I first heard the name Manny Ramirez in the summer of 1991. L and I were living in Washington Heights, the neighbourhood near the upper tip of Manhattan. Manny was a senior at George Washington High School -- a mile or so from our apartment building.
Sara Rimer of the New York Times wrote a series of articles about the team -- including Ramirez, the team's third baseman. Even in high school, Manny's work ethic was second to none.
Manny was drafted by Cleveland and sent to the Kinston Indians (A+, Carolina League.) In 81 games, he hit .278/.375/.502, leading the team in slugging and OPS. (One of his teammates was Alan Embree.) I tried following Ramirez's minor league career, but in 1992, that was tough. I thought it would be neat if someone from our then-neighborhood made it to the major leagues. (We used to joke that we'd say we saw all Manny's games if he became a star.)
In 1993, Manny spent time in AA (89 games, .340/.416/.581), AAA (40 games, .317/.424/.690) and the major leagues (22 games, 9-for-53, .170/.200/.302). He made his debut on September 2, 1993 in Minnesota, going 0-for-4. His second game was the following night at Yankee Stadium. He was the DH, batting sixth. A huge group of friends from his neighbourhood were in the left field bleachers, waving Dominican Republic flags and having a huge party. He hit two home runs that night, one in the sixth and another in the eighth.
Ramirez quickly became a star in Cleveland -- an indispensable part of the great Spider teams of the mid-90s. When Manny was eligible for free agency, at the peak of his prime, after the 2000 season, Red Sox GM Dan Duquette signed him to an eight-year deal. And a lot of Dominican men in our neighbourhood went out and bought new "B" caps.
The Red Sox began the 2001 season in Baltimore and returned for the Fenway opener on Friday, April 6. My book on the 1918 team was out that spring and by chance I was in Boston to do an early-morning television interview. I didn't have a ticket to the game, but headed over to the park anyway and ended up having lunch in a pub on Landsdowne Street.
Manny's first at-bat in Fenway Park as a member of the Red Sox came in the bottom of the first inning. Already trailing Tampa Bay 3-0, Boston had two on and one out, when Manny drilled Ryan Rupe's first pitch over the left field wall for a three-run homer! Fenway erupted, the pub erupted, and Boston's love affair with Manny Ramirez was sealed. Boston won the game 11-4. Tim Wakefield and Jason Varitek were the Boston battery that day -- the only two players to have been around for the entire Manny Ramirez Era.
Ramirez was Boston's DH for the team's first 54 games in 2001 before making his debut in left field. Trot Nixon was the team's right fielder, so Manny had to learn a new position. He alternated between LF and DH in 2001 and 2002 (even playing seven games in RF in 2002) before becoming primarily a left fielder in 2003.
His career has been astounding. For eight years -- 1998 to 2005 -- Ramirez finished in the Top 10 in the AL MVP voting. He batted higher than .325 five times in seven years (1997-2003), hitting a career-best .351 in 2000 and winning the AL batting title two years later with a .349 mark with the Red Sox. There are only seven players in baseball history with 1,500 RBI, 1,000 walks, 2,000 hits, 450 doubles, 500 home runs and a lifetime .300 average: Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, Ted Williams, Mel Ott, Frank Thomas and Manny Ramirez.
Maybe one day we'll have a better grasp on what happened over the last month, as Manny's public attitude about being a Red Sock changed so dramatically. Maybe it will be forever clouded, a mystery of how everything spiraled out of control so quickly ... Either way, he's gone.
When I think back on Manny Ramirez Era, I will think of nothing but the prettiest swing I've ever seen, the no-doubt bombs and the Mummy, the Camden high-five, the bare-handed grabs off the Wall and perfect throws to the infield, the ropes to right-center, the Cairo catch and double point, the quotes, hugs, fist bumps -- the sheer joy he was unafraid to show while playing the game he loved. And the two (two!!) World Series titles.
Despite his imperfections, there are few players I have enjoyed watch play baseball more than Manny Ramirez. He is one of the truly unique characters in the game's history. How many seasons does Manny have left? Will he move on from Los Angeles once this season ends? We'll have to wait and see. As the man said, you make your own destination.
All I can say is: "Thank you, Manny! I hope you can be as happy in your life as I have been watching you play baseball for the last eight years!"