Manny Ramirez informed the Tampa Bay Rays and Major League Baseball Friday that he will retire only one week into his 19th big-league season. Ramirez socked 555 home runs, drove home over 1,800 runs and batted .312/.411/.585 for the Cleveland Indians, Boston Red Sox, Los Angeles Dodgers and the Rays.
Ramirez’s retirement will be a hot topic over the next few days and we should find out many more details along the way, but for now it seems the best information available is that Ramirez (who tested positive for a steroid masking agent in 2009 and was suspended 50 games) was facing disciplinary action from MLB and the substance abuse program, and elected instead to end his career on the sour note of a positive test and a 1-for-17 showing in five games with Tampa Bay.
Ramirez carries the mantle as perhaps the best all-around hitter not named Albert Pujols of the modern era. His combination of power, patience and the ability to hit for average and use the whole field are unmatched even by Barry Bonds and Vladimir Guerrero. He was a robot, a vicious hitting machine unaffected by the pressure of big games. In his post-season career, he bashed 29 home runs and won the World Series MVP when the Boston Red Sox broke their title drought in 2004.
That will be a huge part of Ramirez’s legacy. He did it every year, he did it when it mattered, and he won two World Series rings for a team his personality defined.
Another part of his legacy, though, will inevitably be the two run-ins with MLB’s drug testing program. Ramirez falls in line with Bonds, Mark McGwire and Roger Clemens among the paragons of power hitting in the past two decades whose names will forever be linked with the greatest scandal of the modern era in baseball. The legitimacy of their accomplishments will never be fully above ambivalence.
Ramirez, though, has an especially tough climb back into the good graces of baseball fans. Unlike Clemens, McGwire and Bonds, Ramirez has been accused (more than once) of lacking competitive fire. Infamously, he tanked for the 2008 Red Sox before being traded to the Dodgers. He seemed to play downright half-heartedly at times, and he gave this quote before Game 5 of the 2007 ALCS, with the red Sox down 3-1 in the series against Cleveland:
“It doesn’t happen, so who cares? There’s always next year. It’s not like it’s the end of the world.”
That drove people nuts. Red Sox fans hated Ramirez after that. For exactly one day. Because thereafter, he and the Red Sox won seven games in a row and took home another World Series trophy. Ramirez hit .280 with six walks, two doubles and five RBI in that stretch.
Thus was the Ramirez magic. He seemed detached, almost disinterested, but his intensity in the batter’s box was never at issue. In that way, he was not unlike another famous Red Sox left fielder: Ted Williams. Williams, too, was accused of lacking solemnity after Red Sox losses and was too reserved after Red Sox wins. The fans loved and hated Williams, and in Boston as in his other homes, they loved and hated Ramirez. Neither man ever seemed committed fully to his team, but each demonstrated extraordinary dedication to the craft of hitting.
Ramirez pandered much more to the fans than did Williams. He also invalidated direct comparison to Williams by being found a cheat. Still, he was one of the best hitters of his generation. Remember Manny, the Cleveland Indian, without dreadlocks and with the smooth, slender frame of a sweet-swinging 26-year-old, a pure joy to watch at the plate. Just don’t vote for him to enter the Hall of Fame.