In the days and hours before the 4 p.m. trade deadline on July 31, contenders across baseball will make their moves. Manny Machado will likely take his MVP-caliber bat and NASA-caliber arm to the left side of some new and less bleak team’s infield; the Yankees are thought to be looking for starting pitching and the Mets for excuses to deal starting pitching away; people will abruptly develop passionate opinions about Double-A infielders and lanky teenage starters. When the stove cools, fans of the updated squads will be sure that their new imports represent deficiencies shored up, the last pieces of true contention.
It rarely works out so cleanly. For every Yoenis Cespedes—who, after being traded to the Mets at the 2015 deadline, put up a .942 OPS and 17 homers over the final 57 games to help his adopted club from a two-game deficit to a runaway division title and, later, the NL pennant—there’s a Yu Darvish, whose much-anticipated cameo as a Dodger last year ended up consisting mostly of a lukewarm ERA and a couple World Series stinkers. The most common outcome lies somewhere in the middle. Baseball is a sport uniquely resistant to saviors; the sample sizes are too small, the bounces too strange. That’s how you end up with Carlos Beltran, in 2011, slashing .323/.369/.551 over 44 games but failing to move the needle for the postseason-missing Giants, or Jon Lester bringing a 2.35 ERA to an all-in Athletics squad in 2014 only for the team to fade down the stretch. This is generally just how it goes. But not always.
This summer marks the 10th anniversary of not one but two exceptions. In July 2008, CC Sabathia went from the Cleveland Indians to the Milwaukee Brewers and Manny Ramirez from the Boston Red Sox to the Los Angeles Dodgers. Both teams needed help to reach the playoffs; both teams got it, and then some. Over the second half of what became a riotously entertaining season, Sabathia and Ramirez laid waste to the National League, vaulted up its leaderboards, and—briefly, gloriously—put a dent in the notion that, in baseball, one player just can’t do the whole damn thing himself.
The Sabathia trade happened earlier than most midseason deals—it was finalized on July 7, a full week before the all-star break—but otherwise followed the standard template. The Indians knew they wouldn’t be able to re-sign the soon-to-be free agent that winter, and the Brewers, hanging a few games back in the NL Wild Card race on the strength of young bashers Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder, were looking to end a 26-year postseason drought. Milwaukee sent Cleveland the prime first-base prospect Matt LaPorta, pitchers Rob Bryson and Zach Jackson, and a player to be named later (who became Michael Brantley); Cleveland sent Milwaukee the defending American League Cy Young award winner.
The 27-year-old Sabathia would soften, over the coming decade, into a mid-rotation steward of Yankee mores, but 2008 saw him at the height of his abilities. He was not only his era’s best power pitcher but something like the living embodiment of the concept—six feet, six inches tall and 300 pounds with a lordly mass of gut, a requisitely mean mug, and a left arm like a trebuchet. His fastball, which buzzed past hitters’ collarbones in the high 90s, would have made even an average breaking ball untouchable; his widowmaker of a slider would have done the same for a standard four-seamer. He threw the occasional changeup, too, mostly for laughs.
Even given Sabathia’s bona fides, the trade jarred some Brewers fans. “Everybody here in Milwaukee was kind of groomed to this idea that ‘we’re a small-market team, you can’t trade prospects, you have to build it,’” said Brian Anderson, who calls Milwaukee games on FSN Wisconsin. “So when [general manager Doug Melvin] made the move and did it as early as he did, it was shocking.” Sabathia quickly set to convincing the holdouts. In his second start, he worked a complete game, striking out nine, allowing just two runs, and hitting a homer in a 3-2 Brewers win. “You talk about the legend born, everybody fell in love with him in that moment,” Anderson said. “Here’s this guy that the Brewers have—and, by the way, he can rake.” Sabathia would go the full nine innings his next two times out as well, giving up just one combined run to the Giants and Cardinals.
For anybody else, those outings would have represented an unmistakable and unsustainable peak. For Sabathia, they were a throat-clearing. In August, he pitched three more complete games. Two of those were shutouts and one of those was a near no-hitter—the only knock the Pirates managed on August 31 was a dribbler in front of the plate that Sabathia fumbled. His heater had batters swinging half a second late. His slider had them swinging half a foot high. By the standards of Sabathia’s Wisconsin sojourn, clowning prime Albert Pujols represented no real deviation from the norm. Look at this shit!
