By Eric Neel
Page 2

I don't want to talk about the American League MVP race.

I don't want to talk about Vlad swinging the bat the way Mel Lentz swings an axe, or about Ichiro "Got more Hits Than Jamaica's Got Mangoes" Suzuki, or about Miguel Tejada and his dump truck full of RBI. I don't want to talk Melvin Mora, Carlos Guillen, Pudge, David Ortiz, or the Lion of Alameda County.

I'm not thinking about a peloton full of players and a wide-open race to the line.

I've got just two guys on my mind -- two guys who ought to know the MVP trophy ain't nothing but a tin badge right now; two guys who've brought their clubs a long, hard way just to get to go-time; two guys who, great as they've been this year, better hope they have another gear for the home stretch.

I'm thinking about Manny and Sheff.

I'm thinking first that this time, right now, Sept. 2, with just 3½ games between the Red Sox and Yankees and with six head-to-head games left to play, is a very good time to stop and recognize how very good these two guys are.

Sheffield's trophy-caliber line-in-the-making this year (33 home runs, 98 RBI, .297/.407/.562) looks a whole lot like his 16-year career average line for 162 games (33 home runs, 106 RBI, .299/.401/.527). He hits baseballs. Hard and quick. He's one of those rare guys who seems irresistible, his twitching bat not a timing device so much as a harbinger. Bottom line: The guy is a Haller from sun-up to sundown; and if a pennant race between Boston and New York shines a little light on that fact, it'll be attention well-deserved.

Ramirez is the same story. He and his sweet, terrifying swing (the only analogs I can think of are Tiger and Sampras, and maybe Foreman against Frazier, or DeNiro at the summit meeting in "The Untouchables") have been good for 36 home runs, 108 RBI, and a .317/.407/.628 index so far in '04. You know what that is? Dazzling? Wicked?

Manny Ramirez
Manny Ramirez may have a bad rap, but he's had a huge year.

Nah, it's just average. He's been doing 41, 134, .317/.413/.598 over every 162 for the last 11 years. They shouldn't talk about letting him in the Hall when he's done. They should seriously consider naming a wing after him, maybe starting a scholarship fund in his name.

When you talk greatness in the modern era, names like Bonds, Clemens, and Maddux come easy. We forget to include Sheffield and Ramirez in the conversation. We forget how good they are and have been.

Part of that comes from focusing on how "bad" they've been. Manny parties too much, doesn't run hard enough, looks too lax, comes off surly. Sheffield dogs and grouses ... about money, respect, the way the wind blows, about anything and everything.

You've heard the talk over the years.

People who've played with them (and some reporters who've covered them) will tell you it's overblown. They'll say both guys have matured, and that they're total pros these days. They'll talk about Ramirez playing hard and Sheffield playing hurt.

But in the minds of the average fan, in the long memory of conventional wisdom, Sheff and Manny carry baggage. They're on the lost highway and their reputations ride shotgun.

And that's what makes them so interesting, so much more interesting than just the AL MVP race, right now. Because they're both poised to re-write that story once and for all. The stage is big enough, the stakes are high enough. They can change things with a hot September and clutch October. They can play for legacy and image. They can underwrite their records with a legendary push.

And it won't just be about the two of them; it'll be about their franchises and the fans who follow them. Manny can be the man who finally drives the hated Yankees into the ground, resurrecting the spirits of the great Sox who've tried and failed before him. He can be the flesh-and-blood vessel for Teddy Ballgame's heart. He can finish things for Yaz, redeem the whole '78 squad, and release Buckner from his hateful little goat's pen.

Gary Sheffield
Sheffield has been the best player on the Yankees this season.

And Sheffield can be the stalwart who stones the barbarians at the gate. He can play the part of The Clipper and The Mick, feel in his arms the strength of everyone from Gehrig to Bucky to Aaron Boone. He can do what the New York American League ballclub has always done. He can beat back the Red Sox and become a Yankee.

I'm oversimplifying, of course. The results of the race won't likely hinge on any one or two players. Schilling, Martinez, and Ortiz will have a lot to say about it. So will El Duque, A-Rod, and Matsui. And so will guys we're not even thinking about, the unsuspecting heroes chosen by fate and circumstance. But don't you think Manny and Sheff are thinking in these terms? And don't you think they should be? Shouldn't they be eyeing each other right now, looking to lay down a banjo lick better than the other guy, every night out? I don't want to get all Casey Kasem about it, but shouldn't they be reaching for the stars, feeling the weight of the moment and the weight of history each time they step in the box?

Over and above which team wins the flag, isn't this some big part of what makes us fans? Isn't it about the chance to see grace under pressure? Isn't it about the drama of watching someone come up short?

This is when we get the closest to the players and the games they play. We imagine them most empathetically now. We wonder, not just about what they will do, but about how their hearts are beating, and when and if their muscles are tightening. We see in every hit a kind of triumph, and every strikeout or miscue in the field plays for us like a sad, epic scene straight out of Arthur Miller.

I don't care if you're neither a Red Sox fan nor a Yankees fan. If you're a fan at all, you have to be thinking about Manny and Sheff right now. If you're a fan, you have to appreciate what they bring to this moment; and more than that, you have to smile at the chance to see what else they've got.

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NOTES FROM ERIC'S SCORECARD
KUDOS
To the Atlanta Braves broadcasts, featuring scorebook-style graphics for each hitter's night as he steps into the box. Very cool, and easier to read than the traditional approach. Don Sutton is good, too, but I really like the scorebook stuff. Can we arrange to have it be the start of a trend? Does anyone know anyone at Fox? Can Bob Costas make this happen?
NOW STARRING IN THE FRANKIE RODRIGUEZ STORY
Yhency Brazoban, who through 15 innings has been good for 13 strikeouts, just three walks, an ERA of 0.60, a WHIP of 0.80, and a BAA of .173. The only thing better than watching him pitch has been listening to Vin Scully draw his name out with that inimitable Midwestern twang of his -- Yhennnnncy Brazobaaaaan, like it's a flag he's unfurling from the farmhouse porch on a sunkissed summer afternoon.
THE BEST MEASURE OF THE GIANTS' AND CUBS' WEAKNESSES
Houston and Florida are actually still in this thing. How can that be? Aren't several Astros actually playing the field in wheelchairs? Isn't Wade Miller wandering the earth like Kung Fu? Is this the secret mojo component of the Dodgers-Marlins trade? Paul Lo Duca's heart actually acts as a kind of Deathstar tractor beam, reeling in Sammy and Barry who struggle at the controls of the Millennium Falcon?
ROOTING INTERESTS
If you don't keep a good thought in your heart for Rick Ankiel, if you don't do a little strike zone dance on his behalf, I don't even want to know you.

And as my friend Andy points out, you better save some hopeful love for the Mariners' Bobby Madritsch, too.

COUNTERINTUITIVE
It would be impressive and dramatic to see The Big Unit doing his incredible exploding slider trick for a team in contention. But in a way, it's more impressive and more dramatic (in that Hemingway, lone-bullfighter sort of way) to see him doing what he's doing for the hapless D-Backs. I watched him strike out 15 Dodgers on Tuesday night, all the while knowing it might not be, it probably wouldn't be, enough to get a W. He was like Beatrix Kiddo, only without the benefit of a script that divined his triumph. He was stoic and devastating. He was a hero.

Eric Neel is a regular columnist for Page 2. His "On Baseball" column appears weekly.




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