Why Do We Forgive Manny Ramirez for Being Manny?

The slugger who tested positive for PEDs is back in baseball with a stint as a Cubs Triple-A player/coach. Is the Hall of Fame next? And what does that mean for A-Rod’s chances?

Mike Blake/Reuters

Manny Ramirez was welcomed back into baseball a few weeks ago, and you’d have to be as churlish as Barry Bonds in a roomful of sportswriters not to have smiled a little. Ramirez, despite his many, many transgressions, is an irrepressible and unpredictable spirit, and the majors can always use more of that.

Ramirez’s old GM, Theo Epstein, now with the Chicago Cubs, signed him as a player/coach for the team’s Triple-A affiliate in Des Moines, Iowa. His duties will include being a “mentor” to the young players.

You know that Manny really loves the game to accept such a job: It’s not going to be easy finding hair care products for a 41-year-old man with a mohawk in Des Moines. At the press conference, Ramirez choked up while thanking everyone involved: “I’m at the stage of my life and career where I really want to give something back to the game that I love—the game that has meant so much to me and done so much for me and my family. I know I’m nearing the end of my playing days, but I have a lot of knowledge to pass on to the next generation—both what to do and what not to do.”

There are, it must be admitted, a lot of items on that “not to do” list, including two suspensions for testing positive for performance enhancing drugs, an arrest for domestic violence, a fight with one of his Red Sox teammates, and once, in a fit of temper, pushing Boston’s 65-year-old traveling secretary to the ground. None of this mattered to Epstein, nor, apparently, did it matter to his Red Sox teammates, who welcomed him back on May 28 for a 10-year celebration of their 2004 championship.

Old times, where Ramirez was often accused of quitting on his team, sulking and not putting out his full effort, were forgotten. Gone were the ugly memories of errant throws to the wrong bases or ill-advised cutoffs. Johnny Damon, the victim of one of Manny’s bad decisions, not only joked with Ramirez about it but turned the tables on him when Manny threw out the ceremonial first pitch last week.

This is good because Manny is a likeable guy. No matter how juvenile his behavior was over the years, his antics were usually dismissed by the press with a shrug because that was just “Manny’s being Manny.” But watching him cavort with Johnny Damon brought something to mind. Last year, when details were coming out about Alex Rodriguez’s involvement with the Biogenesis clinic, Damon made a snide remark to the effect that the 2009 Yankees, of which Damon was a member, should think about giving back their World Series rings because of A-Rod’s drug cheating. If Damon had any reservations about the 2004 and 2007 Red Sox championships being tainted by Manny’s drug use, he didn’t mention it.

Manny violated his own union’s drug policy with Major League Baseball twice. It has not yet been proven that Alex Rodriguez has done that even once. Rodriguez has also never been arrested for domestic violence, has never been known to scuffle with a teammate, and has never gotten rough with a traveling secretary. And whatever his sins, no one has ever accused Rodriguez of dogging it on the baseball field. Yet, A-Rod is, without question, baseball’s No. 1 pariah.

The question I’m most interested in, though: Now that Manny had been forgiven, will he be allowed into the Hall of Fame? And if so, what does that mean for A-Rod’s chances?

Right now I’d say unless Manny screws up big time—unless Manny becomes Manny again—he’s a shoo-in. The very fact that baseball, particularly his old GM, has invited him back in the game means he’s already been forgiven. The baseball writers who vote and remember him from his playing days may make him wait out a few years as penance, but essentially he’s in.

Rodriguez, I have a feeling, is doomed to a lifetime and beyond in baseball’s version of the Phantom Zone, that place where Kryptonian criminals were exiled to in the Superman comics.

But all behavioral issues aside, who’s more Hall of Fame worthy?

Assuming that neither one gets another major league at-bat, it’s a tough call. A-Rod played in 2,568 games, hit 654 home runs and drove in 1,969 runs; Manny played in 2,302 games, hit 555 home runs, drove in 1,831 runs. Edge to Rodriguez.

