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March 12, 2013
Out of Left Field
The Letting Go
This past week brought news that the greatest relief pitcher in baseball history has decided to retire following the season. Mariano Rivera broke into the major leagues with the Yankees in 1995. That season he appeared in 19 games for New York, starting 10, with an ERA of 5.51. That was the last season in his 18-year career that he started games and, other than 2007, the last in which he posted an ERA over the 3.00. He may not be a first ballot Hall of Famer, but if not it’ll be due to ridiculousness on the part of the voters.
While Rivera prepares for his graceful swan song, a coda to a certain Hall of Fame career, another all-time great is preparing for a very different postscript. This past weekend CBS’s Jon Heyman reported that Manny Ramirez signed a contract to play with the Rhinos. That would be the EDA Rhinos of Taiwan. The Rhinos play in the Chinese Professional Baseball League, which, I have been informed through a very special source COUGHwikipediaCOUGH, contains four teams. Including the Rhinos.
Here is the team’s logo:
Did you know Rhinos are baby blue and enjoy wearing purple clothing? Incidentally, that logo should be the basis of a system for rating team uniforms. How good is the Orioles spring training uniform?
I give it four blue rhinos!
I might also note at this point that the Rhinos' competition consists of the Elephants, Lions, and Monkeys. I note that because I desperately want to show you the Monkey’s logo.
Live a wild life!
The Rhinos play at Chengching Lake Baseball Field in Kaohsiung, Taiwan. It looks like this:
I’m sure it’s nicer on the inside, and maybe it’s the grey weather and drab cement exterior in the photo, but it looks like a cross between a bomb shelter and a post-apocalyptic Mall of America. Regardless, this season it will improbably be the home of Manny Ramirez’s baseball career.
I bring all this up because, well, it’s kind of funny. But also, because if you’re Ramirez, a two-time World Series winner and earner of over $250 million in your career, putting yourself through this means you’re crazy, or you really want to play baseball. I’m betting on the second, and not entirely discounting the first.
Rivera is a Yankee icon, having played his entire career with the Yankees. As such he is impossible to picture on a baseball diamond without an interlocking NY hat. Ramirez isn’t that way. He has bounced around, and especially so after getting traded to the Dodgers following seven seasons each in Cleveland and Boston. After a year and a half in Los Angeles, the Dodgers shipped him to the Chicago White Sox. Did you remember that Manny Ramirez played for the White Sox? Me neither. The following season he signed with Tampa Bay. We remembered that, right? Sure. Totally. Ramirez played in five games for the Rays before being suspended for violating baseball’s drug policy, upon hearing of which he abruptly retired, leaving Johnny Damon to decompose on the field all by himself. How ungentlemanly! Last season Ramirez signed a minor-league deal with the A’s but was released upon his own request in June when it became clear Oakland had no plans to bring him up. His .697 OPS in Triple-A may or may not have played a role in Oakland’s decision.
Ramirez played more games for the Red Sox than for any other team, but because of acrimonious departures from Boston, Cleveland, and, to an extent, Los Angeles, Ramirez doesn’t really have a team he’s identified with. That, a history of petulant behavior and numerous PED suspensions mean Ramirez won’t be celebrated like Rivera. And yet, if you can put the PED stuff to the side for a moment, as great as Rivera has been, he’s contributed far less to winning baseball games than has Ramirez has. We’ll use WARP, which I suppose you could argue underestimates the role of the closer, but you won’t read that argument in this space. Anyway, Rivera has 31.2 WARP in his career. PECOTA sees another 1.2 this season. Ramirez had 32.1, roughly the same amount as Rivera, but that’s just counting his time with Cleveland. In his career he has totaled 75.0. At least by WARP, Ramirez has been more than twice as valuable as Rivera over the course of his career.
But at least to this point, people aren’t using WARP as an indicator for who to celebrate and who to ignore. Rivera is voluntarily giving up the game he loves and will go through what may wind up resembling an eight-month going-away party. Ramirez is clinging to the game for dear life, unwilling to let go even if it means playing in a foreign league across the ocean for what can’t possibly be much money*, and other than a few mentions in blogs, he will spend the season hidden from the view of North American professional baseball.
*Heyman did not report Ramirez’s salary, but he did write, “Professional players in Taiwan generally make very little money.” It may, at this point, be safe to assume that Ramirez is not doing this because he has rent to pay.
When it’s over, the 2013 baseball season may be known as Mariano Rivera’s farewell tour, complete with gifts and enough standing ovations to give you knee trouble. Some Yankee fans might even get misty when thinking about how much Rivera has meant to them. Meanwhile across the ocean, a greater player will spend the 2013 season out of the public eye dressed like a fashion-challenged rhino with a silver-consumption problem, playing in a stadium with all the charm and subtlety of Donald Trump.
You might think Ramirez sad, especially in comparison with the valiant Rivera, but in a way there is something gallant about both players. Rivera, who fought back from a serious injury for one more season with the only team he’s ever known, will top off his reputation as one of the greatest relief pitchers ever. Ramirez, who is refusing to let go of the only profession he has ever known, will play until his body has nothing left to give. There is greatness in each, even if only one is garnering a celebration.