April 27, 2011

WHO IS MANNY?

Before Manny Became Manny (SARA RIMER, 4/25/11, NY Times)

I stumbled upon the George Washington Trojans of Washington Heights in the spring of 1991. The high school was bursting with new immigrants, and the 25 varsity baseball players were all Dominican.

Mandl invited me to spend the season following the team. He told me he had a great hitter, an 18-year-old from Santo Domingo who got the bat around faster than any other high school player he had seen.

I knew next to nothing about baseball, but even someone with the scantest technical knowledge of the game or the mechanics of hitting could recognize that Ramirez was a star in the making.

I don’t remember the first time I saw that quicksilver swing. What I remember is what it felt like to be there on that rock-hard artificial surface atop the hill next to the high school, among his euphoric teammates and fans shouting his name, merengue blasting from someone’s boom box in the concrete bleachers behind the third-base line, the major league scouts lined up behind home plate as Manny came up to bat in his baggy black-and-orange secondhand uniform and red cleats and slammed one home run after another, day after day.

Up in the stands Manny’s beautiful 16-year-old girlfriend, Kathy Guzman, would practically be swooning. A vendor in a Yankees cap would push a grocery cart serving pastelitos and the sweet, blended orange juice and milk concoction known as a morir soñando: to die dreaming.

Manny, batting .650, walloped 14 home runs in 22 games. Not one of those home runs was on television or saved on videotape. Mandl could barely keep the team in baseballs and gloves let alone think about videotaping his future major leaguer.

But maybe it’s better that way. Those home runs, the memory of them, are part of the Manny that belongs to Washington Heights. He was the shy, happy-go-lucky boy with the perfect swing who everyone knew was going to the major leagues. The boy who loved to hit more than anything else. The boy who worked harder than anyone else. The baby-faced boy who never drank anything stronger than the nonalcoholic Puerto Rican eggnog from the corner bodega he chugged to bulk up.

That was the Manny who at least seemed knowable, before he disappeared behind the wall of all that surreal major league fame and money. Who is the real Manny?

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Posted by at April 27, 2011 5:54 AM
  

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