I'm looking at Manny Ramirez's final baseball card. I opened it in a pack recently and, despite his recent "slide" as a player, I immediately moved it to the front of the stack. The best cards go on top, after all. The photo on the card shows Manny, in a White Sox uniform, running hard between second and third, baggy-clothes flopping from the movement, arms pumping, and dreadlocks bouncing in the air. His lips are pursed, a look of determination on his face as his eyes lock on third base.
Behind Manny on the card is a prominent piece of ad space, found on the rightfield wall of Comerica Park (Tigers' second baseman Will Rhymes is also visible). The wall-ad is for Dynamic Rehabilitation. The tagline for the ad reads "For Back & Neck Pain." Visible on the card itself are the words "For Neck P…". It's almost as if the Topps Company is trying to send us a message.
Flipping the card over, we see the true beauty of Manny's career: those numbers! Defense was never Manny's strong suit, but his offense was nearly unparalleled. Very few people have ever been able to swing a bat as well as Manny Ramirez, and it shows in the numbers. There are no UZR or FRAA tallies here, only the age-old runs, hits, RBIs, walks, slugging, average, home runs and more, categories Manny has excelled in almost since Day 1.
The 40-home run seasons, the 100-/120-/150-RBI campaigns, the 90-walk years, the .350-seasons… You can't look down the years without running across a stat that most ballplayers would kill to have as their career best, yet they end up being Manny's average-to-below-average seasons. Most remarkable, though, are the numbers found in the OPS column (yes, Topps actually includes OPS on their cards). From 1999 to 2006, Manny had an OPS above 1.000 in all but one of the years, with two years topping 1.100 (and a third coming just short at 1.097). His only contemporaries with more 1.000-OPS seasons are Barry Bonds and Albert Pujols.
At the bottom of all these numbers is, of course, Manny's career line: 2,297 career games; 1,544 career runs scored; 555 career home runs; 1,830 career RBIs; 1,329 career walks; 1,809 career strikeouts; a .586 career slugging percentage; and an incredible .998 career OPS. These are the numbers of a Hall of Famer.
When Manny signed a one-year, $2 million deal with the Tampa Bay Rays on January 31, it was hailed as a wise, low-risk-high-reward deal for Tampa Bay. If things went right for Manny and the Rays, those career numbers would increase in purely positive ways and Tampa Bay would be competing for the playoffs.
Things did not go right and Manny Ramirez is now retired, only six games into the 2011 season, after a failed drug test that threatened to take him away from baseball for a long period of time. In his five appearances in Tampa Bay's lineup in 2011, Manny managed only one single and one RBI. He did not walk or get hit by a pitch or put down a sacrifice. He did manage to strikeout four separate times. Sadly, despite a nineteenth season in major league baseball, the career line on Manny's 2011 Topps card is, for all intents and purposes, all anyone will ever need.
The photo on the front of the card was taken almost certainly on September 6, 2010. In Manny's short time as a member of the Chicago White Sox, the team visited Detroit only once, for a four-game set in early September. Manny appeared in all four games that series, but in only one – the September 6 Labor Day tilt – did he manage to even reach second base. That Monday afternoon, Manny went three-for-five with three singles and two strikeouts. He scored in the second inning on a single from A.J. Pierzynski (the photo would have been snapped during the prior at-bat, when Andruw Jones singled to center and Manny moved from second to third).
It was Manny's last good day as a hitter. He did manage one final home run before the season was over and a couple of two-hit games, but none were as productive as Labor Day. It's fitting, then, that the single most permanent memento of Manny's final season is a photo of him performing at his best for one final time.
I was a fan of Manny. He never really played for a team I follow closely (though I do have some Dodgers' ties from growing up) but his personality and talent always made the sport a better place. There are very few players whose presence in the lineup compels you to attend the game just to make sure you didn't miss anything. Manny has always been one of them. Now that he is gone, baseball is that much worse…