- Jayson Stark, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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That dreadlocked bon vivant, Manny Ramirez, will rejoin us -- and the Dodgers -- this weekend after eight weeks of purgatory on Planet Manny. Whoop-de-doo.
If this were a logical world, we'd be greeting him like the team-wrecking, alibi-distorting, female-fertility-drug-popping scoundrel he is. But friends, this planet clearly has lost its grip on logic.
So instead, the reaction to Manny, from Albuquerque to Ensenada, has been -- what else? -- downright hero worship. You'd think the guy had spent the past 57 days curing cancer, dousing tensions in Iran and smoothing out plot glitches for the final season of "Lost."
But why? That's the question we've been struggling with since Manny-mania busted out in Albuquerque last week.
Why is America so ready to forgive this guy of all guys? Because he has fun hair? Because he has a lovable smile? Because he has a long, not necessarily proud, history as baseball's foremost goofball?
Why would that be enough to outweigh his disgraceful exit from Boston, his indisputable guilt in this case and the dubious alibi his spin doctors typed up to explain his way out of this mess?
Why? We posed that question to four men who have thought about it a lot themselves: esteemed Columbia School of Journalism professor Sandy Padwe, cerebral journalist/author Robert Lipsyte and two of the most thoughtful players we have ever covered, Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt and a man who has turned into an official New York Times op-ed columnist, Doug Glanville.
Let's just say "shock" wouldn't be the word we'd use to describe the reaction of any of them.
"It just doesn't surprise me," said Padwe, a longtime sports writer, editor and educator who also serves as a consultant for ESPN's investigative reporting unit. "I read the blogs. I read the chat rooms. And it seems to me that this is just another episode of Manny being Manny."
"Manny is also a caricature, more so than other players," said Glanville, whose Times columns provide a window into life and baseball you won't find anywhere else. "His hair, his mysterious ways -- he almost seems surreal in some way. No one has more latitude to 'Let Manny be Manny.' I think that softens the blow, almost like when you see your favorite cartoon character fall down the stairs. You tend to believe, like Tom from 'Tom and Jerry,' that he will get up and make up for it. And even when he doesn't, no one notices."
"I think it comes down to perception," said Schmidt, a man still frustrated by the perception, in his own career, that he was some kind of distant, supercool, above-it-all iceman -- a perception that was, in effect, "the exact opposite of reality," he said.
Schmidt ticked off a long list of ex-players who have been demonized for their crimes against baseball -- Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Pete Rose -- and the image they gave off:
"Tough, cocky, surly, aloof, wealthy" were the words Schmidt chose.
But Manny? He's "soft, flawed, happy, innocent, smiley, goofy," Schmidt said. So he has crafted an image as "warm and affectionate, which the media and fans gravitate toward."
Seriously, though, folks. Is that really what Manny is? Warm and affectionate? Soft? Innocent? It's a great persona if you can pull it off. But in actuality, Schmidt said, that innocence -- or what Schmidt pointedly called Manny's "innocent act" -- is really "a cover-up to the dark side of his existence as an athlete."
THE BLOGOSPHERE IS ABUZZ
Manny's Buzz Rating
On a scale of 0 to 10, Manny's pulling down a 9, a very high level of interest from the social media world. How high? Well, the title-winning Lakers produced a rating of 10, while Orioles phenom Matt Wieters registered a 3 for his call-up.
The volume of Manny-related chatter is far greater on blogs and message boards (86.8 percent) than it is on Twitter (14.2 percent). California accounted for 19.3 percent of all posts.
Positive posts: 26.9 percent
Negative: 19.3 percent
Neutral: 53.8 percent
Source: Sports Media Challenge
But do we even care about that dark side anymore? That's the question here. Padwe, a man long consumed with issues like this, says he believes that moral indignity over athletes and their indiscretions has all but "evaporated." Instead, the masses seem to have reached the point that all they really want to do is just "move on."
"That kind of mentality -- 'OK, everyone has done it, so let's just give into it because nothing can be done' -- is getting more and more prevalent," Padwe said. "And I think we have to find out what's at the root of that, why people think that way. This whole thing with Manny leads to something bigger in the American psyche that hasn't been scientifically probed yet."
But maybe, Lipsyte suggested, that "something" is no more complicated than a massive disconnect between fans and media.
