Over the course of 19 major league seasons, Manny Ramirez turned himself into a superstar by making good on two sets of expectations. Be it in Cleveland or Boston or Los Angeles, whoever signed Manny’s paychecks expected both that he would hit and that he would keep things interesting, with the latter sometimes coming at the expense of the former.
It’s been three years since his last at-bat in the major leagues and five since he made a genuine impact, but his faint promise as a hitter and notoriety have kept him in some kind of demand as a baseball vagabond, sprinkling flecks of relevance to whatever minor league outpost — or, in one case, foreign country — is willing to harbor him. We know the drill by now: Manny arrives; Manny deflects questions about his past to tell us about how focused he is on having one last shot in the majors; Manny departs, to relatively little fanfare. That’s not what Manny Ramirez wants, necessarily, but as was the case when I visited Ramirez last summer as a member of the Texas Rangers’ Triple-A affiliate in Round Rock, Tex., his former self is the reason he still gets hired.
There is an assumption, therefore, that his latest attempt to reinvent himself — as a player-coach for the Chicago Cubs Triple A Iowa affiliate — is more of the same, but with one new twist: The resident court jester is now charged with presiding over trials. It’s a cute enough concept, until you realize that the enduring refrain of Manny Being Manny may become obsolete. Manny Ramirez, the player, won’t necessarily have all that much in common with Manny Ramirez, the coach.
This isn’t to say that Ramirez won’t be his usual, jovial self, or that he will grow out of the spaciness that makes him seem accessible. There figure to be instances of that, and the Internet will exaggerate them in kind, just as it did this season whenever Rasheed Wallace broke expected character as an assistant coach for the Detroit Pistons, capitulating to the expectation that he’d play a role instead of fulfilling one. Wallace’s absurdly high basketball intellect, the quality that got him hired, often got swallowed by the cult of his personality, and the same thing appears to be happening to Ramirez’s mind for hitting, universally regarded as one of the absolute best.
When I surveyed his Round Rock teammates for their impressions, the responses dealt far less with his personality than with his practices as a batter, his discipline, his hands, his eye for picking apart a swing — the hitter’s (and hitting coach’s) tool belt. When they did speak about the man himself, it was often to mention his generosity; Mike Olt, now the Cubs’ starting third baseman, credited Ramirez’s stewardship for breaking him out of a lengthy slump. Goofy as he might be outside of the batter’s box, Manny Ramirez is serious about hitting, and he seems legitimately interested in helping younger players get better.
The context matters, too. This is an organization helmed by Theo Epstein, an executive who knows Ramirez well and was a principal figure in his exile from Boston. This farm system is barren of capable arms but bursting with talented bats, with not only Iowa’s Javier Baez, Arismendy Alcantara and Christian Villanueva, but also blue chippers like Kris Bryant and Albert Almora, who may also be coached by Ramirez eventually. Whether these hitters develop under his tutelage will impact the organization’s future. The only way Epstein would entrust this level of talent to Ramirez is with the absolute certainty that Manny is not only able but eager to prioritize their development as a coach, above his own dwindling prospects as a player.
Ramirez built a legacy in part by breaking the mold of how society expected baseball players to act. Now he’ll have to defy the expectations he once set for himself accordingly, by blending in and playing by the rules. It may seem like unfamiliar territory, but in one sense, he’s doing exactly what he did before: acting the opposite of how he’s expected to act. Once a formidable adjustor at the plate, the Cubs have good reason to believe that Ramirez the coach can adapt and survive.