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February 22, 2012

The BP Broadside

Manny Ramirez Through the Wrong End of the Telescope

by Steven Goldman

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He’s a friend of a friend of a relative that I see at family gatherings sometimes, an ex-teacher who is excessively bitter about what seem to me to be his own failings. On holidays, he plays vulture at the table. With dirt caked under his nails, he digs at the serving bowls with his fingers. If he’s before you in the serving order, you will wind up going hungry because he’s fouled the horn of plenty.

When he’s not picking at the food, he picks at his former students. In the greatest statistical anomaly in the history of man, every student he ever had was a total moron. I don’t know where he was teaching—perhaps it was the Secret Kingdom Where Everyone is the Seventh-Generation Product of Inbreeding Between Siblings, in which case maybe he had a point. Otherwise, it seems to me that he suffers from a case of blaming one’s limitations on the supposed limitations of others. It’s not that you can’t teach, but that your students are too dumb to learn.

Knowing this guy, I’m willing to give the students the benefit of the doubt.

I’ve been skipping various family events for years, staying home alone on many holidays while the rest of the nation, almost in a literal sense, gathers to eat poultry, hurl accusations across the table, and watch ancient grudge break to new mutiny. Many of my reasons were professional, including not having the time to go away from various BP books, but part of it is that at my advanced age I just can no longer tolerate being trapped in small rooms with people I dislike.

Oakland has gotten Manny Ramirez’s signature on a minor-league contract, continuing the saga of a player historically significant both for his hitting and his wandering concentration. At nearly 40 years old, and four years removed from his last full campaign, it’s hard to say what he will have left. Yesterday, Billy Beane said, “There was need, and we really couldn't find a reason not to. It's low-risk, high-reward. We've got some time to evaluate him, evaluate the situation with some of the younger guys. There's little to no commitment. It would be foolish not to.”

There was no reason not to gamble on Ramirez’s upside, except for the fact that in the post-Red Sox phase of his career he’s had a habit of letting his team down. The A’s need more hitting that’s for certain—a 3-4-5 combination of Josh Reddick, Seth Smith, and Scott Sizemore is hardly intimidating—and they need a gate attraction, though it’s hard to know how much a 40-year-old DH will cause the turnstiles to spin; winning sells tickets more than a sideshow, no matter how famous, and Oakland’s decrepit ballpark and general lack of enthusiasm has meant the team has rarely drawn well except when it was winning, and sometimes not even then.

If Ramirez doesn’t perform, the A’s don’t have to bring him up to the majors, but what if he does perform, they do bring him up, and he is unable to hit at the old level due to his age and long layoff? Even the greats get old; think of Babe Ruth with the Braves, Hank Aaron with the Brewers, Harmon Killebrew with the Royals, Willie Mays with the Mets. Worse, what if he, for any reason, from another failed test to lack of interest, simply disappears again? The A’s are a team of relatively young players such as Jemile Weeks and Josh Reddick, the latter of whom just escaped from the supposed land of beer and fried chicken. They need proper role models, not a player whom, whatever his prowess at the plate, tended to suffer from lapses in concentration.

Perhaps I am overreacting here; Ramirez has always seemed popular among his teammates until late in his Boston phase. It might be that his reputation derives more from bad press than from bad play. Think of Eddie Murray, a player who could have won a Most Valuable Player award in any of several seasons but never did, perhaps because he lacked league-leading numbers in any season other than 1981, or perhaps because he made a point of disdaining the press. It was always said that he was great teammate, but a lousy interview—well, not lousy, but nonexistent—and that might have cost him some votes.

Murray never failed any drug tests, at least not the kind that were given during his career, and no one ever cited him for calling in sick when he could have played—the guy was good for 150 to 162 games a year until he was almost 40. Heck, he played 152 games at 40. You can’t say the same about Ramirez, and it’s odd that a team with so little to gain and so much to lose in dignity as the A’s would want to risk the potential embarrassment of even a deal with so very little risk. We all believe in forgiveness and second chances, but sometimes you send a more powerful message by not turning the other cheek, which is not to say to strike back, but simply to ignore.

At the risk of seeming like a hypocrite, I know that in a recent column on Josh Hamilton I railed against the Padres for punting recidivist cocaine abuser Alan Wiggins, but I see a difference between an involuntary addiction and a willful disregard of the rules of the game and the welfare of one’s team and one’s teammates. Insofar as we know, there is nothing Ramirez did that he was compelled to do, biologically or otherwise; as with so many other odd decisions in his career, he put himself in a position to be suspended because he felt like it. That kind of thinking, or lack thereof, is an insult to all the hardworking players in the game who show up on time, play hard, and go home with nothing to apologize for except the dirt on their uniforms.

The other day, a family member told me he wanted to invite the whole clan over to his house, but that he couldn’t figure out how not to invite the everyone-but-me-is-stupid fingers-in-the-fruit-salad guy. If he isn’t invited, then the person who brings him won’t come, and then the person who brings her will be insulted and won’t come, which means two other people won’t show up, and things will devolve into a big argument… Which, if you think about it, is a lot like being there but with the advantage that all of the strange action will take place at a distance.

I’ve always enjoyed Manny Ramirez’s ability to hit and found “Manny being Manny” to be amusing for as long as it was harmless, but to turn a famous Elvis Costello construction on its head, while I used to be amused, now I’m disgusted. Old-school writers like to take we statheads to task for supposedly denying the emotional component of the game. That’s a straw man, but in this case, were anyone to advocate for Ramirez purely on the basis of his production, the straw man would fit. Like fingers guy, the safest place for Manny is also “at a distance.”

Steven Goldman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Steven's other articles. You can contact Steven by clicking here

Related Content:  Manny Ramirez,  The Who

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