Former Red Sox great Bill "Spaceman" Lee says Manny Ramirez is the best hitter he's ever seen. Ramirez might have been a clubhouse cancer in Boston, but the Red Sox should have learned to live with the eccentric left fielder, says Lee, 62, an eccentric in his own right, who was inducted into the Red Sox Hall of Fame last year. During his induction, Lee defended Ramirez and said the Red Sox would never win a World Series without him.
Here now: Lee develops those thoughts for ESPN The Magazine.
The Mag: What do you think it is about (Ramirez's) approach at the plate that makes him so special?
Bill Lee: Wow, I'll tell ya, it's hard to put your finger on exactly what it is, but he's so unpredictable. It's like you can't get into his mind because he's not there either. It's funny. I've watched him in spring training since I first came over to the Red Sox, and he did something that Reggie Smith always did. He would always hit the ball the other way all the time right at the beginning of spring training. And what it did, it forced him to stay on the ball all the time. He's got this unbelievable habit of driving the ball the other way. And to get him out, you have to throw 90 inside corner. And people can't do that all day long on him. Lou Piniella always had a saying, 'You can come into my kitchen for a bite, but don't sit down for dinner.' And that's what Manny does. If you try to bury him in, he'll make an adjustment and he'll bite ya again. And he's just a great breaking ball hitter, he always keeps his hands back, he's not afraid to get jammed. He is devastating and that's why I stuck up for him. Basically what I said in the (Red Sox) Hall of Fame dinner is I guess the Red Sox got tired of winning. Because without him I told them they were going nowhere. And told people they're going to be in fourth place this year without him.
The Mag: This year you think they will be?
BL: Oh, heck, everybody else has improved. And the Red Sox, I don't see them improving too much. And now Youkilis has got a bad ankle and Pedroia leaves because they're both junkyard dogs and they're playing for their country. And when you play for your country in March, that's a formula for getting hurt.
The Mag: If you were facing (Ramirez) back in your day, how would you pitch to him?
BL: I'd walk him.
The Mag: You wouldn't throw the Leephus (Lee's infamous eephus) pitch to him?
BL: No, he'd murder that. The key to great hitters and hitters that are on a hot streak is don't pitch to 'em. You don't pitch to them for a week and they get frustrated and start swinging outside of their zone, and then they develop bad habits and then they get into a slump, and then the next time you face 'em, you can pitch to 'em. You gotta know when to pitch to guys and when not to pitch to guys. Everybody can bite ya. Even the worst hitter has his day. And the best hitter has his day a lot of times, but you get the best hitters out by not pitching to 'em, which is kind of ironic.
The Mag: Who was the toughest right-handed pitcher you had to face in your day?
BL: Oh, wow, Bill Madlock. Bill Madlock was a great hitter. (Thurman) Munson was a good two-strike hitter. If you went 3-1 on Munson, Munson would try and jack you, and you'd just turn it over and he'd hit a ground ball to short. But you get two strikes on Pete Rose, you get two strikes on good hitters, they become different types of hitters. And to pitch, you have to recognize when that is, and that's what pitching's all about.
The Mag: Did you have more success against free swingers?
BL: Oh, yeah. You know, if the plate was twice as big, you could pitch to that. The thing about Manny, though, you can throw him a change-up four inches outside and right on his knees, and he will stay back and hit a bullet into the right-center field gap, where other people would take (the pitch). That's the key. It's too bad and the Red Sox said everybody got fed up with him. Well they were fed up with him the moment they got him. Patience is a virtue and I think the Red Sox ran out of patience.
The Mag: If he had been in your clubhouse back in the 70s, how do you think things would have been different?
BL: I would have been there, I could have smoothed things down. I was player rep. I hear these statements, Papelbon, excitable boy and stuff and he goes "He's a cancer." Well, cancer is in everybody and you have to learn how to live with it. You can't cut cancer out. You have to learn to live with it. Ya know, some cancers are worse than others. Life is tough like that. I mean, Schilling and (Manny) are opposites and because they were opposites, the Sox won in 2004. It's ironic. You have to learn to tolerate people. I'm just sad the Red Sox didn't do that. I was player rep and my job was to be able to tolerate everybody else, to tolerate differences. (Bernie) Carbo and I fought early on and we became pretty close friends. And (Dwight) Evans and everybody, they're all different. You all have your different little cliques. When I played, it was Red Sox 25 cabs, 25 ballplayers type thing. And they won it in 2004, 2007, and without Manny they don't win it. And they would have won it last year if they'd just stuck with him. I know for a fact. There was no way when you took his bat out of the lineup. I love Jason Bay. I love guys from Trail, (British Columbia). I love everybody from Trail, B.C. But ya know, he ain't no Manny Ramirez.
The Mag: What do you think about the contract he signed? It's kind of unique, with the option. $25 million plus a player option.
BL: Wow, I didn't know that was in there.
The Mag: Yeah, it's basically he's got 25 (million) this year, and then if he wants, he can re-up with them for 20 (million). Or he can basically step off and sign a contract with somebody else.
BL: I've always been a one-year type guy. I've always thought players play better when they have a one-year incentive, and when they went to multi-year (contracts) it was bad for baseball. That's where I differed from the players association. They all wanted the long-term contract and the guaranteed and this and that, but I don't think it's good for baseball. Even though I don't believe in the reserve clause, I believe in a one-year contract because you play harder. You have to play well to live up to that one year or you don't get the money the next year.
The Mag: So you think he's going to have a monster year?
BL: Let's put it this way, I don't bet against him ever. I know, he's had bad hamstrings, and (Red Sox announcer Jerry) Remy used to want him out there in the worst way, and I could just tell by his intonation and the way he referred to Ramirez that he was probably instrumental in having Red Sox fans turn against him. That and the press. Especially the New York press. And (Tim) McCarver and Joe Morgan. Every time they were there, ya know, "Manny is a dog." And I'm going, he may be a dog, but that dog can hunt. That's the bottom line on that. I was raised in the South a lot of my life, and I said, sometimes you had a dog that didn't want to get out of the truck and he was lazy and everything else, but when he got on a bird, that dog could hunt.