For better and worse, Red Sox management knew exactly what it was getting in Hanley Ramirez

Hanley Ramirez’s home run against the Astros Sunday could be a pivotal moment in the Red Sox’ season.Hanley Ramirez’s home run against the Astros Sunday could be a pivotal moment in the Red Sox’ season.
Hanley Ramirez’s home run against the Astros Sunday could be a pivotal moment in the Red Sox’ season.Hanley Ramirez’s home run against the Astros Sunday could be a pivotal moment in the Red Sox’ season. –Getty ImagesGetty Images

COMMENTARY

Given that this column comes in the interim between his winning home run in the most stirring victory of the Red Sox season and Tuesday’s suddenly interesting opener with the Marlins, I’ll understand if you initially interpret this as nothing more than an opportunistic defense of Hanley Ramirez.

It is not, I swear to you.

Let me make clear right now that the aforementioned d-word is the version pronounced de-fence, not dee-fence. Not even I, an accomplished apologist for every power-hitting, oft-clueless Red Sox left fielder throughout history with “Ramirez’’ sewn on his uniform, can contrive a way to use the glove-referencing version of the word favorably in the same sentence as that surname.

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I understand why paying customers are habitually agitated by his halfhearted defense and GPS-on-the-fritz baserunning. Hanley has all the flaws of Manny Ramirez, but they manifest themselves more often. When it comes to compensating for them, he is neither as charismatic nor as accomplished as Manny, who at his best provided unprecedented, idiosyncratic brilliance. Hanley flashes just enough similarities to Manny to make me miss Manny even more.

Hanley has filled another void left by Manny beyond being a remarkably gifted and dedicated hitter who appears disinterested on his best days at the other aspects of the game. Like his predecessor, he has become a lightning rod for fans’ frustrations.

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Some of the criticism is fair – how the hell can someone who played shortstop in the major leagues for eight years be such an abysmal left fielder?

Some is not. The June narrative that the Red Sox were better off without him is disingenuous, a lousy manifestation of preconceived notions. While the Red Sox are 7-7 when he’s not in the lineup, they also happen to be 10-5 playing without Dustin Pedroia this year. It’s not Hanley’s fault that Rick Porcello has turned into a one-man John Wasdin tribute band, you know?

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The more I’ve considered it, the more convinced I become that we’ve been looking at management’s decision to sign Ramirez to a four-year, $88-million contract all wrong. Whenever he’s struggled or exasperated Red Sox fans, a common refrain has followed in various forms of media: Hanley began his career in the Red Sox organization! They knew he was a pain in the ass! Shouldn’t they have known what they were getting?

Here’s where we had it wrong: They did know. And they figured it was worth it anyway.

I mean, hell, Ramirez’s disciplinary and clubhouse issues after he left Boston are common knowledge. And Molly Knight’s marvelous new book, The Best Team Money Could Buy, on the Dodgers of recent vintage, revisits and reveals details of his ups and downs with the Marlins and Dodgers.

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“Ramirez’s time in Florida was both offense-happy and offensive,’’ writes Knight. “He hit .342 with twenty-four home runs one year, and stole fifty-one bases twice. He was also benched for loafing after baseballs on defense, got into regular screaming matches with coaches, and came to public fisticuffs with his double-play partner, Dan Uggla.’’

When Ramirez was dealt to Los Angeles on July 25, 2012 – a deal that was soon overshadowed by the Adrian Gonzalez/Carl Crawford/Josh Beckett blockbuster exactly a month later – he was thrilled, turning on the charm just as he did at his introductory press conference with the Red Sox.

“Ramirez arrived in Los Angeles [during the 2012 season] acting like a hostage who had been freed,’’ writes Knight. “He showed up every day with a grin on his face and often talked about how all he wanted to do was help his team win. He was affectionate with teammates, granted interviews to reporters, and even posted cheesy inspirational quotes under the headline “Attitude is everything!’’ on his social media accounts. Many wondered if this happy-go-lucky chap was the same guy who almost got decked in his own clubhouse in Miami more than once.’’

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You think the Red Sox’ obsessively thorough front office didn’t do due diligence? Of course they did. They didn’t just know who decked him, but the identities, salaries, and batting averages of everyone who wanted to deck him. They knew he’s not always a good guy to have around when things aren’t going well, that he cares about his own at-bats above all else, that these flaws were established long before he was established.

And yet they signed him. Why? Because there are about 14 people on the planet who can hit a baseball with as much skill and authority, that’s why. Sure, Brock Holt, everyone’s favorite first-time All-Star, can get you that clutch opposite-field single. But Hanley is among a select group of active players – it may not even be 14 — who can one-arm a go-ahead home run with two strikes in what may prove to be a pivotal victory and make it look like the most effortless feat in the world.

