Manny's redemption song resonates

BOSTON -- It couldn't totally upstage the reunion of the 2004 World Series winners. Not on a night when the gaunt but gallant Curt Schilling, escorted by his teenage son Gehrig, made an emotional walk to the mound that once served as his personal fiefdom.

But there was no ignoring the Brother Manny Traveling Salvation Show that brought a revival-meeting fervor to Fenway Park on Wednesday night with its message of repentance, forgiveness and a life transformed.

For those turned off by the catalog of crimes and misdemeanors committed by Manny Ramirez in the end times of his career -- the positive tests for performance-enhancing drugs, the domestic violence charges after an altercation with his wife (later dropped), the subversive way he stage-managed his departure from Boston -- this might require a Bob Beamon-sized leap of faith.

But the man in the Mohawk came to Fenway confessing the errors of his ways ("I realize I behaved bad in Boston"), personally said he was sorry to the one man he most owed an apology (traveling secretary Jack McCormick, whom he'd roughed up six years earlier in Houston) and expressed his gratitude to Theo Epstein -- and a higher power than the former Sox GM and current boss of the Cubs -- for giving him a fresh start by hiring him as a minor league player-coach.

"I knew God put it on [Epstein's] heart," Ramirez said of Epstein's decision to hire him to work for the Cubs' Triple-A affiliate in Iowa, "so then he called me to give me the job. I wasn't surprised."

That might come as news to Epstein, an unsentimental sort in both the hardball universe and the spiritual realm. But to those who once wore the same uniform as Ramirez a decade ago, the agnostics were in a clear minority. Belief in Manny was not hard to find among his former coaches and teammates.

"He's a changed guy," marveled Ron "Papa Jack" Jackson, the team's one-time hitting coach. "He's got his life changed around.

"As long as you got the man upstairs on your side, anything is possible, and that's what he's going through right now."

And for all the controversy Ramirez invited while he was here, there were redeeming qualities beyond his immense talent that endeared him to his teammates, even as they endured those maddening times when he went off the rails.

"When people ask me, 'What was Manny Ramirez like as a teammate?' I tell them he was one of the best teammates I ever had," said Mike Myers, the veteran reliever who now serves as a special assistant to executive director Tony Clark in the players' union.

The Ramirez Myers remembers is the one who entertained Myers' two young boys with games of whiffle ball in the clubhouse, gave them autographed bats and balls and hit balls off the Monster for them to field. That was Ramirez, the eternal kid, which has always been part of his narrative.

"When you take your kids to the playground," Jason Varitek said, "they always look for the biggest kid to play with."

But the playful side of Ramirez's nature, Myers said, belied the earnest pursuit of his profession.

"I was always a ballpark rat," Myers said. "My family didn't travel with me, so I'd show up at the field sometimes at 11:30, 12. As I'm walking in, Manny is getting dressed and walking out. He'd already come in for early batting practice in the cages, or taking balls off the wall, really honing his craft. He was always more prepared than the next guy. People talk about Curt Schilling's preparation. Manny was just as prepared from a hitter's standpoint."

Of course, there was little in Manny's repertoire that suggested he would one day become a coach.

"I would have said zero [chance]," said reliever Alan Embree, who played in the Cleveland system with Ramirez before coming to Boston. "Last on the list, man."

"Manny a coach?" said shortstop Pokey Reese, who was drafted the same year as Ramirez (1992) and played against him in the minors before becoming teammates. "No," he said, laughing. "Manny's still Manny."

But saying they were surprised he was hired to coach is not the same as saying he's not up to the job.

"Manny is extremely intelligent," Varitek said, describing Ramirez in a way seemingly at odds with the perception of Ramirez being in "cuckoo land," as Pedro Martinez once said. "Extremely. Manny has the ability to see things and has the confidence to do things. He can pass on a lot to hitters. Manny knows his swing."

But does he have the ability to communicate that knowledge?

"Believe it," Varitek said. "Manny and I talked all the time. I always was searching mechanically. I'd ask him, what are you doing, what's your trigger?' He'd say, 'This is what I'm thinking, Papi. This is what I'm trying to do.' And then if he'd get lost, I'd tell him, 'Manny, this is what you told me.'"

Trot Nixon is coaching his boys in youth leagues in North Carolina. Ask him if he believes in second chances, and he says: "Absolutely," echoing Varitek. Ask him if he believes that people can change, he says: "Absolutely," again echoing Varitek.

"Manny's been through a lot in his career, and he has a lot to offer to a lot of players," Nixon said. "Manny was one of the greatest, if not the greatest, right-handed hitters I've ever seen. There are a lot of things that I learned from Manny that I try to pass on to kids, simplified. One thing especially I remember is he talked to me about getting your hands in launch position to swing. I still use that to this day.

"Manny has things to say that young men can learn from to become better players. If they don't use that resource, then shame on then."

For Embree, Epstein didn't really put his neck on the line for Ramirez. "You can always let a coach go," he said. "It's not like risking millions of dollars on a guy. Low risk, high reward."

The payoff, Martinez believes, could be a huge one, both for Ramirez in how he has redefined himself ("I'm a new man") and for the Cubs and baseball.

"Manny is in the perfect position to be an example of what to do and what not to do," Martinez said. "I think Manny is able to relate his knowledge to some of those kids in the minor leagues and also tell them that people have the right to change, to become a better person.

"Manny could be the right messenger for all those [prospects]. What a gracious guy to actually go out there, and [what] a special guy in history. Manny has done a lot in baseball. He has a great bunch of people behind him, people that are rooting for him and expecting him to finally get a hold of his life, like he's doing now."