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Who is Manny Ramirez?
Reduce Manny to a series of stats, and it's easy to see who he is: one of the best batters in history. A twelve-time All- Star and nine-time Silver Slugger, Manny ranks seventeenth in career home runs and eighth in career slugging as of this writing. The only players above him on both lists are Babe Ruth, Jimmie Foxx, and Barry Bonds. Manny is also second all-time in gram slams, behind only Lou Gehrig, and has hit more postseason home runs than anyone in the history of professional baseball. He still appears to have several years of baseball ahead of him.
But if you skip the stats, the question "Who is Manny?" gets confusing, controversial, and cultural. A favorite target of reporters and talk show pundits, Manny's every misstep is exhaustively analyzed and then reduced to "Manny being Manny." This oblique phrase has come to provide a shared wink of explanation for a player whose laser-beam focus at home plate seems irreconcilable with his periodic gaffes (or "Manny Moments") in left field and outside the ballpark.
The history of the phrase "Manny being Manny" in the popular press provides a series of thumbnail portraits of Manny at his most bizarre and intriguing, and a catalogue of the baseball world's struggles to understand him.
Its first mention in a major publication came in 1995, when Cleveland Indians' manager Mike Hargrove was asked about the young slugger's carefree-bordering-on-careless approach to money.
How do you explain Manny and Dominican teammate Julian Tavarez asking a Cleveland sportswriter to loan them $60,000, so they could buy a Harley-Davidson motorcycle? And what about forgetting a paycheck in a pair of boots he left behind in the Texas Rangers visiting clubhouse?
"That's just Manny being Manny," Hargrove told a Newsday reporter.
Several years later, a Cleveland sportswriter used the phrase to account for why Manny's old New York City neighborhood still adored him -- because of how he showed up at his old high school cafeteria unannounced almost daily in the off-seasons to eat lunch with kids, and in spite of how he forgot promises to childhood friends to leave game tickets at the stadium box offices. But the phrase became less clearly defined after Manny moved to the Boston Red Sox in 2000, and its use grew with the city's fascination and ultimate disillusionment with their star slugger.
It has been invoked in print and online tens of thousands of times since 2000 as a shorthand explanation for Manny's mysterious injuries, his absences, his tardiness, his indiscriminate use of other players' bats and clothing, his silence in the clubhouse, his quiet acts of kindness to friends, his choice of an expletive-riddled song to play over Boston's Fenway Park sound system, his childlike playfulness, his midinning break inside Fenway's left-field wall, his failure to show up at the White House to meet President George W. Bush after the Red Sox won the world championship, and, yes, his towering home runs and unparalleled work ethic.
Manny is partly to blame for the mystery. He rarely grants interviews, and reporters who manage to breach his defenses are rewarded with little more than clichés or incendiary oneliners.
So, with little to go on but fielding miscues, baggy uniforms, flowing dreadlocks, big hits, and tired anecdotes, the public is left with caricatures of Manny as a carefree goofball and spoiled superstar.
Yet the question of who Manny really is endures, baffling his most ardent admirers and even some of his teammates. In fact, it was never more pressing than during the 2008 season, in the days before the Boston Red Sox traded Manny to the Los Angeles Dodgers, his third team in seventeen years as a professional. Manny's dispute with Red Sox ownership over his future -- and questions about his commitment to the team -- convinced many once-adoring fans that he was selfish.
The day after the trade, Red Sox third baseman Mike Lowell told the Providence Journal, "For me, he's a sure first-ballot Hall of Famer, and when he gives his speech, he'll probably give it via satellite because he'll be in Brazil. That's him and that'll be perfect. He'll be wearing a Brazilian National Team hat when he does it."
Lowell's distinction between malice and oddity is insightful. On many levels, Manny and Boston were a mismatch from the start. Nothing excuses Manny's shoving of sixty-four-year-old traveling secretary Jack McCormick, and perhaps Manny didn't give the Red Sox his best in 2008. Still, there were reasons for his frustration. And one could argue that if Manny had behaved this way in 2004, the Red Sox front office, not yet emboldened by two championships in four seasons, would have found a way to weather the storm.
If Manny had finished his career in Boston -- or simply departed under more amicable circumstances -- the grandchildren of today's vociferous fans might have even driven through the Manny Ramirez tunnel. That may sound farfetched, but Manny's comments in advance of his exit are comparable to those of Red Sox legend Ted Williams, whose name graces the recently constructed highway that runs under Boston Harbor.
In fact, Williams was so embittered by his years of acrimony with the Boston press, Red Sox management, and fans that he refused to even tip his cap after his final hit. Manny's "enough is enough" comment, directed to the Red Sox management in the middle of the 2008 season when tensions were at their peak, was less acerbic than Williams's vituperations. As Leigh Montville described in Ted Williams:
[Williams] said he wanted to be traded. He said he hated Boston, hated the fans, hated the newspapers, hated the trees, hated the weather, hated, just hated. The word "fuck" or some derivative was woven into most sentences. He wanted out. And for most of Williams' tenure on the team, Boston hated him right back.
Manny's badmouthing was mild by comparison. Moreover, there is consistency in his teammates' and coaches' characterizations of him as a hardworking team player. He was, according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, "everybody's little brother" in his early years and, recently, has been more of a role model and source of support to younger players than he's generally credited for. "He was a mentor to me," says Red Sox shortstop Julio Lugo, three years his junior. "When I went through tough times, he knew that I had trouble sleeping so he would call me early in the morning, when he knew I'd be awake, and he'd say, 'Look, don't worry about it, man. You're going to do good today.' That meant a lot to me. There's no one like Manny."
"To be honest," says Pedro Martinez, "I don't have enough kind words to say about Manny. I think he's misunderstood."
But Manny's teammates are not the only ones capable of shedding light on the vexing question of who Manny is. Conversations with Manny and his coaches, agents, mentors, parents, wife, sisters, and childhood friends, as well as side trips to his neighborhoods, show that he cannot be reduced to a caricature. They illuminate a nuanced, if inscrutable, man who defines himself by what he is least known as -- a dedicated athlete, a wellregarded teammate, and a beloved father, husband, and son.
Among the mentors in Manny's life were his sandlot coach, Mel Zitter, and his then Triple-A manager, Charlie Manuel. But none have been more influential than his former Little League coach, Carlos Ferreira. In his neighborhood, Ferreira is endearingly known as "Macaco" -- Spanish for little monkey. A thoughtful, charismatic man who left a medical career in the Dominican Republic to immigrate to the U.S. in 1979, Macaco, now fifty-nine, has coached several Little League teams in the baseball-crazed Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City. He was -- and he remains -- a de facto father to many aspiring Dominican players.
The story of how Manny came to rely on this gentle, unassuming coach -- from their first encounter in the basement of a Washington Heights housing project to their ongoing, daily conversations -- is a window into Manny's development and his hidden essence: his vulnerabilities, his values, his uncomplicated worldview, and what it really means to be Manny.
But to understand the story of Manny and Macaco, we first need to understand another story: that of Manny's early life with his parents, Aristides and Onelcida, and his three sisters.
Copyright © 2009 by Jean Rhodes and Shawn Boburg --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.