April 16, 2007


Waiting for Manny: Boston’s mystery man (Ben McGrath, April 23, 2007 , The New Yorker)

In the winter of 2000, Ramirez became eligible to file for free agency, and his agent at the time, Jeff Moorad, allowed cameras to film the negotiation process. The video, which aired on ESPN that December, shows Moorad fielding inquiries from the Indians, the Yankees, and the Mariners, before the Red Sox enter the picture. “I’m one of those guys that don’t talk a lot,” Ramirez warns Boston’s general manager, Dan Duquette. “I just go and try to play the game.” Toward the end, with Boston emerging as the front-runner, Moorad adds an unusual request. “I want you to think on the way up about how you would add to your clubhouse payroll a new clubby, who would be coming over from Cleveland,” he tells Duquette.

The clubby’s name was Frank Mancini. He mixed Ramirez’s protein shakes, advised him to eat sushi, and, most important, set the pitching machine so that it would issue sliders, low and away—a routine he picked up from the Indians’ slugger Albert Belle, who believed that these were the toughest of all pitches to hit. Ramirez spent as much as a half hour every day hitting nothing but hard sliders on the rail, attempting to drive them to the opposite field, and came to see Mancini as yet another kind of lucky charm. The Red Sox, in the end, were willing to oblige his unusual request, but Lucky Charm declined the offer (“Manny, I love you like a brother, but I can’t do that”), preferring to stay at home with his family. Mancini cautioned Ramirez, “Boston is a lot harder place to play than Cleveland,” but Ramirez signed with the Sox: eight years for a hundred and sixty million dollars, the second-largest contract, after Alex Rodriguez’s, in baseball history. During his inaugural appearance in Boston, Ramirez draped his arm around a Red Sox clubhouse attendant. “You and me are going to be friends,” he said.

Duquette had been following Ramirez’s career since high school, but he now concedes that he had no idea “exactly how unique” his new left fielder was. “When Manny first came to the Red Sox, he would stand in the batter’s box, and the umpire would call ball four, and he would get back in the batter’s box,” Duquette, who is now the president of the fledgling Israel Baseball League, told me. “He did this in his first series at Fenway Park and again on his first road trip.” After the third such incident, Duquette ventured down into the locker room. “I said, ‘Manny, let me ask you something. I was just wondering why you get back in the batter’s box after ball four.’ He said, ‘I don’t keep track of the balls.’ He said, ‘I don’t keep track of the strikes, either, until I got two.’ Then he said, ‘Duke, I’m up there looking for a pitch I can hit. If I don’t get it, I wait for the umpire to tell me to go to first. Isn’t that what you’re paying me to do?’ ”

Duquette was fired after Ramirez’s first season in Boston, when a new ownership group took over the club. Bill James, a senior adviser who was brought in by the new regime, conducted a couple of studies to try to measure, among other things, the effect of Ramirez’s quirks—his tendency to glare at badly hit balls without running to first, his sporadic inability in the field to follow the arc of a fly ball. In 2003, James identified fifty-three instances in which Red Sox players had demonstrated a game-altering failure to hustle; twenty-nine of them involved Ramirez. He also concluded that Ramirez was the team’s second-sloppiest fielder. (A Times column last month underscored this point, quoting an analyst who said, “Manny is at the far end of the as-bad-as-you-can-get-in-the-field spectrum.”) In theory, playing defense and hustling are also things that he is paid to do, and in the fall of 2003 the new management, convinced that Ramirez’s twenty-million-dollar salary was an albatross, placed their best hitter on irrevocable waivers, asking nothing in return for any team’s willingness simply to take him (and his contract) off their hands.

There were no takers, and the next spring, according to the writer Seth Mnookin, Ramirez let the Sox ownership know that he felt angry and insulted. Thus began the semiannual “rite of passage,” as the Sox C.E.O., Larry Lucchino, calls it, in which Ramirez pleads to be shipped out of Boston—a city where, as his former teammate Johnny Damon once said, “Manny could be Mayor.”

