Manny Existing Manny
Manny Ramirez returns to Fenway Park tonight, after being traded by the Boston Red Sox to the Los Angeles Dodgers on July 31, 2008. Despite Manny’s immense popularity over his eight year tenure in Boston, the parting was sour. During his last week in a Sox uniform, many Boston fans came to believe that Manny faked a knee injury, skipped a game, forgot which knee he said he injured, and refused to run out routine ground balls, in order to provoke the Red Sox to trade him. Why? Because it was believed that Manny preferred to become a free agent rather than have the Red Sox exercise their option to renew his ($20 million) contract for 2009.
Though some of these allegations are still disputed, the perception at the time was that Manny Ramirez- future Hall-of-Famer and the first ever Red Sox World Series MVP- quit on his team for money. The following is what I wrote on the occasion of the Ramirez trade, for my now-defunct blog, Soxlosophy.
Time doesn’t flow the same way for all parties concerned. Fans are fans for life. Businessmen have careers that span generations. But ballplayers can only be ballplayers for a very short period of time.
After the age of 32, every second of every day sees a ballplayer dwindle and decay, and become less and less himself. Not so for the other parties. Businessmen perhaps become more savvy in middle age. Fans become more experienced, have longer memories. They grow into their skins, develop their identities over the years.
Not ballplayers. They just get shittier and shittier until they can’t be ballplayers anymore, at an age where other professions are just getting started. And then there’s a whole lot of life left.
They can’t all go into broadcasting; too many already do.
Some ballplayers are lucky and develop other careers, and form new identities for themselves. Others live off their name, selling white wall tires or family friendly restaurants.
But every player knows their window is short, their skills are ephemeral, and what and who they are will die long before they do.
Manny Ramirez may or may not know, believe, or agree with any of this. But it’s in the back of my mind anytime I feel the urge to blame a player for wanting to be paid whatever he can get for the superhero talents he knows aren’t long for this world, before he turns into Clark Kent forever. And it’s in the back of my mind when I try to figure out who to side with in a dispute- the rare baseball talent who we pay to see, and whose life expectancy is just about up, or the front office business men, who I don’t pay to see, and who can go on being front office business men for 50 more years (in Theo’s case, at least), or me, who will keep on watching the games and going about my business.
That’s not to say that Manny is absolved; by all accounts, Manny was a Grade A asshole. I’m not denying that. But I don’t doubt that there’s at least a half-truth in one of Manny’s statements, because the Front Office probably did make Nomar and Pedro and Manny all feel one particular way, and whether it was intentional or not is immaterial. I suspect they were all made to feel that they no longer were who they had always thought they were.
Nobody wants to feel replaceable. Interchangeable. Everybody wants to feel unique. I bet guys like Pedro, Nomar and Manny have spent a good part of their lives feeling unique, and deservedly so, because they have been blessed with talent that millions of people would do unspeakable things for. Who they were, why they were loved, why they were the gods of Yawkey Way, was to be found in the arm, the legs, the hands, and the subtle harmonies only they could play.
Of course, superstars age, their skills wither. But to them, from their own point of view, they’re still the same unique divinity they’ve always been, ever since that first scout raved about their tools or wheels or gun at their 13th birthday. But that age of 32 or so rolls around, and that OPS or ERA starts to regress to the mean, and suddenly, these guys are one thing they’ve never been. Replaceable. They can be substituted; after their prime, the front office can find someone else to put up those same numbers they will. The person goes, the numbers stay the same. Oh right. And the salary shrinks. Profits go up.
That’s fine, that’s business. But I don’t blame the players for wanting “respect”, or “mental peace”, as Manny put it, which they always say they want instead of money, though of course they want the money. But they don’t even need to be shrewd in their investments with the money they already have in order to stay rich for life. No, the money is a symbol. A symbol of being desired. A symbol of being that guy that everyone wants, and pays, to see. That’s respect to them- respecting them as The Man they are. The money says that they’re wanted, to a quantifiable degree that much more than everyone else. What they want is to still be treated like the stars they were, not thrown out and replaced for an cheaper model. Manny will have mental peace when he’s desired the way Manny Ramirez should be desired. And Manny’s now getting that. The Dodgers are raving about the Hall of Fame slugger they acquired. Manny can strut into Joe Torre’s locker room and Be what he’s always Been: Manny.
You can call it ‘ego’, and it probably is. But the sense of ‘self’ applies as much as ‘conceit’. This is all they’ve been, this is all they know. All that lies ahead is decay and death. Yes, for all of us too, unfortunately- you heard it here first- but the rest of us still have a narrative, and not just the epilogue that a former ballplayer has. Sure, people will always want their autograph, and they’ll always eat for free in the local joints, but any player will tell you, it’s not the same. They’re never really themselves ever again.
Do you know what the moral of Field of Dreams is? Heaven is where you get to be yourself. (spoiler alert.) Shoeless Joe gets to be a ballplayer again. Doc Graham gets his one major league plate appearance, the one he should have had. And then, because he really was a doctor, not a ballplayer (‘Son, if I’d never gotten to be a doctor, that would have been a tragedy’), he gets to be that again too. Terrence Mann, after years of public silence, gets to be a writer again- he promises to give a full account of what it’s like out in the corn field. Ray Kinsella and his estranged father get to be an American Boy and his Dad, by having a game of catch.
But that’s Hollywood. Ballplayers can never again be themselves. When Manny learned that he wasn’t going to get the 4 year $100 million dollar contract extension that the great Manny Ramirez deserved, he shut down. Undoubtedly, Manny’s response was immature and hurtful to those that knew him, and he let his teammates down, and he disappointed fans who cheered for him and paid to see him be himself.
But nonetheless, I find it hard to be mad at Manny. I love baseball, and I know The Game and The Team are bigger than Manny, and Manny Ramirez didn’t do right by The Game, or The Team. I don’t condone his actions, but The Game and The Team are idealizations, not real people. They don’t have to stare death in the face before they reach middle age. They go on. Ideals are forever, Plato taught us.
Yes, Manny needs to ‘grow up.’ He should learn to leave an identity behind, and learn to face one reality that he agreed to- his contract to finish out this year- and one he didn’t- that who we are must change. He’s blameworthy for the first, but not the second, of course. And I can’t help suspect that behind the inflammatory statements and the knees and the jogging to first and the wanting his option to be picked up when the team has no reason to do so because he’s a Hall of Famer worth $20 million which everyone should recognize NOW, dammit, is the idea that the only self Manny has ever known is dissolving, and that Manny won’t be being Manny for very much longer.
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