Allow me to date myself a little. When I was growing up and just becoming cognizant of baseball, Pete Rose was finishing up his career as a player-manager and transitioning into the manager's role full-time. I didn't know Pete Rose "The Hit King" or "Charlie Hustle." I knew Pete Rose, manager of the Reds. And frankly, that guy seemed awfully sour. Never smiling on his baseball cards. Always intense. I had no connection to the joy that Rose brought to millions of baseball fans who admired his accomplishments and his style.
And that's the main reason, when it was revealed he had bet on the game, I had no forgiveness in my heart. I had nothing to fall back on. No good memories of Rose that would help humanize him even a little. And over the years, as he continued to lie about his activities, and eventually try to profit off finally telling the truth, I found him increasingly distasteful. That's my problem, and that's why I don't much cotton to Charlie Hustle. But as I look at baseball fans who continue to marvel at his career, I wish I did. Just a little. I feel like I’m missing something.
Why do I bring this up? Of course, because of Manny Ramirez and his sudden retirement today. Because it's important to start deciding now, or in five, 10, 20 years ... how are you going to remember Manny Ramirez? What is the first thing you're going to think of when you think back to Manny's career? Is it his youth and 165 RBIs in 1999 for Cleveland? Is it peppering balls at and over The Green Monster and winning two World Series with Boston? Is it his brief resurgence in Mannywood, where he lifted the Dodgers into the playoffs almost single-handedly? Is it the sound of the ball off his bat? Or the dreadlocks sprouting from beneath his helmet? Or is it this, this end, this sad finish? Really, if that's what you choose to remember, I feel sorry for you.
This is not an apology for Ramirez, nor a defense. Taking banned substances, especially in this era, is a defenseless decision that has hurt Manny's team and ended his career. It's inexcusable and stupid. But there was so much more to Manny that is worth remembering.
First and foremost, he was one of the most dangerous right-handed hitters in baseball history, and finished his career in the top ten righties in virtually every category that we use to measure overall hitting performance. He hit 555 homers and drove in more than 1,800 runs. He hit .312 and got on base 41 percent of the time. He was, quite simply, among the elite batters in baseball history.
Too often I, and other online writers, get accused of getting too buried in the numbers. Maybe it's just better to try to figure out Manny's impact, as so many have tried to do with Jack Morris and Jim Rice. You want feared? Manny twice led the American League in intentional walks, and finished with more than 20 four times. In the postseason he was excellent, hitting .285 with 29 homers (more than anyone else in history), and was the MVP of the 2004 World Series. He was selected to 12 All-Star teams and won nine Silver Sluggers. And he finished in the top five of the MVP vote four times.
He also leaves his mark as one in a long list of characters that have made baseball great over the past century and a half, evoking memories of King Kelly, Rube Waddell, Dizzy Dean and Mark Fidrych. Men who were simultaneously loved and hated (well, not Fidrych). Who frustrated everyone around them, except on the diamond, and who made baseball's history richer.
I hope that, if you’re a real baseball fan, watching Manny Ramirez hit gave you a little bit of joy (and maybe a little bit of dread, if he was facing your team). I hope you loved it and marveled at it. And, more importantly today, I hope that remember how happy he made you, or how much you may have laughed because of him. And I hope that, just a little bit, you thank him for it.
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