The Media Column: How scorned Red Sox stars routinely find redemption in Dodger blue

Alex Reimer
October 26, 2018 - 11:41 am

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

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Los Angeles is where aspiring movie stars go and wait tables while they wait to get cast as extras in random network sitcoms. It is also the place where scorned Red Sox stars go for redemption. 

In recent years, several discarded Red Sox mainstays have been rejuvenated in Dodger blue. Perhaps the best example of this phenomenon is Adrian Gonzalez, the stoic slugger who put up solid statistics in Boston but never captured Red Sox fans' hearts. As we all know, the Red Sox traded Gonzalez to the Dodgers in August 2012 –– along with Carl Crawford, Josh Beckett and their quarter-billion dollars worth of salary –– in one of the more shocking deals in baseball history. We were stunned any team would take on that kind of money, regardless of Gonzalez’s prowess at the plate. But in Los Angeles, which was still reeling from Frank McCourt’s tumultuous ownership, the trade was viewed as the sign of a new era. The Dodgers were now big spenders, and Gonzalez was the face of their nine-figure payroll future.

“You have to keep in mind, the team was bankrupt,” Los Angeles Times columnist Dylan Hernandez told me on the phone this week. “That trade was pretty mind-blowing. From the Boston side, it was probably like, ‘How could anybody take that money?’ From the LA side, it was, ‘How are they spending all of this money? This is nuts.’ When (Gonzalez) shows up, there’s just excitement. You go from being bankrupt to all of a sudden, it seems like there’s no limit on spending.”

Gonzalez ingratiated himself with Dodgers fans, averaging 24 home runs per season with an .809 OPS from 2013-16. Los Angeles started its prolonged stretch playoff runs with Gonzalez in the middle of the order, too, reaching the postseason every season he played for them. It was a stark difference from the previous three years, in which the once-proud Dodgers failed to play in October.

On top of Gonzalez’s steady production on the field, he emerged as one of the organization’s top ambassadors. In Boston, Gonzalez’s most memorable off-field moment was his nonchalant response to the team’s chicken and beer scandal, telling reporters that “people gotta eat.” In LA, however, Gonzalez fit in perfectly, says longtime LA Times Dodgers beat writer Bill Shaikin.

“He grew up in Southern California, he’s bilingual, and the Dodgers have a huge Latino fan base,” Shaikin told me in a phone conversation. “He was willing to not only represent the team on the field, but off the field. He once flew to Dubai to make an appearance on behalf of the Dodgers. So he was great in that regard. Time and injuries happen to a lot of people, not just Adrian Gonzalez. But certainly in the first few years, he was everything the owners had hoped he would be.”

Gonzalez’s Mexican heritage and bilingual ability can’t be underplayed in regards to how much he appears to resonate with the Dodgers’ faithful. Hernandez told me he estimates nearly 50 percent of Dodgers Stadium is filled with Latinos on any given night. That’s quite a different scene than Fenway Park. 

In many respects, the Dodgers’ and Red Sox’ fanbases are polar opposites. In addition to the ethnic diversity of Los Angeles, Southern California sports fans are notoriously fickle, viewing games as events rather than life-and-death matters. Gonzalez’s reputation in Boston was certainly hampered by his presence on the 2011 Red Sox and disastrous 2012 squad. Hernandez, who interned for the Boston Globe in 2001, says LA would’ve reacted to that dark era in Red Sox baseball much differently.

“If those Boston seasons had played out in LA, I don’t think it would’ve been taken the same time,” Hernandez said. “There’s nothing like, ‘Oh my God, they didn’t make it,’ turning it into a civic tragedy sort of thing. People just aren’t watching like that. In LA, there’s always the next thing.”

That laissez-faire attitude explains why highly paid underachievers Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett never seemingly attracted scorn in Southern California. They were viewed as bit players in a city that has too much going on to dwell on its baseball team for six months. “There are lots of people in LA who don’t know anything about the Dodgers,” Hernandez told me. “To make news in LA, we’ve got the Hollywood thing in the background. That feels like a home beat. Every time a Kardashian does something, that stuff is on our news telecasts fairly early. There’s always stuff going around. Given the demographics of the city, if there’s a big boxing match, that becomes a big deal. After the Lakers and Dodgers, probably the most popular team in LA is the Mexican National Soccer Team. Even keeping the attention within the language is difficult.”

On top of that, large swaths of the city can’t watch the Dodgers, since the team’s television network, SportsNet LA, isn’t available on most cable providers. That explains why even though the Dodgers draw close to 4 million fans every year, they can still come across as a niche product, Hernandez says.

But the fans who do pack Dodger Stadium love seeing oversized and emotional personalities. And no player over the years has encompassed those traits more than Manny Ramirez, who was unceremoniously shipped from Boston to LA in July 2008. The right-hander slugger was accused of quitting on the Red Sox before he enjoyed an incredible second-half run with the Dodgers that season, hitting .396 in two months with 17 home runs. The torrid run earned Ramirez the “Mannywood” moniker, and a new contract. 