"I don't think fans are trapped in the righteous indignation of all the sports writers who blew the steroids story as it grew on their watch," Lipsyte, a longtime New York Times columnist who also has done work at ESPN, wrote in an e-mail. "Fans understand that ballplayers have the same goals as they do: win. How mad can you get at someone who endangers their health to entertain you (like Janis Joplin, Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson)? These aren't the crooked financiers or irresponsible politicians who do deserve our anger."
Oh, he's right about that, clearly. One thing we can all agree on about Manny: He's no Bernie Madoff.
But that doesn't explain why this man is getting such a heroic welcome back. Does Manny really fit the mold of previous baseball players whose PED stains have been forgiven? Not that we can see.
His statement of "confession" -- that he was given a prescription for a "medication" that was "not a steroid" for a "personal health issue" -- was obviously a giant baloney sandwich. And the only apology he has issued was to his teammates, for screwing up their fun-filled season.
Plus, Manny has that other heinous transgression on his rap sheet: the outrageous pull-the-plug act he sprang on the Red Sox last summer just so he could chase more dollar signs. You don't get that combination of sins real often in one package, do you?
But Padwe thinks American sports fans have reached the point now that, as "half-hearted" as Manny's admission might have been, "It comes off as, 'OK, I did take something.'" And that at least puts him in a different category from Clemens, McGwire, Sosa and Rafael Palmeiro.
"Those guys never did come clean," Padwe said. "And had they come clean, they would have been forgiven. I really believe that."
But there is another way Manny separates himself from virtually all the other world-famous members of the PED crowd:
He served his time.
He's the first star player in the history of this drug agreement to get caught and take his 50 games' worth of penance when he was still a prime-time, middle-of-the-order All-Star. So maybe, for many people, just doing that time is enough.
And if that's really all it takes now, it's a sign that we've crossed a line into a whole different dimension, in terms of how the public is going to view "steroid guys."
Maybe, now that this sport has penalties this stiff, people are going to treat baseball players who serve their sentence the way they treat NFL players like Rodney Harrison and Shawne Merriman, who came back after their suspensions with no apparent damage to their reps.
"I think we are in a different realm," Padwe said. "I think this is probably what's going to happen, that people who are going to get suspended, or have been suspended, are going to be viewed as having served their time, and now they'll get a second chance, which is also supposedly part of the American way of life. So they serve their time and then it's over and done with -- until it happens again."
So maybe this is just an indication that baseball has finally pulled even with the other sports on this issue. You serve your suspension. You throw together some kind of half-baked statement, sort of owning up to what you did. Then you resume your regularly scheduled life. And we guess that's good.
But Schmidt, for one, is appalled by the idea that that's what we've come to.
"Accountability, morality, substance, trust, honesty and so on, are all on a steady decline in our country," Schmidt said. "And Manny's world, like some other 'worlds' we know, is perpetuating it. At this rate, 20 years from now, pro sports are going to be just like pro wrestling -- marketing to the masses who just want to be entertained."
We can't say we share that vision. We can't say we see Vince McMahon as the next commissioner of baseball, and The Undertaker negotiating the next PED agreement.
But we do share Schmidt's view that there's something appalling going on here. Does Ramirez deserve a second chance? Absolutely. But does he deserve to be celebrated by anyone who isn't a tunnel-visioned Dodgers fan? Absolutely not.
If that's the greeting America heaps on him, though, the moral of Manny's story will be clear to every one of us:
It's time to grow some cool hair. Immediately.
Ready to rumble
• Run for DeRosa: Turned out the duel for Mark DeRosa was an all-NL Central extravaganza by the time the Indians' trade talks approached the finish line. In the end, the Cardinals went from a team that was not even willing to discuss Chris Perez to a club willing to offer Perez plus a prospect to be named by Sept. 1, plus the Cardinals took on all of the $2.9 million remaining on DeRosa's contract. And that's what it took for them to outbid the two runners-up, the Reds and Cubs. So what about the Mets, who have been portrayed as having been in the DeRosa sweepstakes to the end? They were one of 10 teams that checked in. But they were never willing to move Bobby Parnell or any of their best young arms. So it appears they were never much of a factor. The Phillies, meanwhile, have now lost out on bids for DeRosa twice in six months: once at the winter meetings, a second time in this derby. The Marlins and Giants were also in this mix.
