It’s Manny Ramirez. Who doesn’t want Manny Ramirez back in the majors? Any serious baseball fan had to appreciate Manny as a pure hitter. And any sportswriter, serious or not, has to appreciate the material. So when the news broke that Ramirez, who recently left his Taiwanese team, had signed a minor-league deal with the Rangers, most people seemed happy to hear it.
Major League Baseball is more interesting with Manny in it, and that is, as ever, my main rooting interest. But it seems that Manny’s been gone long enough for everyone to start romanticizing him more than a little bit. Not the hitting, which was just as wondrous as you remember and hard to improve even in the mists of nostalgia. But just how messy everything got around that hitting.
Ramirez’s career line is .312/.411/.585, good for an OPS+ of 154, and when he was right, which was a lot of the time, he was one of the most exciting players in the game, a terrifying and exhilarating presence at the plate. So it feels churlish to note that Ramirez’s last good season came in 2010, and even that was marred by three trips to the disabled list. In 2011 he played in just five games before testing positive a second time for PED use, which brought a 100-game suspension, and abruptly “retiring” without even telling his then-team, the Rays. He un-retired at the end of the year, bargained his suspension down to 50 games, and signed a minor-league deal with the A’s in 2012, but when they didn’t call him up after a few weeks he requested his release. Then came the Dominican and Taiwan.
Now he’s being brought back on a minor league deal, which means it costs the Rangers almost nothing. They stand to lose only pocket change, relatively speaking. However, you could say the same thing about them signing anyone at all to a minor league deal — Barry Bonds, Yogi Berra, you, me, a trout. It can’t do serious harm, but that doesn’t mean it’s likely to pay off.
The list of hitters who have come back at age 41, after such a long break from the majors, and performed well, is vanishingly small. (Preliminary research indicates that basically it’s just Tim Raines, who missed the 2000 season while battling lupus, and the incomparably ageless Julio Franco). Manny did very well in Taiwan’s Chinese Professional Baseball League — in 52 games he hit .352 with eight home runs — but the CPBL is roughly equivalent to A-ball. A strong performance there is a promising sign, but it’s hardly indicative of impending Major League success.
It’s also worth noting — and this is where the romanticizing comes in — that Manny’s off-field transgressions were more serious than just the silly personality issues that baseball often enjoys getting worked up about. He is widely remembered now for those lighter-hearted things: He came to spring training late, and his hair was odd, and his uniform was baggy, and he cut off throws he shouldn’t have cut off, and he pimped the hell out of his home runs. That all contributed to his image as a colorful personality, and was entertaining at best, mostly harmless at worst. He was having fun on the field, and that was contagious.
But Ramirez also was widely accused of quitting on his team, and wore out his welcome in L.A. as well as in Boston. He tested positive for PEDs not once but twice, or three times if you want to count his appearance on the leaked list of 2003 failed tests. And he was arrested for domestic violence (though charges were later dropped), fought with a teammate and pushed a 64-year-old Red Sox traveling secretary to the ground.
You get the sense, in the coverage of Manny’s new minor-league deal, that people have kind of forgotten how dark “Manny being Manny” got at times. The way he pissed off baseball’s self-appointed moral guardians (sometimes literally) was, for years, part of the fun of watching him. But by the time he left Major League Baseball, the joy was almost entirely gone. It’s certainly possible than Ramirez has changed and matured, and that things would be different this time around — let’s just not forget what his last few years were actually like.
For better or worse, none of that would matter if Manny could still hit the way he did when healthy in 2010. Given the unlikelihood of that — unless Julio Franco decides to share the location of his personal fountain of youth — this comeback attempt could be short-lived. But I will grant that whatever else it is, it won’t be boring.