"Hell may have no fury like a woman scorned but heaven hath no sweetness like a sports fan vindicated." - Samcat

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Manny Being Manny

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“We're trying to go have fun, and as long as you go out there and play hard that's what matters.” – Manny Ramirez

I seem to be suffering from some sort of post-championship amnesia. Seems I cannot remember a time, not so long ago, I am told, when Manny Ramirez was a surly, quiet, disagreeable malcontent. Legend has it that he didn’t speak to the media, rarely talked with fans and routinely bailed on the team because one of his eighteen “grandmothers” was sick. I think I heard a nasty rumor that he was once almost traded for some punk named A-Rod too. Surely that can’t be right. This must all be a horrible dream since, in the world I live in, Manny Ramirez is a happy-go-lucky man-child, more than willing to pose for photographs, grant interviews and smile for the cameras or just for the hell of it. Oh, and he’s also the World Series MVP. That’s the Manny I know.

Seems like ages ago that we heard the phrase, “That’s just Manny being Manny” used as an excuse for Ramirez’s bizarre and often callous behavior, doesn’t it? When we hear it uttered now, it’s more a declaration of love or affection for our quirky left fielder. A verbal hair ruffling, if you will. There also appear to be far fewer barbs tossed his way. Even my dad, one of the most notorious difficult to sway fans (he still thinks Pedro is full of shit when he said he wouldn’t trade one ring in Boston for three anywhere else), has to admit that Manny is “a space cadet but a damn good hitter.” It’s like as Manny came around, so did all the naysayers.

The turnaround was a dramatic one too. After the offseason following the disappointing close to the 2003 postseason, the Red Sox got involved in the whole A-Rod debacle, enticing him, luring him, seducing him, ultimately fruitlessly, while leaving Manny out to dry in the hot Texas sun. And this was after they put him on irrevocable waivers, hoping someone (cough *Steinbrenner* cough) would bite and snap up his prohibitive (to most teams) $20 million-a-year contract. You know how it all played out. Even though Manny said there were times when he felt he had “one toe in Boston and nine in Texas,” no one snatched him up, A-Rod landed in the Bronx and Manuelito came back to play the angles of the Green Monster at Fenway. No hard feelings, right?

Actually, yes, that is right. Who would have thunk it? Manny arrived at spring training last year (inadvisably wearing a Jeremy Shockey jersey but the sartorial choices rant will be for another day), had a quick talk with the owners who essentially shrugged and said, “Our bad, we love you, big guy,” and went about his business with a new smile on his face and a spring in his step. The July 5th issue of Sports Illustrated featured a cover story, “Hitting Pretty” on the new Manny and his laugh-a-minute approach to the game. He credits Kevin Millar, primarily with getting him to loosen up and have fun. We all know that Millar is capable of that. We know that because Millar is not afraid to talk. And talk. And talk. But evidently, that’s exactly what Manny needed. Since then? Smooth sailing.

Well mostly smooth. There were those errors in the World Series, Marx-brothers inspired pratfall among them that led most of us to roll our eyes, slap our foreheads and go, “Manny!” but damn, he’s been fun to watch, hasn’t he?

It is widely acknowledged that Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz comprise what is perhaps the best “If the right one don’t get you, the left one will” 3-4 punch in baseball. But it’s not even about the numbers. It’s not even about how many times they’ll go back to back over the course of the season, (Did it again last night. Mid-season form, I’ll say). It’s not even about the RBIs or the runs scored or the homers or the averages or the hits or the power. With Manny, it’s all about the pure joy of playing baseball. Because if you watch him closely – and I strongly suggest you do – he’s exactly like a little kid out there. Exactly. Albeit a little kid who can crank a 97-mph fastball five-hundred feet onto the Mass. Pike but a little kid nonetheless. He takes his spot in the shadow of the Monster with a water bottle absentmindedly shoved in his back pocket. He stands in the field and kicks at the grass. He jokes with the fans along the left field line. And he cannot wait to pull his shirttails out once the game is over. Just like a kid.

The thing with Manny is, those of us who aren’t stat heads, love him for the pure, unadulterated joy he displays in playing the game of baseball. My friend Heather, who, before I got to her, thought that Manny was a pitcher and who’s baseball knowledge consisted of the phrases “home run” and perhaps “World Series,” grew to love Manny in a hurry. She calls him her “little dickens” or “love muffin” while I frequently refer to him as “Manuelito” or “monkeyshines.” Conversations between the two of us often consist of Manny stories such as, “Remember the time when Manny started making fun of Schilling’s note-taking in the dugout? Hilarity!” And when we watch games together, it’s not uncommon for us to slip into Mannyspeak with repeated utterings of, “Lemme tell you something,” and “Essactly” per his Olympia Sports commercial. (Most prophetic commercial ever? I think so.)

Along with all of this comes the knowledge that though Manny may appear all fun and games, he clearly scares the shit out of opposing pitchers, and rightly so. The man is simply one of the most feared right-handed hitters in the game. He’s a pure hitter. In his words, he “see(s) the ball and hit(s) the ball.” That’s all there is to it. Don’t let Manny’s modesty fool you. He works incredibly hard on his hitting. The fact that he makes it look so effortless is a testament to not only his talent but also his dedication. He isn’t a stupid man. He knows hitting is his thing. After an error (one of two) in Game 1 of the World Series, Manny quipped, “There goes my Gold Glove.” But he takes pride in his defense as well, working overtime on improving that facet of his game. Manny is prideful but also sensitive. He knows when people are saying negative things about him and despite what he says about letting it all roll of his back, he’s got to take some of it to heart. Red Sox fans are just fortunate that he chooses to prove them wrong with a smile rather than sulk with a sneer.

Many have called Manny a “hitting savant” owing to his spaceshot character and tendency to appear as though he’s only dialed in at the plate, but I think he’s actually brilliant and he knows the score. At the press conference immediately after receiving the World Series MVP trophy, Manny sat behind a podium, his wife Juliana at his side, (and I will go on record right here as saying that Juliana Ramirez is one of the most striking women I’ve ever seen and good for Manny for landing her), and said, “Before the season, I told my wife, I said, ‘Hey, baby, this gonna be my year, you wait and see.’” Damned if he wasn’t right.

It often seems incongruous to hear Manny’s teammates talk about his hard work and his intelligence as those things are not outwardly obvious to those of us who watch him on a daily basis. That’s probably because we assume that most of it is pure talent. And plenty of it is. But I suspect the reason we don’t think of Ramirez as “smart” or “feared” despite the fact that he is most definitely both is that we first see him as happy and joyful. We get distracted by that quick smile and the crazy hair. We don’t notice the power because it has a tendency to sneak up on us. Manny badly misses one pitch way outside and just as the words, “What’d you swing at that one for?” are passing our lips, he launches the next one over the Green Monster and into the night. Then he rounds the bases, smiling, because he knew what was coming. Pretty smart after all.

I don’t love Manny for his hitting prowess or the way he makes pitchers quake in their cleats. That certainly doesn’t hurt but the real reason I love the guy is because he loves this game so much. There’s an entire fan site (The Tao of Manny) devoted to “the wisdom of Manny Ramirez.” What it all boils down to in the end, is a grown man, secure in his talent, happy with his work and realizing how fortunate he is to be playing this game. I can’t seem to remember a time when Manny wasn’t smiling brighter than the Citgo sign and I’m not sure I want to. That’s just Manny being Manny. Wouldn’t change it for the world.