• Knock on Wood: Another Indian whose name continues to float is Kerry Wood. But the Indians seem much more interested in moving Rafael Betancourt if he gets his act together after he comes off the disabled list. And Wood's two-year, $20 million contract almost makes him unmovable anyway. "It was two and 20, so now it's down to, what -- 1½ and 15 [million]?" laughed an executive of one club. "I just don't see anybody taking on that kind of cash. And much as I love [Wood's] stuff, I don't know that he has the command to make the pitches he has to make. With his stuff, it's unbelievable he doesn't get out of more jams. But he just doesn't get ahead enough."
• One fine Meche: Teams that have asked the Royals about Gil Meche have been told that K.C. will listen on anybody except Zack Greinke, but (A) Meche has a full no-trade clause and (B) the Royals still view starting pitching as their one area of strength. So while they would move Brian Bannister or Kyle Davies, an official of one club says they're even "reluctant" to trade them.
• Cruz control: A couple of reports last week suggested the Phillies were a team in on Meche. But one source who spoke with the front offices of both teams tells Rumblings that the Royals pitcher the Phillies actually made a run at was reliever Juan Cruz. But the Royals, who have Cruz under contract for next year, are telling clubs they're only willing to trade him for an upper-tier, near-big-league-ready prospect.
• Seeing Red: The Reds' efforts to get DeRosa notwithstanding, clubs that have spoken with them say they're still planning to tread water for a little while longer to see if they can hang in the race. And if they can, they'll ramp up their pursuit of a bat again. But the Reds are one of many teams not really interested in taking on dollars.
• Beneath the Sheets: Three teams that have had at least some level of interest in Ben Sheets report he isn't going to be physically capable of helping a big league team this year. Sheets had flexor tendon surgery in February, the same operation Jason Jennings had in August 2007. And Jennings wasn't able to make a real contribution until this season, more than a year and a half after surgery.
• The Pedro Watch: Meanwhile, an executive of one team that watched Pedro Martinez throw last month disputes last week's Rumblings item that Pedro was thoroughly unimpressive. "We didn't know what we were going to get," the exec said. "But it was a decent workout. We weren't expecting to see the 1997 Pedro. But for a workout, we thought he was in pretty good shape, and he threw the ball reasonably well." This exec's question, though, was one we've heard for months: "Why doesn't this guy lower his price [from a prorated $5 million contract, plus incentives?]" If he really wants to play and he wants to prove he's back, money shouldn't be a factor.
• Big shoes to Phil: Despite the total absence of top-of-the-rotation options on the market, the Phillies still have their trading bar set high, according to an official of one club that talked with them. They haven't given up on pursuing Cliff Lee, Erik Bedard, Roy Oswalt, etc. "But sooner or later," the official said, "they're going to have to come to grips with this market. They're not going to get a [No.] 1 or 2 starter, because there won't be any to get. So they're going to have to readjust their sights. Right now, I'm starting to sense a little panic. But they're still [tied for] first place. It will be interesting to see how that panic level changes if the Mets or Marlins go past them."
• Frenchy toast: Here's how one front-office man describes the Braves' efforts to export Jeff Francoeur: "They're trying to peddle him everywhere. They're calling people all over baseball. But nobody's biting. Right now, he's about as ugly as he can get offensively. He's the kind of guy we'd think about taking a gamble on over the winter -- if he gets non-tendered and you could take him for a very low base. But right now, I think they're stuck with him."
• It's got to be Yunel: On another front, how willing are the Braves to deal Yunel Escobar now that he's journeyed deep into Bobby Cox's doghouse? Depends on whom you ask. An executive of one team reports: "They're not moving him. He still figures in their plans for next year, and they've got him for low dollars." But an official of another team that inquired says the response was "a very, very wobbly maybe." Realistically, though, the Braves have no other feasible options at shortstop. So an Escobar trade seems highly unlikely, no matter how unhappy the manager might be with him.
• Start them up: Rangers GM Jon Daniels confirmed to Rumblings that the Rangers have now shifted their arm-shopping attention to the rotation after weeks of exploring bullpen options. The Rangers expect Matt Harrison to come off the disabled list after the All-Star break, but Brandon McCarthy's prognosis is more iffy in the short term. So with phenom Neftali Feliz and the refurbished Orlando "El Duque de Ciudad de Oklahoma" Hernandez bound for the Rangers' bullpen at some point, the Rangers will at least explore the mostly barren rotation market. Daniels on the impact of owner Tom Hicks' financial maneuverings on the baseball operation: "So far -- none." But when the GM was asked about his team's ability to take on salary in any deadline deals, he replied: "It's going to be limited."
