There never was anybody quite like Manny Ramirez. When I first became entangled in this fine American pastime, the enigmatic outfielder was at the peak of his inimitable powers. He had searing bat speed, explosive strength, and bucket loads of charisma. I was eleven years of age in 2005, when baseball became an obsession, and Manny Ramirez was the coolest person jaywalking the planet. He launched 45 home runs that year and drove in 144. It was thrilling entertainment. Manny Ramirez quickly became my first baseball hero.
Here at Glory Days, we aim to revisit such heroes and relive their achievements as they were viewed at the time. So, here, Manny Ramirez remains a hero. In retrospect, I admit that many of his accomplishment have been tainted by failed drugs tests and his credibility diminished by repeated attempts at a comeback, but Ramirez epitomised entertainment during his prime. I’ll never attempt to defend a player caught breaking the rules, which Manny did on several occasions, but he was one of many players linked to performance-enhancing drugs during the pre-testing era. As fans during this time, we only had suspicion and debate. We were unaware, living in the moment, that Ramirez was definitely using illegal substances. We saw the home runs soaring over Fenway’s Green Monster, the Mannywood explosion, the perennial All-Star. We watched one of the most colourful characters in baseball history.
My earliest memories of Manny Ramirez are of his accompanying phenomenon. I watched countless games, via twice-weekly broadcasts on Channel 5 here in Britain, which were tattooed with the Manny Being Manny hallmark. There he stood at the plate, thick dreadlocks flowing over the stitched 24 on his back. A pitcher receives the ball from his battery mate. Manny peers out from beneath the brim of a batting helmet smeared with pine tar, calculating and clinical. He is at ease, in control of the game and mastering its fate. He tugs at the baggy jersey around his shoulder, whirls the black bat around once like a rapier, and settles. The pose is unmistakable, amongst the most natural I’ve ever seen from a hitter. It’s a loose stance, which will allow Manny to collapse and thump the pitched ball into orbit with stunning fluidity. Whilst watching the smooth parabola of his latest bomb, Ramirez has a wry smile of satisfaction before a languid display of self-congratulation, replete with fingers lofted towards the sky and giddy bedlam in the grandstands. It’s a priceless vignette of a superstar in his greatest hours.
In this ultra-relaxed style, Manny Ramirez wreaked havoc with the record books. A nineteen-year career began with a lightning bolt in Cleveland and has whimpered bizarrely of late in Chicago, Tampa, Round Rock and Kaohsiung, Taiwan. In 9,744 Major League plate appearances, Manny hit 555 home runs, drove in 1831 RBI, and honed a prolific slash line of .312/.411/.585. The long history of baseball has seen only thirteen players hit more homers than Ramirez; seventeen drive in more runs; and eight finish with a higher career slugging percentage. In most cases, those are immortals with names like Ruth, Mays and Williams; Gehrig, Cobb and Foxx; Aaron, Yastrzemski and Griffey. Manny appeared in twelve All-Star Games, including an eleven-year streak beginning in 1998. Manny hit more postseason home runs than anybody. Manny won two World Series rings with the Boston Red Sox, earning MVP honours in 2004 as The Curse was reversed. Any way you dice it, Ramirez is an all-time great.
During this memorable baseball era, Manny’s off-field travails were an ubiquitous side story, a permanent caveat to his on-field greatness. Ramirez lived in his own unique bubble; one of inane nihilism, with stupendous acts of stupidity seemingly permissible. Manny slipped inside Fenway’s Green Monster to make phone calls mid-game, strangely sold barbecuing equipment on eBay, and generally lived up to his class clown caricature. For many years, he was a law unto himself, using home runs as currency for impunity. It was just Manny Being Manny.
The prodigious slugger was born in the baseball-crazed Dominican city of Santo Domingo on May 30, 1972. However, he was raised on the tough streets of Washington Heights, New York, where he attended George Washington High School. Whilst Manny tore through the collegiate baseball circuit with the help of various mentors, the academic side of school was challenging. Ramirez left without graduating at the age of nineteen, when the Cleveland Indians selected him with the third overall draft pick in 1991.