The Brewers’ eventual Wild Card berth required some late-season stress—they lost 16 of their last 26, and Dale Sveum took over for Ned Yost in the latest managerial shakeup ever for a contending team—but the big man held things together. After number-two starter Ben Sheets suffered an elbow injury on September 17 and got shut down for the year soon thereafter, Sabathia made his final three starts on short rest, surrendering just two earned runs over 21 and two-thirds. GMs interested in signing the ace that winter wrung their hands over his workload—“I remember having conversations with teams like the Yankees, the Dodgers, the Giants, the Angels,” said Anderson—but Sabathia was adamant about pitching as often as he could: “If it was [another] team I played for and we were in this same situation, please believe I’d take the ball every time they’d give me a chance to.”
On the last day of the season, when the Brewers needed a win and a Mets loss to reach the playoffs without a 163rd game, Sabathia threw 122 pitches over nine innings against the Cubs in a 3-1 victory. “It was his game,” Sveum said afterward, once Milwaukee had officially clinched the long-awaited postseason appearance. “It was his year. It was his two months.”
By July 31, 2008, the relationship between the Boston Red Sox and Manny Ramirez had devolved into one of profound and mutual pissiness. The player whom the New Yorker’s Ben McGrath, the year before, had termed “a deeply frustrating employee, the kind whose talents are so prodigious that he gets away with skipping meetings, falling asleep on the job, and fraternizing with the competition” had taken to testing those liberties with new fervor. Ramirez threw a 64-year-old traveling secretary to the ground in June over an unmet ticket request, failed to swing at three straight Mariano Rivera strikes during a pinch-hit appearance in early July, and forgot which knee was supposedly ailing him a few weeks later. He accused the team of running a smear campaign, saying, “The Red Sox don’t deserve a player like me.” Boston was prepared to suspend Ramirez but instead, on deadline day, sent him to Los Angeles in a three-team trade that netted Jason Bay from Pittsburgh in return; L.A. gave up mid-tier prospects Andy LaRoche and Bryan Morris. Boston agreed to pay the $7 million left of his salary.
“This was the quintessential [Frank] McCourt moment,” Charley Steiner, the voice of the Dodgers on the radio, told me, referring to the Dodgers’ grift-inclined then-owner. “He got a star from Boston, his hometown, essentially for nothing.” The move came as a shock to the team itself. “When a player like Manny becomes available, I don’t think there’s a manager in baseball who wouldn’t say they’re interested,” manager Joe Torre said. “It was something that happened very quickly, obviously.” What had been, to that point in the season, a fine but hardly overwhelming club—staff ace Derek Lowe, a lineup anchored by a pre-MVP-candidate Matt Kemp, a two-game deficit in the NL West—found itself miraculously in possession of one of the greatest right-handed hitters of all time, months removed from his 500th career home run and extremely ready to kick ass.
Perhaps no player’s mood has ever been as popularly linked to his production as that of Ramirez, whose arrival in southern California brought on big smiles and brain-scrambling stats. “I’m happy to be here,” he said at his introductory press conference. “That’s all I can say. L.A.’s a great city. I’m happy to be a Dodger.” That night, he went 2-for-4. The next evening, 2-for-4 with a homer. The day after that, 4-for-5 with a homer, a double, and three runs batted in. The summer’s pattern was set. Ramirez’s knee was suddenly fine, his heart healed, and his swing sharp.
The complexity of Ramirez’s reputation in Boston—World Series hero, curse-breaker, savant, dunce, sneakily persistent clubhouse cancer—gave way in Los Angeles to an immediate lovefest. The left-field section of the Dodger Stadium bleachers, where a good percentage of his batted balls ended up, became “Mannywood,” and McCourt started selling wigs in the style of Ramirez’s signature dreadlocks alongside his freshly iconic number 99 jersey. “It just got bigger and bigger,” said Mark Langill, the Dodgers’ team historian for the last quarter-century. “There’s nothing this market loves more than some sort of bandwagon, and that’s what it was—everybody jumped on the Manny bandwagon.” Whatever workplace tension existed took the form of winking theater. In mid-August, Ramirez cut off “one inch, half an inch” of hair in deference to team guidelines; Torre planted his tongue in his cheek and said, “We’ll continue to monitor it.”