A defense of his defense … that would be indefensible. A defense of his offense? Overdue. Ramirez is a premium hitter, one whose most similar player through age 30 is another familiar name: Nomar Garciaparra. While there are holes in Ramirez’s production – you’d think someone with 18 homers would produce more than 43 RBIs – his .827 OPS is tops on the team. Offensively, he has been pretty close to what management expected, especially when context is added to the times when he struggled.

Through the first 24 games of the season, he was a reasonable facsimile of peak Manny Ramirez, hitting 10 home runs with a .283/.340/.609 slash line.

On May 4, he ran into the wall adjacent to the left field line, a collision of such blunt force that the diagnosis of a sprained shoulder was cause to exhale. He came out of that game, missed the next four, returned … and slashed .211/.253/.254 over the next 18 games, failing to hit a home run during his 75 plate appearances in that span.

He ended that dinger-less skid with a homer on May 28 against the Rangers. He homered again the next day. He’s homered six more times since, with a .315/.359/.574 slash line over his last 29 games.

The season is barely half-over, and Ramirez’s season can already be easily divided into three precise and telling segments:

Hanley Ramirez’s OPS before his shoulder injury: .949.

Hanley Ramirez’s OPS while playing through a shoulder injury: .507.

Hanley Ramirez’s OPS after his shoulder healed enough for him to crush one-handed home runs again: .933.

Two points of emphasis here: 1) No one benefited from Ramirez playing through the injury. He did not receive the praise that is semi-annually foisted upon Dustin Pedroia when he plays through an injury at 70 percent of his normal production because it’s what a “gamer’’ is supposed to do, even if statistics chronically suggest it is detrimental to the team. 2) Ramirez’s decision to play was detrimental to the team. He wasn’t right, and he should have been on the DL — a status that is familiar to him, even as he has resisted it in the past. This is from The Best Team Money Can Buy on his attempts to play through injuries last year with the Dodgers:

“While on the surface it was an admirable endeavor, it wound up hurting the team. Ramirez kept getting injured almost as often as he had the year before, but he balked at going on the disabled list, in hopes that whatever ailed him wouldn’t take the full 15 days to heal. If Ramirez was unavailable but not on the DL, that left [manager Don] Mattingly with one less able body on the bench – sometimes up for up to a week. When Ramirez did play, many around the club didn’t think he gave maximum effort in the field …. Skip Schumacher had signed with the Reds in the offseason, and when his new club played the Dodgers he gave the Cincinnati paper a telling quote. “That lineup is very good,’’ Schumacher said, “When certain guys want to play it’s ever better.’’

Skip Schumacher. Now there’s a guy who could play through an injury without any drop in production whatsoever.

In Knight’s book (seriously, go order this now – it’s right there with Michael Silverman’s “Pedro’’ and Bill Pennington’s “Billy Martin’’ on the short list of the best baseball book’s I’ve read this year), Ramirez also shows a sense of self-awareness that isn’t part of his standard and nuance-free character profile. During a you’d-better-shape-up meeting with Yasiel Puig, Knight writes that Ramirez offered some particularly poignant advice.

“I just don’t want your career to go the way my career went,’’ he said, of his time with the Marlins. “All of my teammates hated me because of the way I played.’’

We knew that teammates had serious issues with him at times. The Red Sox knew as much when they signed him. Yet they brought him in because he is capable of moments such as Sunday’s winning one-armed homer. Or this anecdote, recounted by Knight, regarding a crucial Ramirez home run during a July 2013 extra-innings victory over the Diamondbacks, one that got the Dodgers to .500 on the season en route to the division title.

“After [D-Backs starter Josh] Collmenter finished warming up to begin the top of the fourteenth, Ramirez began his slow walk toward the batter’s box. Ellis called after him from the on-deck circle. “Show me why you’re the best hitter I’ve ever played with,’’ he said. Ramirez said nothing. Ellis didn’t think he had heard him. … Collmenter set his feet on the rubber and popped a first-pitch cutter toward Ramirez. The ball was up and away, out of the strike zone. It wasn’t a good pitch to hit but that didn’t matter to Ramirez. His eyes widened, and his black bat at the baseball. The ball screeched out to right field and cleared the fence on a line drive. Ramirez rounded the bases alone, and pointed to the sky with both hands when he crossed the plate. Then he skipped toward Ellis and slapped him five. As Ellis began to walk toward the batter’s box, Ramirez turned around and said to him, “That’s why.’’

Go ahead, ask yourself the question again if you must: Why did the Red Sox sign him?

You know the answer. It’s right there in that anecdote. It was right there Sunday.

That’s why.

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