After beating up on minor league pitching for two years, earning rave reviews and raising expectations, Manny was granted a cup of coffee with Cleveland in September 1993. A hitless debut was followed by Ramirez’ first explosion; a 3-for-4 performance against the Yankees including two home runs and a double. It represented a glimmer of things to come, yet not with immediate effect. In the last embers of 1993, Ramirez battled the longest slump of his career and finished with a .170 average in 22 games. The disappointing end to 1993 did not trickle over into Manny’s rookie season, however. In 91 games for an improving Indians team, Ramirez was good enough to finish in Rookie of the Year voting. In a more important twist, Manny had secured his standing as an everyday Major League player. The next decade would be colourful, with precocious displays of power and unbelievable public brain cramps littering a formidable career.
In Cleveland lineups boasting Jim Thome, David Justice and Albert Belle, Ramirez was a hitting savant. He averaged 36 home runs, 126 RBI and 101 runs scored during six full seasons with the Indians, who won two five Divison titles and two pennants during this stretch. Ramirez posted career bests in home runs (45 in 1998), RBI (165 in 1999), and average (.351 in 2000), whilst playing in Cleveland, and established his place in the upper echelon of superstars.
So it was that he would be paid like a superstar. After hitting the open market following the 2000 season, Ramirez signed an eight-year, $160 million contract with the Boston Red Sox. He hit Beantown like a whirlwind, with freakish feats of power hitting. A particular example came when he almost equaled Ted Williams for longest home run in Fenway history with a 501 foot blast against Toronto in 2001. The Boston media was an incubator for Manny’s idiosyncrasies. He ripped through the annals of Red Sox history, rattling off six straight seasons with at least 30 homers and 100 RBI, yet drew criticism and attention for trivial off-field matters.
Ramirez formed a lethal three-four punch with David Ortiz; a combination which defined an entire baseball generation. In 2004, the pair drove Boston to its first World Series championship since 1918, and joined an exclusive club of multiple Red Sock ring owners after beating Colorado in 2007. Ramirez played a prominent role in both victories, earning MVP honours in ’04 and serving as an unlikely leader in ’07. He became royalty in Boston.
In a complicated chapter, I was a devoted Red Sox fan back then, admiring Manny Ramirez an entire ocean away. I watched as many games as possible, via Channel 5 and other more elaborate means. For instance, I recall the computerised simulation of MLB Gameday informing me of Manny’s 500th career home run off submariner Chad Bradford in May 2008. A year earlier, I watched on a fuzzy portable TV in the dead of British night as the Red Sox hit four consecutive home runs at Fenway against the Yankees. Manny hit the first. I also remember watching in rapt fascination when he made a spectacular leaping catch against the Orioles at Camden Yards before scaling the outfield wall, high-fiving a fan and whirring a dart back to the infield, where a runner was doubled off first. The guy was superhuman. When he was traded to the Dodgers at the 2008 Trade Deadline, I was crestfallen, unable to comprehend a world in which Jason Bay patrolled left in Fenway.
However, in the wider scheme of things, this provided another unique chapter in the Manny Ramirez story. He took Hollywood by storm, to the point whereby it was renamed Mannywood for three months in the autumn of ’08. In Dodger Blue, and wearing a characteristically-sublime number 99 on his back, Manny batted close to .400 the rest of the way, hauling a poor Dodger team out of into the playoffs with 17 home runs and 53 RBI in just 187 at-bats.
As steroids suspensions, injuries and a poor attitude soured relationships in LA, Ramirez’ career was stunningly over for the most part in 2010. A brief spell in Chicago with the White Sox saw Manny hit his last Major League home run, before further controversies saw him disappear off the map. He attempted to return with the Rays in 2011, but managed just one hit in seventeen painful at-bats. Since, Manny has flirted with retirement, served yet more drug suspensions, and tumbled around the systems of Oakland and Texas.
Manny spent the summer of 2013 putting on his timeless show for the baseball-obsessed folks of Taiwan. In 49 games for the EDA Rhinos, Ramirez batted .352 with 8 homers and 43 RBI. It’s not difficult to see why Manny still clings to a dream Major League return. He believes that he can still play, even at 41. His agent is still searching for a Spring Training invite from anybody who will have his star-crossed slugger. I, for one, hope it happens. You see, until the day some young Cubs slugger steals my heart (I’m looking at you, Javy Baez), Manny Ramirez will remain as my all-time baseball hero. And nobody wants to see their heroes fall into obscurity.