Here's a lesson for all you kids out there: If you want to be a successful baseball executive, you need to master three things.
One, you must be able to pull off the Ray Bans, tucked-in collared shirt, khaki pants combination. Two, you must be able to cultivate relationships among disparate groups of people. Three, you must be able to come up with creative solutions to the problems, both organic and man-made, that surround any baseball organization.
You need to be like Theo Epstein.
In Epstein’s latest move aimed at strengthening the Cubs’ minor league system, he hired Manny Ramirez to serve as Triple-A Iowa’s “Crash Davis,” a player/coach/sage for Javier Baez and other prospects possibly coming up the ladder.
Epstein said this was not a “PR move," though maybe film producer Joe Ricketts wants to do a remake of "Bull Durham."
Vilified by some, this was a quirky move that typified Epstein’s creative approach and his old-fashioned dependence on baseball relationships.
It was an odd, newsworthy decision, only because no one expected it. It wasn't leaked to national writers. Baseball Prospectus couldn’t predict it.
I love it. Do I think it’ll have some grand effect on the development of Baez or the host of other prospects in the Cubs’ system? Probably not. Will it make anyone worse? Probably not.
But the decision, spurred on by Ramirez, is certainly outside the norm and it’s fun to talk about. Given the Cubs’ reluctance to field a Major League club worth discussing -- That’s so expensive! -- the minor leagues are all we have to obsess over.
When’s the draft again? What prospects can the Cubs get for Jeff Samardzija, one of the best pitchers in baseball they don’t want to sign? Will Ramirez teach the I-Cubs how to trot after a homer?
At the very least, Baez and the rest will have funny Manny stories to tell their friends. He’ll loosen things up and hopefully share some of his advice gained through two decades of playing professional baseball.
"He's extremely accountable," Epstein told reporters. "Right now, he's extremely honest, and he has a lot to offer in part because of what he went through. You never know in this world. But I think there's a potential high impact here.
"If he can influence one player, make them a little bit calmer in the box, give them a little better approach to hitting, teach them something about how to approach the right-handed breaking ball the right way, if he can convince one player not to do PEDs [performance-enhancing drugs], if he can influence one player the right way and in a positive way, then it was worthwhile."
Seven years ago, Ben McGrath wrote the definitive feature on Ramirez for the New Yorker. It’s a funny, well-reported profile of a baseball enigma. Beyond the funny stories, I particularly enjoyed some of the baseball minutiae, like how in Cleveland Ramirez took Albert Belle's advice on batting practice, and “spent as much as a half hour every day hitting nothing but hard sliders on the rail, attempting to drive them to the opposite field.”
But it’s the funny stories, and the disturbing ones (Ramirez bullying the traveling secretary) that make Ramirez memorable. He was also baseball’s most famous space cadet, a defensively inept oddball. He failed enough drug tests in baseball’s post-Steroid era that he retired. He used to take bathroom breaks in the Green Monster at Fenway. Epstein was looking to trade him, or waive him, as early as 2003, before bidding him adieu in 2008.
So why bring him back? Because, like Epstein says, maybe it works. The world of professional sports is made up of high achievers, unique dreamers and asymmetrical intellects.
Ramirez was something of a baseball savant and given the arc of his career, he has a lot of experiences to share.
Next up for the Cubs? Bring back the shunned Sammy Sosa, another baseball rogue with a lot to teach.