatory in Pittsburgh, laboring admirably for a franchise that hasn't had a winning season since Barry Bonds wore a cap three sizes smaller and had Coco Crisp's physique.
Bay's experience -- or lack thereof -- at this time of year should be of nearly as much concern to the Red Sox as the condition of Josh Beckett's oblique, Mike Lowell's hip, J.D. Drew's back or the constantly fluctuating state of the enigmatic bullpen. Although he is obviously the more established big leaguer, he is as much a novice as newbies Jed Lowrie and Justin Masterson when it comes to the unique challenges that arise in October, when the nights are cool and the pressure reaches the boiling point.
And this, as all of your World Series commemorative trinkets from '04 and '07 will surely remind you, was the time of year when Sox fans were always glad the maddening idiot savant for whom Bay took over in left field was on their side.
Ramirez napalmed every bridge but the Tobin on his way out of town, and other than David Ortiz and the occasional blind and stubborn apologist (hi there), the consensus regarding his departure bordered on the unanimous: Good bleepin' riddance. He had to go -- he had to -- and Epstein deserves at least cursory mention in the Executive of the Year voting just for getting a player of Bay's quality for Ramirez in those final desperate hours before the trading deadline.
For all of his bizarre quirks and infantile behavior, though, Ramirez remains undeniably one of the all-time great hitters (he's ninth on the career list in OPS). Judging by the patently ridiculous numbers he's put up for the Dodgers (.396, 17 homers, 53 RBI in 53 games), it's clear the sun still hasn't set on his prime, even at age 36.
Although Manny hasn't always raised his game in the postseason, he usually maintains an elite level, which is plenty good enough: In 95 (95!) postseason games and 353 at-bats over his 15 seasons prior to this one, the 2004 World Series MVP batted .269 (remember, he's typically facing top-shelf pitchers) with 24 homers and 64 RBI. His postseason OPS is .889, and his accomplishments and value extend beyond the numbers on the back of his baseball card.
Skeptical? Quick, what was your most memorable moment of last year's ALDS showdown between the Red Sox and Angels? Something tells us Francisco Rodriguez remembers.
As much as we have come to appreciate Bay and his dependable, well-rounded game (and personality), there is no denying it: The Red Sox lineup is significantly weaker without Manny in the middle. Ramirez and Ortiz were the closest thing to Ruth and Gehrig our generation (and our dads' generation, for that matter) has been blessed to witness, and with Ramirez now off winning ballgames and charming unknowing fans in Los Angeles, Ortiz couldn't be faulted for feeling like the Lone Ranger without his Tonto. Oh, Papi certainly knows the Red Sox have a very good team. He also knows he's not going to get nearly as many pitches to hit, especially if those following him in the lineup fail to do their part.
To their credit, the Red Sox have gone to great lengths to make sure any comparisons of Bay and Ramirez are limited. Terry Francona eased his new left fielder in slowly, batting him fifth in his Boston debut Aug. 1 even when there was a glaring hole in the No. 4 spot in the order (which Kevin Youkilis has since expertly filled). And the Pittsburgh-to-Boston transition could not have been smoother -- Bay batted .293 with nine homers in 184 at-bats with the Sox. So far, expectations have been reasonable, and Bay has met or exceeded them.
But this is different. It's October, the postseason, the pressure cooker. The Red Sox are in a situation with which Bay is unfamiliar, and one where his Cooperstown-bound predecessor thrived.
It may not be fair, but it's damn sure the reality: The burden falls on Bay, perhaps more than on any other player in the
Boston lineup, to attempt to replace the irreplaceable.
Jason Bay doesn't have to pick up all of the slack for Manny Ramirez.
But if he does anything less than his part against the Angels, NESN will have to reshoot that ubiquitous commercial, because Boston will no longer be so nice to the new guy.
OT columnist Chad Finn is a sports reporter for Boston.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.