My taste in professional athletes differs from most of America… basically, if a player sends Rick Reilly into paroxysms of hatred, he’s my guy. Favorite all-time non-Bull: Allen Iverson. Favorite all-time non-Bear: Michael Vick or Ricky Williams. Favorite all-time non-Blackhawk: ummm…
And favorite all-time non-Cub: Manny fucking Ramirez, of course.
Manny went out with a whimper last week, when he decided to retire from baseball rather than face a 100 game suspension for testing positive for drugs for the third time. Well, a whimper except for the howls of outrage from sportswriters around the country.
The way Manny went out was a gift to those who think he personifies everything wrong with the world circa 2011. It also was par for the course for Manny. For years, he evaded the steroids spotlight, only to jump into it once the fervor had passed. He was suspended for 50 games in 2009 for taking a banned substance. He tested positive for something again this spring training. (His name is also supposedly on that bullshit 2003 list that was supposed to be destroyed… why somebody from the MLB offices isn’t on trial somewhere is beyond me).
I never thought Manny was on steroids, not for any moral objection (the tiny shit I gave about steroids in baseball passed a long time ago), but because I didn’t think there was any way he could keep up with a cycle. Steroids require precise timing and dosages, which seemed beyond Manny… in retrospect, I was probably right. Manny had to have known that he was being looked at closely, but he just didn’t care.
Baseball is an overly serious game whose natural constituency is elderly white men. Which is probably why I enjoyed Manny so much. What are the odds that the best athlete ever to get high with would come out of baseball? Sorry, Ricky… I know you chose pot over a great career, but I feel like we’d just end up having a long discussion about the futility of life. With Manny, I’d be laughing my ass off at his non-sensical utterances while dining on fried peanut butter and bacon sandwiches. And there’s a good chance there’d be midgets involved.
All the off-the-field stuff obscures what a once-in-a-lifetime player Manny was. You can go through the stats… 12-time All-Star, World Series MVP, 9 straight seasons with 100 RBIs and 30 HRs, etc. But that doesn’t capture the buzz that enveloped Fenway, or anywhere really, when he came up to bat. The only comparison I’ve experienced is Sammy Sosa at Wrigley, and it wasn’t really the same. Because Sammy didn’t embody pure joy the way Manny did… he just wanted us to think he did. Sammy’s exuberance quickly became apparent as an act, a marketing gimmick… he was joyful in a calculating way. Whereas Manny was more childish, selfish in the way of a 6-year-old. This isn’t the infantilize him… but the same things that drove sportswriters crazy is what made him so much fun to watch. Sports are supposed to be a throwback to childhood, but have instead become big business… it was refreshing to watch a great player who didn’t take himself or the game any more seriously than he did when he first started playing. And, of course, it was just this attitude that allowed him to lead the way in turning a cursed franchise into a pseudo-dynasty.
Baseball is a long (in every sense) game… it’s also one in which “selfishness” isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In football or basketball, a selfish player can kill your team by monopolizing the ball, etc. But baseball is a series of individual matchups, where it’s essentially every-man-for-himself (which is the reason it’s so easy to break down statistically). Sure, Manny may have missed more than his share of fly balls in the outfield, but he more than made up for it at bat. Anyway, it made the game more exciting… every pop-up was an adventure. And he always had a sense of humor about it… he’d tip his cap to the fans when they gave a sarcastic cheer for a routine catch after a few misses. He knew he was horrible out there… but why should he stress over it? It’s a long summer.
Plus, he did shit like put a grill on eBay for $4,000 (when he was making 8 figures) and disappear periodically into the outfield wall while play was going on. Manny being Manny basically boiled down to realizing that baseball (or any other sport) isn’t that important, but that being naturally great at it is freakin’ awesome, and enjoying it is far more important than getting some middle-aged man’s respect.
So, smoke a bowl and enjoy your retirement Manny… I’ll remember you as one of the few players of my lifetime that made baseball fun.