Even now, when we find his name appearing on a Hall of Fame ballot instead of frolicking around a baseball field, the Manny Ramirez story feels like just one more confusing episode of Manny Being Manny.
If we could only look at him as one of the greatest right-handed hitters who ever lived, our choice would be easy. You know how many right-handed mashers in history have ever matched or beaten Ramirez's .312/.418/.585 slash line? Exactly one -- Jimmie Foxx. So if we could just vote in a vacuum, of course Manny Ramirez is a Hall of Famer.
But then the baggage carousel starts turning. And boy, does Manny pack a lot of baggage. No need to recap it all here, aside from those two PED suspensions. (We can get to that later.) But it's all enough to make you wonder how anybody could read the "character and integrity" portion of the ballot instructions and still vote for this guy.
So what's a voter to do? Two longtime voters -- Jayson Stark and Tim Kurkjian -- just finished asking each other that very question. Here is their conversation about the man who has turned himself into the most controversial candidate on this ballot.
Jayson: Tim, in the past, we've both voted for what our admirers like to call "The Cheaters" from the PED era. But I spent the last few weeks looking at that name "Manny Ramirez" on my ballot and thinking: I don't think we've ever had to evaluate a candidate quite like him. His numbers say "Hall of Famer." But his two PED suspensions are two more than all the other candidates on that ballot combined. So I wound up not voting for him. But I'm still not sure how we ought to look at him. So please. You're the voice of reason. Help me with this.
Tim: You need my help? I need your help. This is perplexing. When you're ranking the best players on this year's ballot, just looking at the numbers: It's Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Manny Ramirez, in that order. And yet, I think Manny is in a different category than anyone else that has ever been on the ballot because his PED violations were after testing was instituted. I've asked a dozen people that I respect greatly on this, and 10 of them told me that Manny is in a different category than Bonds and Clemens and the rest.
Jayson: He definitely is for me. When I look at players who played in the era before testing, I feel like I'm just playing a guessing game on who did what. And I'm not comfortable with playing that game. But with Manny, we don't have to guess. We know exactly what he did and exactly what he took.
We also know exactly how some of his former teams (and teammates) felt about him. The end of his Red Sox career was a disgrace: refusing to play, refusing to run to first base, refusing to swing in an at-bat against Mariano Rivera. And what happened in L.A. wasn't much better: wrangling a $45 million contract out of the Dodgers in the middle of spring training, then testing positive a few days later, then bailing on his team without explaining any of it or apologizing to his teammates.
So if character and integrity are factors in how we vote, I could make a longer list of black marks on character and integrity with him than just about any great player I've ever had to consider -- and not just because of PED use. Nobody put the "un" in unprofessional like Manny did when he was at his self-consumed worst. I guess my question is: Is that enough to justify not voting for a hitter as historically great as he was?
Tim: I did not vote for him because I thought there were 10 players on the ballot more deserving of the Hall of Fame. The black marks for Manny are more than most, and character and integrity are important. But I have voted for Bonds and Clemens every year. And that is what confuses me about the Ramirez situation, and makes my ballot somewhat illogical. How can I vote for guys with attachments to PEDs, then not for Manny? I am not comfortable being the moral arbiter. I need more time to determine what I am going to do with Manny going forward.
Jayson: I resigned from the morality police force a long time ago. But I still think he's tricky. One of the reasons I vote for Bonds and Clemens is that, to me, it makes no sense to have a Hall of Fame that pretends the greatest players of all time never played baseball. Can you really have a Hall of Fame that doesn't include the man with more home runs than anyone who ever lived and the pitcher who won more Cy Youngs than anyone who ever lived? That's absurd.
Plus, I'm tired of the Hall dumping this whole era in our laps, because that's so much more convenient than figuring out how they ought to deal with it. If we start electing players like Bonds and Clemens, we force them to come to grips with it. And if they want my advice, I'd tell them I'm all for honesty on the plaques. Why not tell the world, right there on the plaques, all the good stuff and bad stuff those players did? It's a history museum, not the Hall of Purity.
But that brings us back to Manny. If I were allowed to vote for more than 10 players, I'd vote for him, based on the logic I just described. But because of the ridiculous Rule of 10, I'm now stuck in ballot-management hell. So after I come up with a list of players I think have Hall of Fame credentials, I'm spending more time trying to figure out whom not to vote for than whose names to check. And Manny wound up on that "not" list just because I felt as though he has no chance to get elected this time around. Is that how you decided to leave him off your ballot?
Tim: Yes. If I had more than 10 spots, I would vote for Manny, with some reluctance, of course, based on your logic. I sense that there is going to be a major spike in the voting for Bonds and Clemens this year, and I think that Manny is going to get a much higher vote total than I thought he would get. I think Bonds and Clemens will get in on the writers' ballot, although it might take all 10 years. And I agree that something has to be written on the plaques. If it takes Bonds 10 years to get in, people will wonder 50 years from now why it took 10 years for the greatest home-run hitter of all time to get in. Even though I believe Manny is in a different category than Bonds and Clemens, if they get in eventually, it certainly will help his case.
Jayson: I once thought none of these guys would ever get elected. Now it's possible that Bonds and Clemens could make it as soon as next year. Heck, based on Ryan Thibodaux's "exit polling," they could come close to getting in this year. I don't know where their percentages will end up, but based on what we're seeing from voters who have posted their ballots so far, this is going to be the most game-changing Hall of Fame election in years. That's because hundreds of voters are now seeing what a few of us, yourself included, figured out a long time ago: That steroid slope is so slippery, it's impossible to keep all the "cheaters" out. Can't be done. And I think many voters now realize we've probably elected a few PED users already. So here's my big question: If Barry and Roger get elected, do you think it means Manny Ramirez will someday be a Hall of Famer? Is he going to stand on that podium one of these years and receive his plaque? Or is that separate category we decided he fits in, with all its black marks, going to overwhelm his numbers and keep him out?
Tim: A lot depends on how Manny does this year, his first year eligible. If he gets, say, 40 percent of the vote, then I think he has a chance to make it in 10 years. I sense with the voters that I have talked to, and from the things I have read, that there will be a dramatic change in the voting this year. Several I have talked to are now of the mind to let all the PED guys in, even the ones such as Manny, whose violations came after testing was established.
Jayson: You know what? I disagree. The vibe I get is that there is still going to be a big segment of the voting population that will draw a bold black Before/After line. They might vote for guys who had back acne, or possibly used PEDs, or probably used PEDs, or whatever, before testing. But they'll never vote for someone like Manny, who -- remember now -- didn't just get caught once after testing. He got suspended twice. Even if the tide has shifted, has it shifted that much? My vote is no on that. But Manny is such a complicated character, and my prediction record about pretty much everything is so pathetic, that I wouldn't advise running to Vegas and betting your IRA that he won't get in. Nevertheless, I bet he hangs around the ballot for a long time. Which means this probably isn't the last time we'll have that conversation? Lucky us!