On the field, the 36-year-old Ramirez—helped along, we now know, by a performance-enhancing cocktail that reportedly had Alex Rodriguez jealous—enjoyed the best stretch of his career. The numbers were indecent: a .396/.489/.743 line over 53 games, with 31 extra-base hits, 17 homers, and 53 RBI against just 38 strikeouts. The daily experience of watching him hit was even more impressive. At its best, Ramirez’s approach had always verged on transcendental—the rhythm of his leg-kick, the slow-mo precision of his hands, the oval flourish of his follow-through—and in L.A. the zen held for three straight months. He toasted fastballs and swept breaking balls off his shoetops. He hit a pinch-hit grand slam on his bobblehead night. He seemed to miss only when he wanted to; the rumors about him setting up pitchers were never more believable. The Dodgers won, overtaking the Diamondbacks for the division lead in early September and holding on the rest of the year. “He was as automatic a hitter in that period of time,” Steiner said, and then modified his adjective, “…as dangerous a hitter in that period of time as ever lived.”
There were other things happening down the stretch of the 2008 season. The kid Rays coalesced into a contender ahead of schedule, and the spunky Lou Piniella–led Cubs raised hopes. The thoroughly professional and recognizably championship-worthy Phillies would win the World Series that October, on the strength of ace Cole Hamels and various all-star veterans dotting the infield.
Exciting as they were, those outcomes fell comfortably within the range of what an MLB season is designed to produce; some version of them transpires every year. The CC and Manny show, on the other hand, was pure, awesome anomaly. Given what should have been an unreasonable request—Could you, uh, [jerks head in the direction of Jeff Suppan/Angel Berroa] do something about this?—these two made the sort of difference normally the province of superstars in more superstar-driven sports. Sabathia, when he pitched, reduced the game’s variables to himself alone—the question was whether any team was good enough to push a run or two across against him, and the answer was generally no. Ramirez, on certain not-all-that-rare nights, functioned as an entire lineup—the question, there, was whether the team facing him could put up more runs than Manny, and again the answer was much more in doubt than it should by any right have been. They were their teams, to a degree rarely seen since. Baseball-reference has Sabathia’s WAR over 17 appearances at an astonishing 4.9, and Ramirez’s at 3.5 over 53 games; the Brewers made the playoffs by one game, the Dodgers by two. It’s no overstatement to say they were the difference.
It is befitting the sheer out-of-placeness of it all that neither performance ended up earning so much as an NL pennant. The Brewers lost 3-1 to the Phillies in the division series; Sabathia, looking worn-out at last, got through only three-and-two-thirds innings in his Game 2 start. And despite Ramirez’s batting .520, slugging 1.080, and generally continuing to inhabit the astral plane that those numbers suggest over the course of two postseason rounds, the Dodgers fell 4-1 in the NLCS. Each player’s candidacy for individual honors was weighed with uncommon seriousness, considering their midseason league-jumping, but each ultimately fell short: Ramirez finished fourth in NL MVP voting, Sabathia fifth in the Cy Young race. That offseason, Sabathia signed the richest pitching contract ever while Ramirez declared that “Gas is up and so am I.” The paths diverged. Sabathia won a championship the next year in New York; Ramirez wrestled a new contract from McCourt, got popped for PEDs, and set off on his career’s wandering and mostly depressing final act.
While it lasted, though, that half-season was as perfect a spectacle as baseball can offer. It was a blast to witness Sabathia mowing through another in a string of offenses, to see Ramirez bring the stress levels and success rate of a wiffle-ball home run derby to the big leagues, to know not only who the best players in the game were but also how their best-ness would manifest every night. It felt as if they were playing less against the Reds or Rockies than against baseball’s basic constitution, its definitional ability to tamp excitement and sour good vibes. Langill summed up Ramirez’s run simply: “The more the hype, the more the production.” He might have been describing either player.
At least once in the coming weeks, some championship hopeful will deal for some star, and the folks on TV will talk in feverish terms about what that star will be able to do for his new club. He gives them the best rotation in baseball, they’ll say, or, He’s the type of guy who can get hot and carry a team for a month. Whatever the player then ends up doing—performing to career averages, notching a win or two above replacement—will be held up as the difference in the season. Late-summer rhetoric almost always starts as hype and ends as exaggeration.
A decade ago, though, it was for once justified. Sabathia and Ramirez actualized and even exceeded the noise. They ran roughshod over a league; they wrote short but gripping chapters in their teams’ histories. These two mercenary-geniuses made baseball as simple, for a little while, as we like to pretend it is.
Robert O’Connell is a writer in Minneapolis whose work has appeared in TheAtlantic.com, The Guardian, the New York Times, VICE Sports, and the Baseball Prospectus annual. He’s on twitter @robertfoconnell.