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Manny's last laugh

4/9/2011
Manny Ramirez walked away from the game Friday. Jim Rogash/Getty Images

BOSTON -- Manny Ramirez looks like a different guy this spring, we heard over and over. Wow, his bat speed looks so much better, scouts raved. The guy is in phenomenal condition, they said. He looks a lot stronger, they said.

The Red Sox players saw the same thing. After word broke Friday that Ramirez had retired instead of facing suspension, David Ortiz said that the Boston players talked in their dugout this spring about how good Manny looked, how quick his bat was. This was especially striking, because late last season, in his brief time with the White Sox, Ramirez's bat speed had all but disappeared, and evaluators from some teams were convinced he was finished.

But now he's gone, retiring abruptly after he was informed that he had tested positive for a performance-enhancing drug and faced a possible 100-game suspension.

Former teammates like Jonathan Papelbon and Ortiz and B.J. Upton and Andre Ethier spoke respectfully about what a good teammate he was, what an incredible talent he was. And Hall of Fame voters, like colleague Jayson Stark and I, will mention, fairly, the incredible numbers Ramirez compiled, the 555 home runs and the .312 career average, and we will weigh how the circumstances of his retirement will weigh in the rendering of his legacy.

And where is Manny in all of this? Well, he's probably laughing at everybody.

Legacy? Hall of Fame? Teammates? Does anyone really think, after all we've seen in the past decade, that Ramirez cares about any of that?

He won. He's like the guy who robbed a bank of millions and was sentenced to 10 hours of community service.

According to his page on Baseballreference.com, Manny Ramirez made over $200 million for his career. How many of those dollars, those 555 home runs, were hit with the help of performance-enhancing drugs? Who knows? You could say a handful or you could say all of them and this would be fair speculation, given the evidence of his stunningly shameless use of performance-enhancing drugs in recent years.

For the first half of Ramirez's career, Major League Baseball was a wild, wild West of steroid use, with widespread use and virtually no oversight. Oh, sure, there was a loose structure in place whereby a crackdown was possible, but no one ever really did anything.

But in 2002, the players' union that Ramirez is a part of took its first steps toward drug testing, largely because a number of players within it lobbied quietly for change. Veterans like Todd Zeile had come to understand that the increase in drug use had forced many players to make a very difficult decision: Either stay clean, without benefit of performance-enhancing drugs, and risk being surpassed professionally by players who were juicing; or join the crowd and take the drugs too.

The union agreed to survey testing, in an effort to keep all of the union brethren on a level playing field. And despite the fact that everybody knew when the tests were being administered, and despite all that was at stake for the reputation of the union, Ramirez reportedly tested positive in 2003. He apparently didn't care about the whole level playing-field thing, or the fact that a positive test might lead to more testing for others; he used anyway. He was perfectly willing to cheat teammates, cheat other players.

In the summer of 2008, as his contract with the Red Sox was set to expire, he forced his way out of Boston -- convincing club executives that he was intent on sabotaging the team -- and in two months with the Dodgers, he put on a stunning display of production, hitting about .400. He looked liked a different guy with the Dodgers. His bat speed looks so much better, scouts raved. The guy is in phenomenal condition, they said. He looks a lot stronger, they said.

And after getting an extension of two years and $45 million, he was suspended under the terms of baseball's drug policy. In other words, knowing all the risks -- to his own legacy, his Hall of Fame chances, his reputation -- he apparently opted to drug up, to cheat his employers, teammates, union brethren.

His last months with the Dodgers were an embarrassment. He was often hurt, and only intermittently productive. The Dodgers, finally fed up with him, dumped him in a late-season deal with the White Sox, and Ramirez mustered exactly one RBI.

Manny was very motivated as he joined the Rays, we heard. He was in tremendous condition, we heard. This was another contract year.

And for at least the third time in his career, he weighed the risks versus the rewards and signs seem to indicate he opted to juice up, again. He was willing to break the rules and cheat his employers, teammates, union brethren, and fans. He got caught, and his career is over.

Let's be real about this: Manny Ramirez wasn't the only one who cashed in on Manny being Manny. The Indians and the Red Sox and the Dodgers made money from his production and from that what-a-wild-crazy-guy image -- Mannywood? -- and the media feasted, as well; there were probably more words written and spoken about Manny in the past decade than any player not named Barry Bonds or Roger Clemens.

