By Howard Ulman Associated Press
BOSTON — Homers or hijinks, Red Sox fans never knew what they would get from Manny Ramirez. Now it’s their turn to surprise the enigmatic slugger.
Will they think of his leisurely trots down the first base line and boo? Or will they recall his drives over the Green Monster and cheer?
Ramirez’s former Boston teammates aren’t predicting how the crowd will react when he brings his act back to Fenway Park tonight for the first time since being traded in 2008. He’s expected to be the designated hitter for the Los Angeles Dodgers in the opener of a three-game series.
“People around here watched him play for a long time and have mixed emotions,” J.D. Drew said Thursday. “It’ll be interesting, that’s for sure.”
Mike Lowell, one of baseball’s most down-to-earth players, plans to listen closely to the reception for the flaky Ramirez.
“I’m kind of curious to see how they react,” he said. “His offensive numbers were great, but I’m sure some people (thought) other things maybe were less than desired. So I guess it’s a big wait and see.”
In 7½ seasons with the Red Sox, Ramirez batted .312 with 274 homers and 868 RBI. He was the MVP of the 2004 World Series when Boston won the title for the first time since 1918. And he worked very hard in the batting cage.
He also high-fived a fan in Baltimore after making a leaping catch before throwing the ball in to finish a double play. Against the Angels, he dove for a fly then rolled onto the ball that had fallen in front of him. By the time he retrieved it, Maicer Izturis had a triple.
And he angered team management. One of the last clashes came when he said he couldn’t play because of a knee problem but couldn’t say which knee hurt. MRIs showed no damage. A few days later, on July 31, 2008, he was traded to the Dodgers.
“I think people have to keep in mind that you’re talking about a guy that had a lot to do with two World Series that we won here,” David Ortiz said. “He’s more than earned respect from fans. That will be the thing that me, as a fan, will focus on.”
Fans may not get to see a lot of Ramirez. Dodgers manager Joe Torre plans to use him at designated hitter in all three games.
“I think it’s probably the best thing just to keep him in the lineup for three games,” Torre said. “Manny was a fan favorite there for a lot longer than he wasn’t a fan favorite. But as far as (how) they’re going to receive him, I’d like to think they’d thank him for all he did there.”
“There is nothing negative about managing Manny,” he said. “He’s been a good teammate and that’s my main concern.”
Ramirez has hit well in his last four games, going 7 for 13 with two doubles, two homers, six runs and five RBIs. In a 7-1 loss at Cincinnati on Thursday, he pinch hit with the bases loaded and two outs in the eighth inning and grounded out to shortstop.
One of Lowell’s most vivid memories of Ramirez is a long three-run homer he hit off Francisco Rodriguez of the Angels to give Boston a 6-3 win and a 2-0 lead in the 2007 AL division series. Boston went on to sweep the Colorado Rockies for its second World Series championship in four years.
“I basically could have bet the house he was going to throw a slider there and he threw a fastball in and Manny was on it and basically hit it over the lights” in left field, Lowell said. “That showed me when he’s locked in I don’t think anyone can dominate him at the plate.”
And what might Ramirez recall about his time at Fenway Park?
“I don’t know if he’ll remember that I’m the manager,” Terry Francona said.
Francona remembers when left fielder Ramirez cut off a throw from center fielder Johnny Damon intended for an infielder, allowing Baltimore’s David Newhan to get an inside-the-park homer on July 21, 2004.
“That’s one of the few times I was able to laugh after a tough loss,” Francona said. “He was so proud of himself. He left his feet and made a great play.”
Ramirez won’t do that if he Torre sticks to his designated-hitter plan.
“I kind of found it entertaining the way he played defense every once in a while,” Lowell said, “but I think that added to his aura that we all thought was so creative.”
Drew put it more bluntly.
“He’s a little bit of a different breed,” Drew said. “He’s got his own little characteristics. He can be one of the greatest players at times and other times you kind of scratch your head, but he’s a unique character.”