“Whether it was because he was happy to be out of Boston, or because it was a fresh start, or because he was going to be a free agent and needed a new contract, he could not have been a happier guy than the guy we saw for the last two months of 2008,” Shaikin explained. “Remember, he was getting two or three hits almost every day. He hit close to .400 for two months, he had close to 20 home runs. He basically did what J.D. Martinez did last year for Arizona, except with dreadlocks. They had a whole section –– Mannywood was up in left field. He could not have been a more charismatic player. It was amazing to see.”

Unsurprisingly, Ramirez’s run in Los Angeles ended poorly, after a failed drug test in 2009 and injury-riddled 2010 campaign resulted in him getting traded to the White Sox before the waiver deadline. When McCourt filed for bankruptcy the next year, Ramirez was one of his largest creditors. The Dodgers owed him $21 million.

Still, Hernandez says he thinks the positives associated with Ramirez outweigh the negatives in the minds of nearly all Dodgers fans and media types.

“Manny made it OK to have fun. Honestly, from our vantage point, there was a feeling at the time of, ‘What’s wrong with Boston? How could Boston not love this guy? This guy is amazing,’” Hernandez said. “You mention Manny in LA, and people smile still. He made people happy. The whole thing was just so good. It’s really too bad he got caught.”

Two years after Manny Ramirez’s departure, another mercurial slugger with Red Sox ties, Hanley Ramirez, took his place. He was beloved early on, too, for many of the same reasons. “It was kind of like when Manny Ramirez got to the Dodgers, because you heard all of these stories about what a bad guy this was, and both Ramirez guys got to LA and could not have been happier and nicer, and understandably, because they were both being freed from situations where it wasn’t going well for them,” Shaikin said. 

Of course, Hanley Ramirez’s standing in Los Angeles was aided by his sensational production with the Dodgers, including his No. 8 finish in MVP voting in 2013. The Red Sox did not receive the same kind of numbers from him.

Most of all, though, the differences in perception of shared baseball stars in Boston and LA is best explained by the cities’ contrasting demographics and outlooks. While Boston is growing into an even more diverse and cosmopolitan town, it’s still largely defined by its blue-collar, lunchpail roots. Flamboyancy doesn’t always play well here, especially when an athlete stops producing. Yasiel Puig, for example, would probably be a regular punching bag around these parts, given his penchant for on-field outbursts and tantrums. But in LA, he’s arguably the face of the Dodgers, despite his inconsistent production.

“LA loves Puig,” Hernandez said. “He’s probably the most popular player on the team right now. You can kind of connect with him. He’s emotionally very accessible. You know what Puig is feeling at that moment. You might kind of think, ‘This guy was happy two innings ago, and now he’s mad,’ but you just kind of see it. Again, I think a lot of that is cultural, too, to be honest. It’s a Latin fanbase. A lot of us grew up watching boxing matches and soccer games. Soccer, keep in mind, a personality like Puig’s is celebrated.”

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World Series ratings down in Boston: World Series ratings are at a four-year low nationally, with Game 1 of Dodgers-Red Sox experiencing an eight-percent drop from Astros-Dodgers last year and staggering 27-percent fall from Cubs-Indians in 2016. The numbers in Boston are down from the Red Sox’ most recent World Series trip as well. 

In 2013, the Sox drew a 39.7 household rating for Game 1 against the Cardinals and 37.3 number for Game 2. This year, the Sox garnered a 36.1 TV rating for Game 1 and 33.7 rating for Game 2. 

Perhaps the interminable pace has something to do with the fall. Playoff games that start past 8:00 p.m. routinely conclude past midnight. That’s simply too late for those with jobs, children or responsibilities.

Deadspin strikes out on @kirkmin: Despite being off the WEEI airwaves, Kirk Minihane has been active on Twitter during his leave of absence, tweeting about his show and highly anticipated return. Deadspin’s Samer Kalaf decided to embed these tweets in an article Thursday, coming to the armchair psychologist analysis that Minihane doesn’t “sound like he’s ready to be back on the air.” 

That’s quite a conclusion to reach without attempting to talk to Minihane himself. Nice work.

Peter Gammons’ Twitter feed is owning the MLB playoffs: Several weeks ago in this space, I profiled Peter Gammons’ newfound “wokeness.” Since then, the legendary baseball scribe has posted some downright puzzling tweets, including one comparing the “Yankees Suck” chant to “Lock Her Up” screams at Trump rallies. 

But count me in as somebody who’s enjoying Gammons’ wacky ride. His masterpiece came earlier this week, when he triggered the MAGA heads with a barb about Trump’s wall.

Maybe Gammons is in on the joke after all, or at least one can hope. 

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