But now Manny is headed to Spain, where he can have a big laugh at the expense of all those folks he left behind.

He won.

Sean Marshall feels like Ramirez took something away from him, as Gordon Wittenmyer writes. I've had similar conversations with other players, and some executives have noted that Ramirez's drug use may have altered the future of former Arizona GM Josh Byrnes and ex-manager Bob Melvin. The Diamondbacks appeared destined for the playoffs in 2008, but a late rush by the Manny-fueled Dodgers ended with Arizona sitting on the sidelines, and in less than two years, both Melvin and Byrnes had been fired.

• And the hits just keep on coming for the Rays, who, in the past six months, have:

1. Lost every major piece of what was the best bullpen in the American League.

2. Lost free agents Carl Crawford and Carlos Pena from their everyday lineup -- as well as their clubhouse, where those two were important parts of the structure.

3. Lost their best player, Evan Longoria, to a significant oblique injury in the first hours of this season.

4. Lost Ramirez, whose presence was theoretically going to force opposing pitchers to pitch to Longoria, because of the threat he posed at the plate. Now the Rays are going to have to pick from an imperfect set of candidates for the cleanup role, and Longoria probably is going to have to work very hard against expanding his strike zone, as opposing pitchers navigate around him.

The Rays are surprised and hurt, writes Marc Topkin. The Rays paid Ramirez about $87,912 for his 17 at-bats.

The Rays rallied to beat the White Sox in their first game without Ramirez. From Kenton Wong of ESPN Stats & Information: Their five-run ninth gave them their first lead in any game this season. According to Elias: The Rays set an all-time record by not having a lead in their first 62 innings of the season. That passes the 1992 Detroit Tigers, who did not lead in their first 60 innings.

Tampa Bay scored nine runs Friday. That is more than they had in their first six games combined (eight).

Phil Hughes threw 47 pitches against the Red Sox on Friday and generated one missed swing -- by Kevin Youkilis in the second inning, and the expression on Youkilis' face afterward was along the lines of You gotta be kidding me ... He was not fooled; he just couldn't believe he missed the ball. Hitters have a phrase about pitchers with benign stuff -- "Good eatin'" -- and this is certainly how the Red Sox saw Hughes.

And it was how Joe Girardi saw him, as well, because he removed him before the third inning started.

Hughes threw well enough in the first half of last season that he was named to the American League All-Star team, and now he is a complete mystery to the Yankees; they have no idea if he'll contribute anything this season, because right now, he has no weapons. His velocity is down significantly -- he was throwing in the 89-90 mph range in his start against Boston on Friday -- and the movement on each of his pitches has all but disappeared. His fastball is flat, his cutter drifts, his curveball rolls instead of biting.

Why? Well, the Yankees don't think he's hurt. They think that most seasons of his career, Hughes has tended to build velocity from the outset of a season, rather than starting the year with good velocity, as he did in 2010.

But there may also be concern that as Hughes used the cut fastball effectively in the first half of last year, it took a toll: His arm angle -- which isn't the same as release point -- gradually got lower, and the quality of his fastballs diminished. His struggles really began last year.

His numbers month-to-month, last season:

April: 2-0, 2.00

May: 4-0, 3.13

June: 4-1, 5.17

July: 2-2, 5.22

August: 4-2, 4.22

September: 2-2, 4.67

But there are numbers that are more telling, such as his strikeout ratio:

April 9.0 (per nine innings)

May 9.1

June 6.9

July 6.4

August 5.9

September 7.7

Hughes' velocity was down all spring, and in his first start of this season, it looked like some of the Tigers' hitters -- most notably Miguel Cabrera -- were all but running up to the ball, like Happy Gilmore teeing off. In two starts this year, Hughes has allowed three homers and generated one strikeout, and allowed 11 runs in six innings.

What now?

Well, his next scheduled start is against the Orioles on Tuesday, and then the hot-swinging Rangers five days after that. But the Yankees could temporarily remove Hughes from the rotation and replace him with Bartolo Colon until they see better stuff from the right-hander. Hughes has an excellent reputation for listening, for working on adjustments, and right now that is needed in a big way.

