David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
Manny Ramirez hit two of his 555 career home runs in Flushing. One during his three games at Shea Stadium as a member of the Red Sox and the other at Citi Field while on a three-day visit with the Dodgers.
But if the Mets had gotten their way, a decade ago this month, Ramirez would have clobbered many, many more -- for them. Omar Minaya, their GM at that time, came within a few hours of prying Ramirez from Boston in an aggressive deadline move from a very different Mets era, when anything -- and everyone -- seemed possible. And who knows how the future might have been different?
Ramirez, back at Citi Field this past week as a roving hitting instructor for the Cubs, smiled when asked about the July almost-trade that nearly made New York his home -- again.
He grew up in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan and was drafted by the Indians out of George Washington High. But to him, Queens looked like a special place, too. And Ramirez was reminded of those glory days last week when he watched Mike Piazza's post-9/11 home run on the Citi video screen from the Cubs' dugout.
"Wow," Ramirez said. "That was awesome. The people were going crazy."
In 2005, Ramirez could have been a teammate of Piazza's. The Mets pushed hard to get him from the Red Sox during the December 2004 winter meetings in Anaheim, where Minaya laid the groundwork for Pedro Martinez and Carlos Beltran. That failed to materialize, but the Mets tried again months later when a disgruntled Ramirez wanted out of Boston, and those negotiations went down to the wire.
On July 31, through 97 games, Ramirez had 28 home runs, 93 RBIs and a .943 OPS. The Mets were at .500 (52-52) after losing five of six and were in last place in the NL East, trailing the Braves by eight games. They had Beltran batting third, Cliff Floyd at cleanup and a 22-year-old named David Wright in the No. 6 spot. Not to mention Jose Reyes leading off.
And yet it was not enough. Minaya's fascination with Ramirez was rekindled -- thanks to Manny's tiff with the Red Sox -- and the talks with Boston were back on.
"The seeds were planted the previous winter," said Jim Duquette, who preceded Minaya as GM before working with him as the team's vice president of baseball operations that season. "It was definitely close. There's no doubt. But it wasn't to the point where we were like, OK, we've got a deal pending approval."
During the 48 hours leading up to the deadline, the Mets really tried. But aside from being one of the game's most dangerous run-producers, Ramirez still was owed $64 million through 2008, a big salary now but a colossal sum in those days. Especially when the Mets already had a $103-million payroll that year -- third highest in the majors.
The Mets attempted to get the Rays involved in a three-team swap, but they backed out when they couldn't get shortstop prospect Hanley Ramirez. In the final hours, the Mets thought they had a deal that would send Mike Cameron and Lastings Milledge -- then a Double-A outfielder -- to the Red Sox, who would pick up a portion of Ramirez's remaining contract. Cameron wasn't thrilled to be playing rightfield anyway after the Mets signed Beltran to a seven-year, $119-million contract that offseason.
There also was talk of sending Floyd to Boston rather than Cameron, and the Mets got over their initial reluctance to include Milledge, their top prospect at that time. During those Anaheim winter meetings, the Mets also tried to send a package of Floyd and Kaz Matsui to Boston.
Ultimately, the Mets waited for a return call from the Red Sox on the Cameron-Milledge offer. Martinez, one of Ramirez's closest friends during their time in Boston together, enjoyed the drama. Especially the part about him being accused of recruiting his pal away from the Red Sox.
"I'm the one dragging Manny over here!" Martinez yelled out in the clubhouse on July 30.
If so, Martinez couldn't do it alone. Ultimately, the negotiations crumbled around lunchtime on July 31, a few hours before the 4 p.m. deadline. There would be no Manny homecoming.
"We weren't able to match up and give them enough," Duquette said. "They were looking for more younger players in return. We wanted them to give more money. We weren't going to take the full freight on that one. I don't think they thought Milledge was the right guy. That's why we were trying to bring in a third team."
That weekend was a full-blown media circus in Boston, with reports of Ramirez demanding a trade, then asking out of the lineup.
This past week, he remembered all the calls from his friends back in New York. Martinez said back then that Manny's voice mail was full every time he dialed his number, which wasn't surprising.
"Man, that was the talk every day," Ramirez recalled this past week. "When are you coming back here? It would have been fun."
That was as close as the Mets would ever come to getting Ramirez. There were flirtations in 2008 and 2010, but nothing as serious as that July.
Before turning their attention to Ramirez, however, the Mets tried to get Alfonso Soriano from the Rangers that same week, which shows what a different mindset it was a decade ago.
Without Ramirez, the Mets finished 83-79 and in third place, seven games behind the Braves. The next year, they came within a Beltran called third strike of reaching the World Series, and they have not been back to the playoffs since.
As for Ramirez, he won another World Series with the Red Sox in 2007 and then was traded to the Dodgers on July 31 the following year in a three-team deal with the Pirates that sent Jason Bay to Boston.
In a strange twist, it was Bay's outstanding performance at Fenway Park that eventually led him -- rather than the coveted Ramirez -- to take over leftfield in Flushing.