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Decision time

Ramirez clears waivers as teams refuse to take bait

The relationship started magically enough, with Manny Ramirez posing in front of the Green Monster, eating chowder, and declaring Nomar Garciaparra his idol after the Red Sox signed him to a stunning $160 million contract amid the joy of the Christmas season in 2000.

Sure, Yankee great Don Mattingly was his boyhood hero, Ramirez said during his introductory news conference on Yawkey Way. And, yes, he privately rued Boss Steinbrenner's decision to sign Mike Mussina as the Yankees' top free agent acquisition that winter, depriving Ramirez of a chance to play in the comfort of the Bronx, just across the Harlem River from the streets of his youth.

But the slugger buoyed the spirits of the Sox faithful by boldly stating, "I'm tired of seeing New York always win."

Now this: After enduring three unhappy years in Boston, Ramirez still can't go home. The Yankees again don't want him, Ramirez learned yesterday after he went unclaimed for 48 hours on irrevocable waivers as the Sox went to extraordinary lengths to prove a point to their fabulously wealthy left fielder with pinstripe envy.

No one, it turned out, wants to pay $95 million over five years (the balance of Ramirez's contract) even to one of the most productive hitters in the game. Not even the Yankees, whom Ramirez made clear to the Sox he wants to join.

The Sox effectively taught Ramirez a powerful lesson in the current state of baseball economics by offering him like a free Halloween treat to the other 29 teams in the majors. All a team needed to do to acquire a slugger who has averaged more than 36 homers and 119 RBIs over the last nine years was pay him nearly $20 million a season through 2008.

No chance. Not in today's market. The episode was enough to persuade Sammy Sosa to reject an escape clause in his contract and remain with the Cubs for $16 million a year through 2005. By most indications, the days of extravagant long-term contracts like Ramirez's ($160 million over eight years), Alex Rodriguez's ($252 over 10 years), and Derek Jeter's ($189 million over 10 years) may be over.

"I think everyone is beginning to realize how soft the market really is," one major league executive said. "Maybe a couple of owners or GMs don't get it yet, but this market is very, very soft."

The development leaves Ramirez with little more than hope the Sox can end his Boston blues via the trade market. But the Yankees appear less interested in taking Ramirez off Boston's hands than in investing in free agent outfielder Vladimir Guerrero, who at 27 may be approaching his peak and is likely to sign for considerably less than Ramirez's average salary. The Sox also would do nothing to help the Yankees, such as assuming a significant share of Ramirez's contract.

What's more, an industry source familiar with the thinking on Yawkey Way indicated the Sox appear adamantly opposed to shouldering a portion of the slugger's pay to play anywhere else. Last year, the Sox were willing to eat the balance of Darren Oliver's $7 million contract and Jose Offerman's $8.5 million deal (including a $2 million buyout) when the pair became unproductive. But with Ramirez still one of the most fearsome hitters in the game, the Sox have little interest in watching him put up All-Star numbers for someone else on their dime.

"We're looking forward to Manny having another productive year for the Red Sox, as he did this year," said team spokesman Kevin Shea.

Ramirez's agent, Jeff Moorad, said the slugger "will be just fine" if his only option is to rejoin the Sox next year. But there was little evidence to suggest Ramirez's comfort level would improve. Or that his occasional lapses of judgment and commitment will end. The slugger has yet to complete a season controversy-free.

Kevin Millar, one of the Sox leaders, said Ramirez works as hard, if not harder, than anyone on the team and generally maintains a positive attitude.

"Manny never caused problems in the clubhouse because he was unhappy with his situation," Millar said. "Obviously, he and his agent had talks with the Red Sox throughout the season, but we never heard about it from him. We just knew he had said he wanted to be traded and wasn't happy in Boston."

Despite Ramirez's generally upbeat demeanor, Millar and his teammates have struggled to understand how a player of Ramirez's talent and experience could sometimes act so disappointingly, as he did when he failed to report for a doctor's appointment while sitting out a series against the Yankees in September.

"He's got a good heart, a heart of gold," Millar said. "But there's also a gap there and he does some things that [tick] people off. I don't know why he does it."

The possibility remains that Ramirez could be moved in some fashion since Sox GM Theo Epstein has said he would listen to any offer for any player, however far-fetched. The trades in recent years of Mike Hampton and Mo Vaughn have proven that even the most cumbersome contracts can be swapped in a declining market. So the Sox would not rule out satisfying Ramirez's desire to move on if they believed they received similar or greater value in a deal, most likely a blockbuster.

The Sox already tried to prove a point to Ramirez by taking the unprecedented step of putting a player of his caliber on irrevocable waivers. Plenty of big-name players through the years have been placed on irrevocable waivers, but nearly all of them, including Rico Petrocelli (1977), Steve Carlton (1986), Ken Griffey Sr. (1990), and Bo Jackson (1991), were at or near the end of their careers. Teams that place players on irrevocable waivers cannot pull them back if another team claims them, unlike revocable waivers.

One of the only cases in recent years faintly similar to Ramirez's involved Tony Batista, who was placed on irrevocable waivers by the Blue Jays in 2001 in the second year of a four-year, $16 million deal. Unlike Ramirez, who went unclaimed, Batista was claimed by the Orioles. He recently completed his contract with Baltimore.

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