Godspeed Hanley

For most athletes, I make up my mind early whether I’m a fan, and typically stick with it. Then there’s Hanley Ramirez.

Hanley was one of the true, and rare, minor league prizes from the Dan Duquette-era Red Sox. He was the guy all Sox fans were following from the time the club inked him as an amateur FA from the Dominican Republic at the age of 16 ½.

But Hanley’s push through the Sox system wasn’t a smooth one, and a lot of the sheen was off his prospect status when Boston dealt him to Miami for Josh Beckett and Mike Lowell in late 2005. The Marlins, locked in one of their periodic Fish guttings, immediately turned over the starting shortstop job to him at the age of 22. And Hanley rewarded them, running off a string of all-star caliber seasons over his first four seasons in the big leagues. Only the success of Beckett and Lowell, key members of the ’07 championship team, kept him from becoming a Bagwellian figure in Sox fan lore.

But even while he was establishing himself as one of the most valuable players in the game, there were signs of the issues that started to creep when he was coming up on the farm. Disputes with management and fellow players, some occasional bouts of laziness, including a notorious failure to run down an errant throw, led some to think he was giving much of that on-field value back.

After five seasons of excellent and healthy play, Hanley soon became a DL regular, during both his final days in South Florida and his subsequent relocation to the left coast with the Dodgers. But his bat bounced back in LA, and Boston gobbled him and fellow question mark Pablo Sandoval when he hit free agency in 2015. With Hanley, the club’s plan was to relocate him from short, where his glove would no longer play, to left, where his glove would prove to be made of some sort of baseball-repellent material. As defensive shifts go, it was an utter disaster, and mandated a second shift the following year over to first, where Hanley dispelled the predictions of more chaos by turning in his best season in Beantown on both sides of the ball.

Even with a decent campaign behind him, the Sox signed the perpetually below-average Mitch Moreland to man first in 2017 and moved Hanley down to the bottom rung of the defensive spectrum. His bat didn’t cooperate, and when Boston signed born-DH J.D. Martinez to handle that chore this offseason, Ramirez’s future was a question, particularly given a vesting option for 2019 that kicked in if Hanley reached a PA threshold.

Last week, the Boston FO made sure that didn’t happen, jettisoning the slumping Ramirez to clear a roster space for the returning Dustin Pedroia. I was glad they did, but not because I didn’t care for Hanley. It was the opposite. The Hanley Ramirez who returned to Boston for a second stint was one of the more likable players to don the carmine hose in recent memory, something I’d never expected to write during the first decade of this century.

After his miserable first season on the field, Hanley became a joy to watch in Years 2, 3 and the abbreviated 4. The guy with the questionable attitude in the Boston minor league system and his early days in Florida played with a permanent smile on his face, egged on his teammates and, most notably, engaged the fans of the Fens like few have before him. Clips like this, or this or this or this show a guy who just loved and appreciated being a big league ballplayer, the way we like to think we’d be if we had that opportunity. That’s how I want to remember him.

I didn’t want to see the final days of his Sox tenure become a question over his vesting option, with Hanley getting testy if he wasn’t getting used enough for his liking. And with $22 million at stake, who could blame him? To see the happy-go-lucky, fan-friendly Hanley become consumed by his playing time and questions about a role his bat simply wasn’t justifying would have been dispiriting in what’s shaping up as an otherwise excellent Sox season.

No, better to cut the cord now. I hope he latches on somewhere else, regains his stroke and tacks on another couple of productive years. I hope he makes the occasional return to Landsdowne Street and is greeted warmly by fans who appreciate how much he appreciated them. I hope he gets to choose when he hangs up the spikes, rather than have the game do it for him.

I hope he does all of this. Just not with the Yankees.

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