• A home for the Holliday: Clubs that have spoken with the A's say they aren't quite ready to send Matt Holliday packing yet. But when they do, the price is "two prospects with tremendous upside -- one who's ready to come in and play now, and one that will get there next year. And they want pitching." What's still unclear is how much of the approximately $6.75 million left on Holliday's contract the A's are willing to pick up.
• Happy Holliday? Oh, and one more thing. Holliday's line since June 6: .250 average, 0 homers, 4 RBIs, a .333 slugging percentage. "He'd be a tough sell for me," said one scout. "To me, good hitters stay good hitters. Good hitters figure it out. After you change leagues and you change parks, you adjust. You should improve your numbers as time goes on. But he hasn't given any indication he's going to do that."
• Who's No. 2? We asked this question of one front-office man this week: If Holliday is, theoretically, the best bat in this market, who's likely to be the second-best bat? His surprising answer: "Josh Willingham?" OK, that was a very tentative answer, based on the shape of the market right now. Two other names the same exec nominated were just as surprising. Russell Branyan, if Seattle makes him available, was one. The other? "I would have said Miguel Tejada," he said. "But I don't see the Astros doing any selling."
• You're Joshing, right? But here's a dissenting view of Willingham from another club: "Too unreliable for me, because he's got back issues. All we'd need is to trade them a prospect for Josh Willingham and have him go down with a back issue about three days later."
• Take this: Finally, one AL executive challenged us to look up whether there has ever been a deal quite like the Eric Hinske trade this week. His question: Has a team with a $200 million payroll (i.e., the Yankees) ever actually convinced a team with a $48 million payroll (i.e., the Pirates) to pay part of the salary of a player heading to the $200 million team?
Good question. So we met the challenge. Fortunately, there have only been two in-season trades in history between a $200M team and a $40-something million team. One was last July's deal that sent Xavier Nady and Damaso Marte from the Pirates to the Yankees. The other was the pre-deadline trade in 2005 that sent Shawn Chacon from the Rockies to the Yankees.
Shockingly, we weren't able to get access to those teams' financial records for the purpose of this research. But we used the next-best research technique available: uh, Google. And no stories we could find included any mention of the Yankees getting money in those deals.
So Yankees history was made again this week. Shouldn't they send the canceled check right to Cooperstown?
List of the week
Lowest strikeout ratios in 2009 by starting pitchers with a winning record:
If you're wondering -- and of course you are! -- the only two pitchers in the past two decades to win 20 games in a season with strikeout rates as low as Marquis and Wakefield were Bill Gullickson in 1991 (3.62 K/9) and Tom Glavine in 1993 (4.51).
The Rumblings Scouting Bureau
Once again this week, we check in with some of America's finest scouting minds.
On Chris Perez: "We like Chris Perez. We don't love Chris Perez. We've questioned his command going all the way back to college. I can see him becoming a decent seventh- or eighth-inning guy. I don't see him as a closer."
On Nyjer Morgan: "I'll be honest. I'd rather have Nyjer Morgan than Lastings Milledge, despite the difference in tools. Morgan is an athletic player with much better makeup and more energy. And I'd bet he'll be a better player in the long run because of that."
On Lastings Milledge: "He's an outstanding athlete with some tools. But guys like that break your heart. Now maybe he could connect with somebody in Pittsburgh who could make the light bulb go off and get him to recommit to being a 30-30 guy. But I don't trust him."
On John Mayberry Jr.: "Boy, he's got a long swing. And he doesn't adjust to changing speeds very well. I just don't see him as a guy who's going to hit consistently in the big leagues."
On Brad Bergesen: "He's an underrated guy. He throws strikes. He fields his position. He's aggressive. He works fast. He commands three pitches. He's always been very durable. There are a lot of intangibles with this guy that make him better than his stuff would indicate on the surface."
Headliner of the week
From the headline crawl at the always-entertaining sportspickle.com:
Cubs Fan On Leave With Anxiety Issues
Late-nighter of the week
From Conan O'Brien, on how Manny Ramirez's rehab option in Albuquerque was going:
"Manny Ramirez is playing for a Triple-A minor league baseball team while he serves out his suspension for using female fertility drugs. So far, Manny's gone hitless. But in Manny's defense, it is that time of month."
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His new book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.
The widespread affection for Manny Ramirez upon his return from a 50-game suspension for violating baseball's drug policy is appalling.