The proverbial change of scenery scenario is almost as old as Fenway Park. A player thought to be a secured ingredient in a team’s fortunes proves less enough of that, for various reasons, that when the team decides to let him walk into free agency, or makes a nebulous attempt to re-sign him, or trades him away, the team can’t resist thinking that the old change of scenery will do the player and, perhaps, the team a huge favour.
It works in individual ways. Kevin Youkilis, for example, has enjoyed a healthy mini-renaissance with the Chicago White Sox, almost from the moment he was all but run out of Boston, following an early season dust-up over Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine publicly questioning his heart when his field production began to collapse, not to mention an injury or three that further sapped his numbers, if not his spirit. Now Hanley Ramirez has launched himself to a reasonably respectable beginning with the Los Angeles Dodgers, to whom he was traded a few days ago, after all but being run out of Miami.
Maybe the worst kept secret in baseball has been that Ramirez had become less than the glittering superstar he once looked to be, in hand with a disposition that could be described, charitably, as less than chipper. “Ramirez, for all his talent, was a player of diminishing production over the past few years, ultimately not up to the role of being the focal point around which a team could be built,” writes the Miami Herald‘s Greg Cote. “He had eroded from a budding superstar to a falling star. He was too often selfish and temperamental—his attitude well-reflected recently when he sliced his hand on the blade of a dugout fan he punched in anger, then suffered an infection because he failed to take his antibiotics.”
Among the Marlins themselves, who learned of the deal practically when they awoke Wednesday (the deal was done in the wee small hours), the reaction was rather well mixed. Jose Reyes, whom the Marlins signed to big money over the winter, told reporters it was like losing a brother, but another unnamed Marlin said Ramirez “pulled Reyes down with him.” Yet another Marlin who asked for anonymity told the Herald there were smiles enough, because a player coddled unreasonably was gone at last.
“They created a monster from a very good baseball player—gave him so much slack to do whatever the [expletive] he wanted because he was performing,’’ this player told the paper. “You can push some things aside when you’re hitting .340 with 40 home runs. You say ‘He’s a [jerk], but I can deal with it . . . But when you’re not playing and you’re trying to be that same [jerk], it starts rubbing people the wrong way.’’
Catcher John Buck showed a slightly different perspective. “That’s kind of what I heard when I got here—that he was a bad teammate,’’ he told the Herald. “But from the time I got here until now I can honestly say he became a better teammate without a doubt. When he left he was giving hugs to guys, and from what I hear it might not have happened in the past. It’s real easy to jump on the guy and say we got rid of the problem. That’s unfair to him. It wasn’t Hanley’s fault—the lack of him being a vocal leader or a cool guy to some guys in here — that we are losing. It’s ridiculous to put it on him. It’s on all of us.”
But not all the Marlins got themselves benched for non-hustling, as happened to Ramirez on more than one occasion. Fredi Gonzalez, who now manages the Atlanta Braves, may or may not have lost the same job with the Fish after he benched Ramirez for non-hustle in 2010. On the other hand, Gonzalez’s successor, Edwin Rodriguez, resigned last June after a losing streak abetted by Ramirez’s sluggish return following a back problem. Ramirez spoke warmly enough when Jack McKeon came out of retirement to manage the team the rest of 2011, but one of McKeon’s first acts back in the pilot’s chair was to bench Ramirez for a combination of non-hustle and being late for a team meeting.
And not all Marlins, as yet another player unwilling to attach his name to the comment, would have gotten away with Ramirez’s apparently overdoing his clubhouse music while under-doing any disappointment in the team’s losing and even treating team staff and assistants “like crap. You couldn’t pop off back at him or lay him on his [butt] for it. What’s going to happen? He’s going to stay here and I’m going to be gone.”
That’s hardly a new story in the game, either. New York Mets fans may still remember dubious trades the club made in the latter 1980s and early 1990s, many involving players who were still more than useful but less than enraptured by phenom-turned-struggler Gregg Jefferies. Only when Jefferies had isolated himself in the clubhouse completely, while his production looked as though it would never live up to his former phenom billing, did the Mets move him onward. Only when Jefferies was away from his first organisation (and, perhaps, out of the New York glare, where every flaw is magnified and every shortcoming overanalysed), and from the furies that knobbled him, did he make himself into a useful major league player, slowly shedding his image as a spoiled brat, until injuries ground him down and out.
The 1960s Philadelphia Phillies often swapped players who tangled with talented but troubled Dick Allen, who was seared by racism but badly mishandled his desperation to escape. Abetted by antics that would humble him to remember decades later, Allen finally got his wish at the end of 1969. He didn’t quite overcome his furies until after his baseball life ended, but Allen did remain a useful and often awe-inspiring player for awhile after leaving Philadelphia (he has a statistical Hall of Fame case, in fact), especially when—almost single-handledly—he yanked the 1972 Chicago White Sox into pennant contention, earning an MVP for his trouble, too.
Ramirez helped the Dodgers sweep the San Francisco Giants over the weekend, indicating a fine opening to his change-of-scenery scenario. His two-run bomb in the tenth inning Friday night provided the victory margin. If he made a fielding error during the set, it was a hustling error. He even looked more patient at the plate than he ever looked as a Marlin. Ramirez himself credits Dodger hitting instructor Manny Mota. He played, in other words, like anything but the guy about whom the Herald cited team officials and coashes as saying “he’s simply not a winner.”