One of my favorite bits of sportswriting is how quickly we will call someone a genius. If you devise a reasonably effective defense for the three-point shot ... you're a genius. If you get your team to play two somewhat different styles in back-to-back playoff games ... you're a genius. If you manage a bullpen so that you generally have your best pitchers throw when the game is close ... you're a genius. And so on.
I know this. I am among the worst offenders. In my first Poscast with Michael Schur, I found myself -- in one of those moments of desperate hyperbole -- trying to once again express my admiration for Ron Gardenhire. Yep, I called him "a genius." Ron Gardenhire. A genius. That is so ridiculous -- Gardy is a genius in the same way that I'm silent film star Buster Keaton -- that I feel like I should have to write "Ron Gardenhire ain't no genius" on a chalkboard 500 times*.
*Even if that double negative actually translates to mean that he IS a genius ... which would force me to write 500 more times "No way, Gardenhire is not a genius," but I'd forget to put that comma in there so it would read "No way Gardenhire is not a genius," and we'd have a double negative again and I'd spend all month trying to make up for calling Gardy a genius, which would be a fitting punishment for saying something that ludicrous.
Point is, yes, I do realize that we in sportswriting and sports broadcasting set the genius bar pretty low for coaches and athletes. The only people who set it lower are the people at Apple, who essentially take a bunch of ordinary people, have them take two Macbook Pro classes and one on the iPhone, and then immediately graduate them to geniuses. These geniuses even get their own bars.
But I still maintain that Manny Ramirez was a hitting genius.
I wrote this once before, and I continue to admit it's a bizarre notion. But what is a genius anyway? The dictionary definition is "a person who is exceptionally intelligent or creative, either generally or in some particular respect." MannyBManny is clearly not a generalist. The man has been ticketed for having the windows on his car tinted too dark. He has wandered to the outfield with a water bottle in his back pocket. In an era when nobody -- and I mean NOBODY -- with even two milliliters of sense would test positive for steroids, he apparently has now tested positive TWICE, the second time sparking his sudden and forced and merciful retirement from the game on Friday.
But in one particular respect ... I never saw anybody hit a baseball quite like Manny Ramirez. You can -- and I often do -- a lot of crazy things with numbers. But do you know how many men in baseball history have hit .310 with 525 homers and 525 doubles? Of course you do. One. M-A-N-N-Y. He also hit 21 grand slams -- only Lou Gehrig hit more. Yes, those numbers are skewed to single him out, but I'll tell you one thing that those numbers do suggest: It's possible that nobody ever hit more balls HARD than Manuel Aristides (Onelcida) Ramirez.
And he hit the ball that hard without even the slightest outward suggestion of anything resembling discipline or exertion or dedication. People may not have liked Barry Bonds but nobody could doubt the commitment he made to being a sensational baseball player. MannyBManny hardly seemed to care at all. I can only assume he DID care, and that he DID work hard on his hitting -- it doesn't seem even remotely possible that anyone could become that good at anything without extreme drive -- but, yeah, he did an amazing job hiding that part of himself from the world. He cared so little that the main defense his fans had against the likelihood he was using steroids was that using steroids would take too much effort. He cared so little that at one point when he was still hitting rockets all over the park, the Red Sox put him on waivers. It was a bit like putting Alexander the Great on waivers just after he crossed the Tigris ... only they didn't just put him on waivers, they basically PRAYED that someone would claim him. Nobody did.
Of course, the story goes that the Red Sox were forced to keep him ... and he led the league in slugging in 2004 and was named World Series MVP. In 2007, the Red Sox -- with Manny playing a somewhat less prominent role -- won the World Series again. In fact, Manny Ramirez's teams always won. I looked this up once before in 2009 -- at that time Manny Ramirez had never once played for a losing team in his 15 full seasons. His teams had made the playoffs 10 times and the World Series four times. He may have been a terrible teammate. He may have been an atrocious left fielder. He may have been the biggest pain this side of kidney stones. But the man hit baseballs hard. And because of him or despite him or both, his teams won.