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Manny’s quality numbers—batting average, on-base percentage and slugging—are a little better: .312/.411/.585 to Rodriguez’s .299/.384/.558. Edge to Ramirez.

Outside the batter’s box, though, there is no comparison. Manny was a barely competent, often comical performer in left field, baseball’s least demanding defensive position, while A-Rod was a fine third baseman and an even better shortstop. Someone once said—maybe me, come to think of it—that Ramirez ran the bases like a pregnant water buffalo; in 19 seasons he stole just 38 bases and was thrown out 33 times. If you think I’m exaggerating, take a look at this compendium of Manny’s greatest hits and misses.

Rodriguez was an excellent base runner who stole 322 bases in 398 attempts for a success of 80.9 percent, a tenth of a percentage point ahead of baseball’s all-time stolen base king, Rickey Henderson.

Manny played on 12 All-Star teams and finished third in the MVP voting twice; A-Rod made 14 All-Star teams and won the American League MVP three times.

It’s taken as gospel by the majority of sportswriters that you can’t trust Alex Rodriguez’s career numbers because they were inflated by performance enhancing drugs. That’s also been said about Manny Ramirez, too, but less and less these days.

The fans and the sports media like Manny; they don’t like A-Rod. The reasons why aren’t exactly clear, and they never really have been. The origins of the public’s dislike of Rodriguez didn’t start with PEDs. Before it was revealed in 2006 that he had used a banned substance from 2001 to 2003, it wasn’t uncommon to hear sportswriters ask rhetorically “Is Alex Rodriguez the most despised played in baseball history?” I say rhetorically because we were all supposed to know that the answer was yes.

Ty Cobb, a blatant racist and near psychopath, was respected by many of the players of his era and only vilified en masse years after his death. Barry Bonds was one of the most booed players ever when he approached Henry Aaron’s all-time home run record, but he was at least cheered by his hometown fans in San Francisco. In most of A-Rod’s 10 seasons in New York, he was booed by the home crowd as loudly as Manny Ramirez when the Red Sox played in Yankee Stadium.

Exactly why this is the case probably won’t be something that baseball historians will be able to sort out until years from now. Some of it, no doubt, had to do with A-Rod’s failure to hit in what is referred to enigmatically as the “clutch,” though a charitable soul might note that in 75 postseason games his batting average was .265, eight points better than Mickey Mantle’s in 65 postseason games. But let that pass.

The main thing with A-Rod was always The Contract, or rather, The Contracts. In 2000 he signed with the Texas Rangers for $252 million over 10 years. The deal was loudly denounced by a chorus of baseball writers who acted as if it was their money being doled out. It was seldom mentioned that signing A-Rod, which tapped into the Hispanic market, was the major factor in the Rangers securing $250 million in cable deals. When he went to the Yankees in the 2004 season, the New York media, most notably the Daily News’ Mike Lupica, didn’t let a week go by without reminding fans of the size of the bill their Yankees were footing for a man who had never led his team to a World Series. (Lupica usually neglected to mention that the Rangers were still covering a large chunk of the money.)

In 2008, for some reason the Yankees jumped in and gave A-Rod and his agent, Scott Boras, a 10-year contact extension worth $275 million, even though no other team in baseball could possibly have outbid the Yankees if the front office had refused to negotiate the extension. (Those two contacts ranked as the two richest in sports history until the Detroit Tigers signed Miguel Cabrera to a 10-year, $292 million deal last year.)

One wonders if Rodriguez would have been cut a little slack by the media if, like Ramirez, he had earned just a paltry $207 million over his whole career.

Again, it’s great to have Manny back in baseball. Perhaps if A-Rod takes a page from Manny’s book and finds the Lord and proves his love for baseball by spending a couple of seasons out in the hinterlands mentoring minor league hitters, he’ll be forgiven his trespasses as Ramirez has been. After all, Ramirez’s rap sheet is far longer than Rodriguez’s. If Manny can be given a second chance—though if we were really keeping score it would be more like a third or even a fourth chance—I’d say A-Rod’s got a couple of second chances coming, too.