I once asked a prominent relief pitcher to describe the most idiotic thing he had witnessed in the big leagues. "That's easy," he said, and launched into the story of a former teammate—an All-Star outfielder—who refused to use toilet paper. A clubhouse attendant supplied the player with a daily ration of hand towels, which, when soiled, would be flushed.
One afternoon the reliever came in from batting practice to find the locker room awash in frantic maintenance workers. When he asked a plumber what all the fuss was about, he was told that a washcloth-clogged toilet had overflowed and was threatening to submerge the bathroom stalls. "Of all the dumb stuff I've seen that particular outfielder do," the stopper told me, "that was the dumbest."
That particular outfielder was, of course, Manny Ramirez.
Of all the dumb stuff the Boston slugger has done since then—playing left field with a water bottle jammed in his back pocket (2003); diving to cut off the center fielder's relay throw; allowing a batter to score on an inside-the-park home run (2004); climbing into the Green Monster and chatting on a cell phone during a pitching change (2008)—he has never topped his hand towel hijinks. Until last week, that is, when the future Hall-of-Famer swung weakly at Boston management over his contract status.
The Red Sox hold $20 million options on Ramirez for 2009 and 2010, and are under no obligation to act until November. Yet the outfielder wants the team to either renew the first option or offer him a new multiyear deal.
"I want no more **** where they tell you one thing and behind your back they do another thing," Ramirez told the Boston Herald. "I think I've earned that respect, for a team to sit down with me and tell me this is what we want, this is what we want to do."
Principal owner John Henry has called Ramirez's remarks "personally offensive," but has promised to sit down with the 36-year-old after the season. Privately, front-office officials say the 2009 option will not be exercised. If the club does fail to re-up, Ramirez—who says he wants to stay in Boston—will become a free agent.
Ramirez, in the eighth and final guaranteed season of a $160 million pact he signed in 2000, is batting .301 with 19 homers and 62 R.B.I.'s. But while he ranks fourth in the American League in on-base percentage and 10th in slugging, his many Manny Moments have been about as endearing as a brimming commode.
"The guy is totally passive-aggressive," fumes a member of the Red Sox hierarchy.
Ramirez showed his aggression on June 5, when he was caught on camera backhanding and grabbing teammate Kevin Youkilis in the dugout. Three weeks later he pushed 64-year-old traveling secretary Jack McCormick to the ground in an argument over free game tickets. He later apologized to McCormick, and was fined some $15,000.
Ultimately, passivity may make the franchise pass on Ramirez. During the ninth inning of a July 6 game at Yankee Stadium, he was called on to pinch hit against closer Mariano Rivera. With two out and the go-ahead runner on third base, he watched three called strikes to end the threat.
"Doing nothing was Manny's way of slapping us in the face," says a team executive. The Yanks won the game in the 10th inning. "I was surprised he didn't take the bat off his shoulder," Rivera said. "I don't know what he was thinking."
Andrew Zimbalist has a pretty good idea what the Sox are thinking. The Smith College sports economist notes that stats wonk Bill James, an adviser to the team on player personnel, says performance peaks at age 28. "The Red Sox have become very cautious about signing older players," says Zimbalist. "They spent $8 million on Curt Schilling last November, and got burned when it turned out his shoulder injury would cost him the entire 2008 season."
On the debit side, Zimbalist calls Ramirez a "loose cannon" and an adequate, injury-prone left fielder whose sentimental value isn't in the same ballpark as, say, Big Papi's. "Manny's popularity with Boston fans is not what Derek Jeter's is to New York's," he says. "The Fenway faithful have become more and more willing to say goodbye to him."
The Sox have tried to bid farewell to Ramirez on numerous occasions. They put him on waivers after the 2003 season, then tried to trade him for Alex Rodriguez. Today, Zimbalist says, Ramirez would fetch about $13 million a year on the free-agent market—as much as $15 million if the Yankees entered the bidding. Rivera notwithstanding, over the last three seasons Ramirez has hit .467 versus the Bronx Bombers. Only Jimmie Foxx and Ted Williams have more career home runs against them.
Ramirez grew up in Washington Heights and would no doubt love to be a Yankee. But would the Yankees love to have him? With 37-year-old designated hitter Jason Giambi almost certain to be set free, Ramirez would make a solid replacement. Still, in 2009, the club will already have three brittle 35-or-older regulars whose best position is D.H.: Hideki Matsui, Johnny Damon, and Jorge Posada. If Ramirez were to rotate with Damon in left, an awful lot of salary would be left on the bench.
On top of that, Ramirez's new agent is the dreaded Scott Boras. Last year Boras counseled Rodriguez to opt out of the final three years of a 10-year, $252 million contract with the Yanks. When no other team even made an offer, A-Rod hired a managing director of Goldman Sachs to negotiate a deal with New York. The team had refused to speak with Rodriguez if Boras were involved.
"For years, the Red Sox have enabled Manny's most outlandish behavior," says a rival agent. This time around, the front office seems unwilling to take his crap.