In my own romantic view of baseball and the world, I tended to see Manny as baseball's Mozart -- an often vile personality who did one thing so beautifully that you could not turn away. He finished top five in batting average five times, top five in on-base percentage five times, top five in slugging 10 times. He faced Dennis Eckersley three times ... he walked once and hit two home runs off him. He hit .643 against CC Sabathia. Here's one that will blow your mind -- there are 27 men out there who have had only one at-bat match-up with MannyBManny ... and they will always be able to tell people that Manny hit a home run in that one at-bat.
When I wrote the Manny-is-a-genius piece, I talked to a few people in the game ... and it was clear that these tough old baseball men who had no respect at all for the way Ramirez treated the game were almost absurdly awed by his talent. They talked of games he would play with pitchers during spring training to set them up later in the year. They talked of adjustments he would make pitch-to-pitch that were so remarkable they could only compare it to chess grandmasters. Bill James -- co-host of the next Poscast, coming out Monday -- insisted that Manny Ramirez would purposely get into 3-2 counts with a runner on first so that the runner would be on the move with the pitch and could then score on the double MannyBManny planned to hit.
I think "genius" -- at least the way it has come to be understood -- needs a bit of mystery. We can't understand, most of us, understand how Einstein could have conceived of a whole new kind of universe or how Shakespeare could have written Othello, King Lear and Macbeth in a rush of two years or how the Beatles could have recorded Sgt. Pepper's, Yellow Submarine and Abbey Road back-to-back-to-back. There is no mystery in Albert Pujols' ability to hit a baseball. He works harder at it than anyone. He has a singular focus that obliterates all distractions. He has a deep faith, and he has a giant chip on his shoulder, and these things drive him to hit baseballs like almost no one in baseball history. It's remarkable. But it's not mysterious.
Same goes with Larry Bird -- the mystery was not how he played such glorious basketball but what kept him out there on the courts, for hour after hour after hour after deathly hour, perfecting his shot, devising his moves, developing a sense of the game that could seem (if you did not know his work ethic) supernatural.
But Manny -- I don't know how he did it. Some will say he did it with steroids, but that seems a copout to me ... I suspect a whole lot more players than anyone will ever admit used steroids. How many of them hit baseballs like Manny Ramirez?
Now, with him retired, the question will be asked about his Hall of Fame candidacy. I don't think it's much of a question. He has no shot ... at least not with the baseball writers. None. Two positive tests AFTER the game started testing for steroid use? No shot. I'm not saying it's right or wrong; I'm just stating the obvious. The writers, I think, were already shaky about his candidacy because of his defiantly awful defense (his minus-118 defensive runs ranks him the fifth worst outfielder in baseball history -- tied with Frank Howard), because of his defiantly bad attitude, because of his plain defiance. Two positive tests is more than enough to end any chances. I suspect there's a pretty good chance he won't even get the 5% necessary to stay on the ballot.
Will I vote for him? Well, I have five years to sort that out. I do think positive tests AFTER testing began and steroid outrage exploded is a very different thing from using steroids when no one tested and no one cared. Then again, I'm a bad example for something like this. I vote for Mark McGwire. I'd vote for Pete Rose. I believe that the Hall of Fame is for the best baseball players, the ones who thrilled us with their play, who helped their teams win, who had a spectacular peak, who compare well with the best players already in the Hall. You will probably figure out before I do how I will vote.
I saw Manny Ramirez play in a spring training game this year. He looked horribly out of shape, and looked like he cared even less than usual, and I made the observation that the Rays had obviously lost their way signing that guy, even for one year, even for a relatively small amount of money. "Nothing good can come from this," I said.
In the end, I guess I was right. But I will say this: MannyBManny came up to the plate. He looked more likely to collapse on the spot than swing the bat. But he did swing the bat. And he absolutely rocketed a single into the outfield. It was impressive. Sure, a minute later, he made a classic, "It's hot out here and I don't want to be on the bases" base-running maneuver and got himself thrown out. But he hit that line drive hard. Damn, he hit that line drive hard.