The inglorious end of Mannyland
Manny Ramirez's deception brought his once-dazzling ride to a screeching halt
My instincts had kicked into high gear. The ball was hit hard, but I knew if I took the right path I could cut it off before it was a sure double in the right-center-field gap. I took off, I shifted into my fifth gear and then something happened that I hadn't seen before. The ball had so much backspin that it acted like it was rising. The reality that the ball was past me before I could get to my mark was bad enough, but what made my jaw truly drop on the center-field grass was that this ball hit well up the light tower over a double wall. It was my first full season in pro ball, and I had never seen that kind of opposite-field power in my life.
I had other reasons to take note of the illusions that Manny Ramirez could generate with his bat. He was the 13th overall pick in the first round of the 1991 draft, and it was clear from the day he was drafted that his bat was going to carry him to the top. Not to mention the humility that comes with knowing that I would never generate that kind of pop.
So I began to wonder if I would be a trivia question one day.
Question: Name the 12 players picked before Manny Ramirez in the 1991 draft.
I remember most of them, but I was sure of one thing -- I was No. 12.
Ramirez is not going to leave the game the way I saw him come into it. When he was playing for the Kinston Indians in the Carolina League against me in 1992 at 20 years old, he looked like he was a major league hitter on the tail end of a rehab assignment. The way he got in the batter's box, the distance on his home runs, his ability to use the entire field, stood out. He just flat-out hit and it didn't seem to matter what our pitchers threw him.
This past week Ramirez resembled just a shell of that player. He walks away from the game shrouded in the robe of an over-the-hill ballplayer who continued to take reckless measures to buy some more time in the game. The light-tower home runs were no longer wowing anyone; they were part of his contractual obligation to be a cold-blooded hitter, so he found a way to change his blood, chemically, to make his value a certainty. At this stage in his career, it didn't work.
With all of the attention paid to the drug culture in baseball, you have to sense that Manny doesn't really care anymore. It's not like he didn't know the tests were coming and that the system does not want to be embarrassed anymore. With Barry Bonds in court, Jason Giambi still apologizing and a cloud of doubt still hovering around any long-distance home run, no one was going to lose Ramirez's drug test or ignore what it revealed. He tested positive, he knew the ax was going to fall and he made his move and headed for "retirement." This was his last hurrah. At least in the big leagues.
I suppose with a 100-game suspension, what would be the point in sitting out until after the trade deadline? If the Rays were 15 games out at that point, what reason would there be for them to keep him on their roster? If they were in the playoff race, would they have wanted Ramirez there? That would have proven they didn't need him in the first place.
But then again, Manny was a model citizen in spring training. He was making all of the road trips and seemed to be all about the team. So why bolt on this new team spirit at this point in time? He could have sat in the dugout, paid his dues, cheered on his teammates and made some kind of contribution at the end of the season. Then again, most people weren't fooled by the overenthusiastic desire to take long road trips during training camp even though he has been considered a good teammate throughout his career, but I would have been impressed had he stayed on with the Rays, serving his suspension.
But it isn't about impressing me, just as it wasn't about players who chose not to take steroids to perform. Those players were merely collateral damage to the obsession to produce while fighting the aging process. Who knows when Ramirez's drug use began or ended, stopped or started? The same question applies to any other player caught in the dark side of the steroids era.
The cocktail for Mannyland is still the same as it is for anyone who is desperate and all-in. Fear, greed, anxiety, with a twist of denial on the rocks. When you look at this steroids culture, you are finding the best players of my era all going down like a bad mojito. A-Rod, Giambi, Bonds, Clemens, McGwire, Sosa, Ramirez. Allegedly, they were all trying to cheat the aging process, scared to death of finding out that they may fall short of expectations or that the end of the rainbow for many in baseball is often a brick wall, not a pot of gold. Somewhere during the ride of their career, they realized that for the vast majority of ballplayers, the financial gold is found while you are on the rainbow. Not at the end of it.
It doesn't take long for players to know that when you put all of your eggs in one basket, the end of a career is like death. There is nothing else, and you didn't plan for anything else. In fact, the game may have seen that kind of planning as a defeatist attitude. Why take out life insurance if you are Superman and are not mortal?
These great performers share what all of us share: self-doubt. It seems like an odd word to be connected with players who dominated the stage, but we now know that part of the effect of these drugs was to take away a lot of those moments when you feel doubt, partly because you don't feel anything that will get in your steroidal way. Including a respect for anything other than the bottom line. History? Fairness? Those became the words of an idealist.
I took a lot of heat for being the guy chosen one pick before Manny Ramirez. Manny won two World Series. Manny was one of the best right-handed hitters in the game. Let Manny be Manny. I certainly had no beef with him when we competed. I just found it frustrating that in an era when the home run was king and the juice was a god, it was hard to appreciate defense, the sac bunt and a two-strike approach. But that was my game and I always hoped that being a complete player was more important that just having one dimension. I hoped it was important that a player would show up with a bad hamstring or a loved one in the hospital.
Mannyland is now closed. The ride is over; the dreads are no longer going to be coolly sewed into hats and sold at concession stands. He was allowed to be himself, his eccentricities were celebrated and he was accepted for whoever he was as long as he kept hitting. But like we all find out during a life in the game, the ride is only for a short while, and no amount of enhancement will replace the necessity of coping with that nasty reality that what goes up must come down. In fact, enhancement at that point does the exact opposite of how it served you when the theme park was open. Instead of lifting you up and making you a physical dynamo, it accelerates you into your new post-career reality at the speed of light, with no parachute and not a care in the world.
Left in the wake of his super-juiced theme park was burned generational record books, clean player careers on the side of the road, a confidence in fans that they can appreciate something other than the home run, the spirit of the underdog, the parent saying to a daughter or a son "do the best you can with what you have," the nuance of taking defense seriously, the message to young fans that you don't have to give up your soul to be committed.
I enjoyed competing against Manny. In retrospect, like watching so many players caught in the steroids web, it was a great ride, one that we sometimes accept as full of deception. It had mirrors, smoke, disappearing objects, dark shadows, rabbits pulled out of hats, even a pregnant man. But when we learn how the tricks were done, we lose faith, we lose trust, not in magic, but in those that perform it. So maybe that is Mannyland's legacy. A story that we can summarize on the sign that hangs in front of the condemned building that used to be his play land.
"Mannyland. Fooled you once, fooled you twice. Pick up your asterisk at the exit if you really want it."
Doug Glanville, who earned a degree in systems engineering from the University of Pennsylvania, played nine major league seasons with the Cubs, Phillies and Rangers. He serves on the board of Athletes Against Drugs and the fundraising committee of Boundless Readers. His book, "The Game from Where I Stand," was released May 11, 2010. Click here to buy it on Amazon.com. Follow him on Twitter: @dougglanville