The local obsession with the Red Sox is such that David Wells, the former Yankee and Red Sox pitcher, and a night owl, likes to call Boston Picturetown, rather than Beantown, because of all the fans with cell-phone cameras in restaurants and bars, ready for deployment like civilian paparazzi. (One well-travelled series of candid shots, posted on the Web, shows a smiling Ramirez wearing a boater and a football jersey, first at a bar and then, evidently having been talked into visiting a collegiate apartment, dancing with young women, one in her pajamas.) In a famous incident in August of 2003, Ramirez called in sick during a big series against the Yankees, only to be accused by someone at the Ritz-Carlton of having a post-game cocktail with the Yankees’ Enrique Wilson, another Santo Domingo native. Ramirez, who was publicly excoriated and even benched for this affront, lives in the Ritz, with his wife, Juliana, a Brazilian whom he met at a gym in 2001, and their two sons, Manny, Jr., who is four, and Lucas, who is one. (The other Manny, Jr., who is eleven, lives in Florida with his mother.) His defenders maintain that the Wilson visit was social but not libational.

The Red Sox management believe that Ramirez does not dislike Boston per se. “If he was really upset about it, he wouldn’t live in the Ritz-Carlton, in the middle of the city,” one executive told me. Since his arrival in town, Ramirez has expressed interest, at one time or another, in playing for more than a dozen different teams, including the Yankees and the Mets. According to a Sox official, he even once requested a trade to Pawtucket, the team’s AAA affiliate in Rhode Island—a transaction that the chamber of commerce in that city of seventy-three thousand would no doubt welcome. Lately, he has favored Anaheim and Seattle as alternatives, though for several years he told friends that he regretted leaving the relatively anonymous comfort of Cleveland and wished he could return.

Ray Negron, a special adviser to George Steinbrenner who previously worked in Cleveland as a mentor to the team’s Hispanic players, is familiar with Ramirez’s moods and vulnerability. “I remember one time he was hurt and feeling sorry for himself,” Negron said. “And I knew I was going to be in the car with him for half an hour, so I made him listen to Frank Sinatra’s rendition of ‘That’s Life’—did you ever hear the words?—and he caught it. He understood what I was trying to say to him.” Ramirez, ordinarily a hip-hop man, walked around humming Sinatra for days.

Clinical explanations for Ramirez’s unpredictable behavior vary. Steve Mandl once suggested that Ramirez suffers from attention-deficit disorder—a diagnosis that Dan Duquette disputes, arguing that he “did a lot of due diligence” before signing Ramirez, and that, if anything, Ramirez’s approach to batting suggested an essential undistractibility. Popular diagnoses abound—“If we didn’t have Manny to talk about, who would we talk about?” Duquette says—and tend toward the faintly condescending, clichés about Ramirez as man-child (“He’s great with kids”) or idiot savant or holy fool.

Negron, for one, thinks Ramirez is misunderstood in Boston. He compared him with Joe DiMaggio. “Manny’s more emotionally reachable than Joe was, O.K.?” he said. “They should be fair about this. I got to know Joe DiMaggio, and I was very close to Billy Martin, who knew everything about Joe DiMaggio. You know the difference? Manny’s probably a better hitter.” He went on, “I came up with the craziness of the Yankees in the seventies—the ‘Bronx Zoo,’ and Sparky Lyle and all of them sitting on cakes without clothes on. Manny was mild compared to what I had been used to.” In Cleveland, I pointed out, Ramirez used to walk into the video room naked to study tapes of pitchers. “Do you understand why I would see that as normal?” Negron said. “He wasn’t sitting on a birthday cake.”

If only the whackjob weren't the best right-handed hitter ever, you could be done with him....

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 16, 2007 12:00 AM

The annoyance, and beauty, of Manny is that he doesn't care about anything but swinging the bat well. He doesn't care about winning or losing, or what happened in his last at-bat, or with the last pitch, or even if he swings well but fails to hit anyway. Frustrating perhaps, but he's almost immune to distraction and pressure as a result. It's recieved wisdom that the fatal error of most hitters is thinking too much at the plate - Manny certainly avoids that failure!

I wonder if the Japanese reporters currently following the team would understand Manny better than the locals do:

Herrigel describes Zen in archery as follows: "The archer ceases to be conscious of himself as the one who is engaged in hitting the bull's-eye which confronts him. This state of unconscious is realized only when, completely empty and rid of the self, he becomes one with the perfecting of his technical skill, though there is in it something of a quite different order which cannot be attained by any progressive study of the art..."

Posted by: Mike Earl at April 16, 2007 3:36 PM