April 08, 2011
We're also going to read plenty about his prodigious talents in the righthand batter's box. It's an approach that ESPN's David Schoenfield just started on his SweetSpot blog with a case for why Ramirez should ultimately be elected to Cooperstown.
Manny being Manny became a joke, but Manny the hitter was no joke. He worked pitchers, finessed at-bats, remembered what got him out earlier in games and was ready to deliver some big-time damage if the pitcher tried the same approach again. He's one of the greatest right-handed hitters of all time, one of baseball's supreme RBI guys, a terrific playoff performer and — yes — perhaps the most iconoclastic player of the past quarter-century.
Indeed, the only hitter who was more consistently feared or written about over the last 20 years was Barry Bonds. And just like Bonds did with his involvement in BALCO, Ramirez and his two failed drug tests are pushing us into the unfortunate territory of reconciling the talent and ability we watched up close with his cheating and drug use.
Like Schoenfield, I can appreciate the moments I spent watching Ramirez hit. He mashed the ball in Cleveland, helped Boston win its first two World Series titles since 1918 and put together an unbelievable second half of baseball in Los Angeles less than three years ago. What's more, he falls into that rare category of hitters who hit homers while I was in attendance and I can still replay, nay, feel their exact scenes — the moments before them, the moments after them — just by closing my eyes.
Maybe you know what I'm talking about. For my Barry Bonds homer, it was a rocket to right centerfield at Pac Bell Park— career homer No. 639 — off St. Louis pitcher Garrett Stephenson on a random Monday night in 2003. I had just tried garlic fries for the first time. For Mark McGwire, it was him hitting the 48th and 49th home runs of his 1998 season as I sat high in Wrigley Field's upper deck, sipping a beer I had just bought with my first fake ID.
And for Manny, the moment came in 2005. The Chicago White Sox were in the middle of their first World Series title season since 1917 and the Red Sox were coming to town in for a four-game weekend series in mid July. The first game was on a Thursday night and my brother scored tickets down low on the left field line. It was a good and festive crowd, bolstered by the nation of Red Sox fans who spring up wherever their team travels. Both teams were in first place.
It was also a weird game. An early White Sox lead turned into a mid-game Red Sox lead and Curt Schilling was working out of the bullpen after coming back from injury. A RBI double from Joe Crede(notes) with two outs in the bottom of the eighth inning tied the game at five and either a late White Sox winner or extra innings seemed like a possibility when Manny lifted a foul ball toward Crede for the second out of the ninth inning.
Only it wasn't the second out of the ninth inning. Crede dropped the ball near our seats for an error and I swear that all 36,784 people in attendance — from my brother's boss to pitcher Luis Vizcaino(notes) — knew what was coming next. In fact, the only time I've ever been more certain of what was coming next at a ballpark was two years earlier as Moises Alou yelled at a meddlesome fan during the 2003 NLCS.
Here's what I remember of that swing I watched from about 250 feet away: Ramirez, who always seemed much shorter than I expected him to be, turned on a pitch from Vizcaino and hammered it toward the stands in left field. The line drive was remarkable because while it seemed like I could reach out and touch it as it passed, it also rose at a very steady rate. It made it into the crowd without a problem and the Red Sox fans around me whooped and hollered. The White Sox fans, meanwhile, shook their heads and said it was exactly what they expected. Boston went on to win the game, 6-5.
As the years go on and the shock from Manny's abrupt retirement on Friday afternoon becomes a mere footnote, I assume that people will look at his career numbers — .312 average, 555 homers, 1,831 RBI — and remember what a brute offensive force that Ramirez really was during his prime.
At the same time, we'll know that all of those numbers were made up of individual at-bats and the amazing feats within them. Each comes with a story and it's ultimately up to the teller — not Ramirez — how that tale is exactly told.