By Rich Levine
And then there were two.
"Two what?" you don't ask.
Well, first of all, two Idiots back in the A.L. East.
Thats right, in cased you missed it: Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez, Bostons former Unfrozen Caveman Centerfielder and Hard-Hitting Hobo Astronaut, have taken whats left of their talents to Tampa.
Damon signed for one-year5.25 million and will play left field. Manny signed for one-year2 million and will serve as designated hitterspiritual advisor. And just like that, two of the most important and polarizing characters in Red Sox history are back in the mix. Theyll presumably face Boston 19 times this season, nine times at Fenway, and, believe it or not, play a somewhat significant role in the Sox season.
And frankly, I cant wait.
One reason is nostalgia.
Can you imagine Manny Ramirez and Johnny Damon patrolling the Fenway outfield in Tampa Bay Ray jerseys?
How bizarre it would be to watch, say, Tampa Manny toss a ball into the stands with only two outs in the inning, or Tampa Damon make a shoe-string grab in center, while his left fielder pees inside the Green Monster?
And OK, even if they dont play much outfield together, how about seeing them run the bases together, or do a stupid handshake together, or make fun of Joe Maddons glasses together? Whatever it is, considering the two franchises, the two players, the history and whats still at stake, the fact that Damon and Manny are doing anything with the Rays is cause for at least a little excitement.
And over the course of a long 162-game season, that kind of stuff is great. Whats better than another reason to get up for a random Tuesday night game in July?
But nostalgias not the only reason to be excited about these guys signing with Tampa.
The other is this:
The offseason is almost over, and these two guys are pretty much the only players who have signed with Tampa.
Since the end of last season, the Rays have lost Carl Crawford, Matt Garza, Carlos Pena and Jason Bartlett. Theyve lost Rafael Soriano (closer), Dan Wheeler (set up man) and Grant Balfour and Joaquin Benoit (two fancy-named but quality middle relievers). Rico Brogna and Rolando Arrojo arent playing anymore, but if they were, I swear the Rays would have found a way to let them go.
And for the Sox, thats a pretty big deal, because make no mistake, the Rays had become a very serious and worthy rival.
Over the last three seasons, the Rays have won two A.L. East titles, which is as many as the Sox have won in the last 15 years. Over the last three seasons, the Rays have won 277 games, the Red Sox have one 279 games. They met once in the playoffs, and the Rays came out on top. Only one of the two has made the World Series, and it wasnt Boston.
Since the moment the Sox last won the title theyve been in a constant and legitimate three-way battle for the division crown, and over that time theyve struggled with it. With a system like they have in baseball, where you have only two chances to make the playoffs, the addition of an extra perennial contender makes a huge difference. The Sox learned this the hard way.
But not as hard as its about to be for the Rays.
Theyve lost all that talent, and still, all they have to show for it are a quickly aging Johnny Damon and the ghost of the shadow of Manny Ramirez. Oh, and Kyle Farnsworth.
And in the A.L. East, in 2011, that wont cut it.
So basically, it comes down to this: While the signings of Damon and Ramirez may have laid the foundation for a new chapter of the Red SoxRays rivalry, you might as well take that same block of cement and carve out the D.O.D for Tampas run among the A.L.s elite.
Are they still a solid team? Sure. Theyve got David Price, Evan Longoria, BJ Upton and Ben Zobrist. And if Damon can stay healthy and Manny can stay focused (long shot hes playing in front of empty seats every night), then the Rays will still be competitive. But when you look at what they lost, and how theyve filled those holes, and how the Yankees and especially the Sox have improved over that same time. Its obvious that the Rays are no longer in that league. By no fault of their own, they just couldnt keep up. Now theyre more Blue Jays than BoSox.
And the timing couldnt be better for Boston.
Not only have the Red Sox re-emerged as the best team money can buy, but theyve also lost one of their two biggest competitors.
Its like if McDonalds unveiled McCrack, their most delicious and addicting burger of all time, and then a week later Wendys went vegetarian. They became the best and half of the rest disappeared.
And while the signings of Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez were more the nails in the coffin than the main reason for the collapse, we can say that despite all the story lines and drama this new Rays team may bring theres now one less contender in the AL East race.
Tampa's toast . . .
And then there were two.