Identifying the best free agent signing in Red Sox history is about as hard as dunking on a child’s basketball hoop.
When the Red Sox plucked a flailing, young down-on-his-luck David Ortiz from the scrap heap before the 2003 season, they unknowingly executed a feat nearly on par with Bill Belichick’s 6th round selection of maligned Michigan starter Tom Brady in the 2000 NFL Draft. In both cases, the local team made history, but in neither case did they know it at the time.
It’s the historical caveat that kept Ortiz from being named the Red Sox’ best big-ticket free-agent signing ever in a recent MLB.com survey. At issue in the poll of 30 beat writers was not merely the result of the signing, but the weight of the move at the time it was inked. By these measures, the clear top pick for the Red Sox was Manny Ramirez -- and Ramirez may not have been the best merely for Boston, either. “In 1,083 games with Boston, Ramirez hit .312 with 274 homers and a .999 OPS,” wrote Ian Browne. “Combine those numbers with the two rings, and Ramirez isn’t just the best free-agent signing the Red Sox ever made, but one of the best by any team.”
With apologies to Nick Punto, this is on the money. Yes, Manny got a paltry 23.8 percent of the Hall of Fame vote, but that tells as much of the story as Ortiz’s glacially slow start in 2003 tells about his career as a whole. Ramirez remains something of a pariah to some around these parts, but it doesn’t change the massive impact he had here.
For every cent of the nearly $200 million they spent on him, Manny was worth it. He put up more than 36 bWAR in his seven-plus seasons in Boston; these numbers could be higher, but his defense dragged him down. Account for the nearly -12 bWAR he put up in the field and you get a better idea of his impact during the live-ball era, and that’s before you get to the trickle-down impact he had on the organization.
It’s easy to forget now that Boston was a non-destination for free agents before Manny signed, especially those who might have cottoned more easily to life in bigger cities. Manny grew up in New York City and had a chance to leave Cleveland for any number of places offering more money than a guy who couldn’t bother to cash his paychecks could ever spend.
Instead, he came to Boston, and opened the floodgates not just for other star signings but for signings of all shapes and sizes. He also solidified the Red Sox as a premier destination for Dominican players; Pedro Martinez was already here, but he came via trade. The volitional movement of any star player to Boston was a foreign concept before Manny’s arrival, but now it’s commonplace. While correlation doesn’t equal causation, but there’s a chance David Price, Hanley Ramirez and Carl Crawford* don’t sign here if Manny doesn’t get the ball rolling. Good players like playing with other good players, full stop.
*I’m sorry. I couldn’t resist.
Of course, the real reason Manny signed with the Sox was likely the insane amount of cash the team put on his doorstep, whether he wanted to spend it or not. The winter of 2000 was the craziest MLB free agent bonanza in history -- think last year’s insane NBA offseason, where jamoke after jamoke got $50 million+ multi-year contracts. In the winter of 2000, perpetually injured Darren Dreifort got $55 million for 5 years, and if your reaction is “Who?,” I’m pleased to announce you’re asking the right questions. More power to them and all, but it was clear the big three -- A-Rod, Manny and Mike Mussina -- were going to cost big money.
When Mussina inked with the Yankees, then-Sox GM Dan Duquette went hard after Manny, finally signing him after a contorted negotiation that ended with Manny asking the Sox to sign his favorite Cleveland clubhouse attendant as part of the deal. They wouldn’t do that, but Manny would sign anyway.
From the beginning, then, the image of Manny as an expensive man-child hovered over all his considerable success. Duquette would get axed despite the signing, and even Manny winning the 2002 batting title wouldn’t remove the bad taste the whole affair left in Boston. Sure, he was a great hitter — but the Sox needed so much more that he was seen as an albatross as much as an asset. He was, after all, put on waivers and traded for Alex Rodriguez prior to the 2004 season, before the A-Rod trade was nixed by the MLBPA. All he did in 2004 was win the World Series MVP award, and in the 2007 playoffs, he did this:
Of course, he’d leave for Los Angeles after that and become a pariah in these parts, booed in his return to Fenway for reasons that are either unclear to ugly enough that I’d rather not speculate about them. The one thing that’s beyond speculation is that none of the Sox’ considerable success over the last 15 years happens without Manny paving the way. Every parade needs a Grand Marshall, and Manny was ours, even if the parade continues without him — and, in many ways, continues like he was never even here.