The Yankees are going to be patient with Hughes, writes Joel Sherman.

The Yankees couldn't recover from his ugly outing, as Mark Feinsand writes.

• The Red Sox players credited Theo Epstein for his pregame speech, after feasting on Hughes and ending their losing streak. The Boston bullpen worked well, as Peter Abraham writes. Yaz threw out the first pitch.

• The Giants' players will get their rings today.

Dings and dents

1. Hanley Ramirez exited with a bruised leg, in the midst of a Florida win, as Juan Rodriguez writes.

2. Ross Ohlendorf has a hurt shoulder.

3. Domonic Brown has started swinging a bat.

4. Brandon Webb had a good bullpen session, as mentioned within this notebook.

5. Tsuyoshi Nishioka is not well-versed in hard slides, writes La Velle Neal.

6. Mat Latos is ready to go.

7. The Orioles are all banged up, which can't be a surprise; it's a team with a lot of players bearing injury histories.

Moves, deals and decisions

1. Mike Aviles was benched, as Bob Dutton writes.

2. Eric Wedge made a statement with the way he handled Jack Wilson's refusal to play the other day, writes Larry Stone.

3. The Rangers added a couple of relievers.

4. The D-backs signed Ron Mahay.

5. Mark Teahen was in the starting lineup for the White Sox.

Friday's games

1. Chipper Jones was The Man, as the Braves came back to beat Cliff Lee and the Phillies. Bobby Cox got a warm welcome in throwing out a ceremonial first pitch.

2. Max Scherzer pitched well in the Tigers' home opener, focusing through the hoopla, as Drew Sharp writes.

3. Albert Pujols made a pivotal error.

4. The Diamondbacks had a smashing home opener, writes Nick Piecoro.

5. The Astros were booed in their home opener.

6. The Rockies lost in extra innings, and Troy Tulowitzki would really, really like a winning April, as Jim Armstrong writes.

7. The Mariners got pounded by Cleveland.

8. Brian Wilson had a rough outing in the Giants' win, but he's not worried.

9. Travis Wood made mistakes and he paid for it, as John Fay writes.

10. The Indians are in first place after crushing the Mariners, as Paul Hoynes writes.

11. Cliff Lee got blistered, and as David Murphy writes, the Phillies' starters have a 6.19 ERA through the first seven games.

12. You can't stop the Pirates, you can only hope to contain them: They beat the Rockies in extra innings.

13. The Cubs won their first game in Milwaukee, and hope this gets the ball rolling.

14. Matt Thornton had an ugly ninth inning, as Toni Ginnetti writes.

15. The Twins rallied late, as Joe Christensen writes. Joe Nathan got his first save at Target Field, writes Kelsie Smith.

16. Randy Wolf had another ugly outing.

17. Brett Anderson was brilliant, until the eighth inning, as Susan Slusser writes. Oakland's bullpen situation is hurting them.

18. The Dodgers and Padres played in the rain, until their game was suspended well after midnight, as Dylan Hernandez writes.

19. The Angels dropped their home opener.

20. Jayson Nix mashed another homer for the Blue Jays, and this one was pivotal, as Richard Griffin writes.

21. Jordan Zimmermann shut down the Mets.

22. Jose Reyes showed the good and bad of his skill set, as John Harper writes.

Other stuff

• Stan Musial has been battling Alzheimer's, as a book by old friend George Vecsey reveals. I've read this and it's excellent.

Brandon Inge is fired up to watch some hockey tonight.

Todd Helton has a knack for digging the balls out of the dirt.

• Tony La Russa had a scare in the air.

• The A's and Brewers could share a spring training site, writes Michael Hunt.

• The ups and downs suit J.R. Towles.

Vernon Wells is off to a slow start.

• Rob Dibble and his former employers disagree. Strongly. And Stephen Strasburg disagrees with Dibble, too.

Edinson Volquez is looking for solutions to his first-inning problems.

• Bruce Bochy is working hard to keep the Giants focused, writes John Shea.

• Ernie Harwell's son stepped in for him, as Mike Brudnell writes.

• The late Dave Niehaus was honored by the Mariners.

• The jurors asked to hear the transcripts in the Barry Bonds case, and this is being read as a good sign for the prosecution.

And today will be better than yesterday.