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Addition by subtraction

By Matthew Reid

The honeymoon in Los Angeles is most certainly over.

The third and most recent rejection by Manny Ramirez to the Los Angeles Dodgers, which surfaced Tuesday, should give LA fans a pretty good taste of what it’s like having Manny on board from the start of a season. Sure, it’s great when he drives in runs in September and October, but the flip side is what he does in February and March.

The initial contract rejection made last November by Ramirez and his agent Scott Boras (of a two-year deal worth $45 million) could have been viewed as a strategic negotiating move. The second rejection a month later, this time after the Dodgers offered Ramirez salary arbitration, still gave both sides a few months to work out a deal. But the latest rejection (of a one-year, $25 million offer) comes just over a week from when pitchers and catcher report for duty. That should be cutting it a little too close for LA’s liking.

So what does this all mean for the Red Sox? Nothing. It means nothing, and that’s a good thing. It’s a good thing that Red Sox ownership can worry about running the rest of the team. It’s a good thing that Red Sox players can come together as a close-knit unit dedicated to winning a championship. It’s a good thing that Red Sox fans can turn on a local sports channel or pick up a newspaper and not have to see Manny’s smiling face for all the wrong reasons. It’s a good thing that the Red Sox no longer have to worry about a prima donna leftfielder who will drive in a game-winning RBI one day and bash the organization the next.

Now that the 2009 season is revving up, consider where the Red Sox are now compared to this time last year. Manny’s power is gone from the middle of the line-up, but David Ortiz remains and Kevin Youkilis’ near-MVP performance last season comes close to matching Manny’s output from 2006 or 2007. The team has a solid player, not to mention teammate, in Jason Bay, who will become the first Red Sox left-fielder other than Manny to start on opening day since Troy O’Leary eight seasons ago. The team is also making some quiet yet sound off-season moves, acquiring players such as John Smoltz, Brad Penny and Brad Wilkerson. In other words, the team is moving forward.

In contrast you have the Dodgers, who are mired in the muck that comes with owning Ramirez. Team chairman Frank McCourt has been quoted as saying that the team is ready to “move on” if a Manny deal can’t be reached. If the team is willing to “move on” in the coming days and weeks, that pretty much means they are standing still at the moment. Who will play in left field? Who will be the team’s power hitter? What will the team’s payroll look like? So much uncertainty rests on Manny’s shoulders, and every day he goes unsigned is a day that the Dodgers could have used to sign free-agents such as Bobby Abreu, Adam Dunn or Orlando Hudson. When the Dodgers are finally able to move forward, regardless of whether Manny is signed or not, will it be too late?

The contrast between the current state of the Red Sox and Dodgers can be found by simply going to each team’s official Web site. As of yesterday afternoon, the two main feature stories on the Red Sox site both showed signs of a team making progress. The first story was about who will be the team’s starting shortstop in 2009, describing a “healthy, old-fashioned competition” between Julio Lugo and Jed Lowrie. The second story was about how the impending signing of Wilkerson will add solid depth to the team’s bench.

Then you visit the Dodgers Web site, and you are greeted with a photo of Manny followed by a paragraph about his contract nightmare. The link to the full article can be accessed by clicking on the word “rejection.” Boras’ name appears just as many times as that of his client. Does that sound like a team ready for spring training?

Another interesting comment by McCourt had to do with his desire to resign Manny in order to sustain the energy that the slugger brought to the team at the end of last season. McCourt said that there was an electricity at Dodger Stadium when Manny came to town, and he would like to see that kind of atmosphere continue. That’s the difference between Los Angeles and Boston. The Fenway Faithful can match any amount of electricity generated by the fans of Dodger Blue, and they don’t need an aging superstar with dreadlocks to be their catalyst. For years now the Red Sox ownership has been doing whatever they could to provide the best product in the game, even before the 2004 championship team. It’s ironic, and a little telling, that it took Manny’s arrival in LA to energize Dodger fans, and it took his departure to reenergize Red Sox fans. Ah, priorities.

This isn’t about Manny-bashing. Everyone rolled their eyes in 2004 when Manny inexplicitly cut-off Johnny Damon’s relay throw, and everyone laughed last year when he high-fived a fan in Baltimore before throwing out Aubrey Huff to complete a double play. These antics (and so much more) were forgivable because of Manny’s massive production. No one can say that the Red Sox weren’t great when Manny was in the line-up. Most fans loved Manny more often than they hated him. I’m sure most Dodger fans were willing to overlook Manny’s past when the team charged into the post-season last year going 19-8 over their final 27 games, but that must seem like forever ago.

The Dodgers say they are a better team now than they were at the start of the 2008 season, due mostly to a healthier lineup, a solid core of young talent and possible “non-Manny” acquisitions still to come. Good for them. Adding Manny would certainly make them even better, but it’s the start of February, and the time for such “what-if” scenarios has come and gone.

What about the Red Sox? Are they a better team with Manny or without? In the end that question is irrelevant, and most importantly, it’s one that doesn’t need to be answered anymore. The team will be too busy answering the questions that really matter, and all the while, Red Sox fans will be too busy enjoying their team to care.

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