Home > Baseball, Journalism > Manny, Beginning to End

Manny, Beginning to End

[Sara Krulwich/The New York Times]

I have long had a soft spot in my heart for Manny Ramirez, despite his at-times-inexcusable behavior, most notably when he gave up on the Red Sox during the 2008 season, only to come alive for the last two months of the season once he was traded to the Dodgers. However selfish, childish, immature, baffling, and mysterious, he was an extraordinary hitter. I have written about him several times. He was, in fact, the subject of my seventh blog post, written on the second day of Ron’s View.

How long have I had a soft spot for Manny? That’s easy to answer. Ever since March 1991, when he was an 18-year-old high school baseball player in Washington Heights and Sara Rimer started writing about him in the New York Times. Rimer no longer works for the NYT, but she has returned for a guest appearance in honor of Manny’s recent retirement. Tomorrow, the NYT publishes her final reflections</a, which are worth a look. See the slideshow too.

Here is her opening:

When I heard that Manny Ramirez had retired, the first person I called was his high school coach, Steve Mandl. I reached him at George Washington High School in Upper Manhattan, where he has coached varsity baseball for 27 years.

He was sad and stunned. I pictured him at the dented metal desk in his cramped office, where a 20-something Manny Ramirez in his Cleveland Indians uniform looms from the autographed poster that hangs on the wall.

“Steve,” I said, “that was real, wasn’t it — the Manny in high school, that swing, his work ethic, all that pure talent?”

“Oh, yeah,” Mandl said, “that was real.”

And then the coach had to run.

I stumbled upon the George Washington Trojans of Washington Heights in the spring of 1991. The high school was bursting with new immigrants, and the 25 varsity baseball players were all Dominican.

Mandl invited me to spend the season following the team. He told me he had a great hitter, an 18-year-old from Santo Domingo who got the bat around faster than any other high school player he had seen.

I knew next to nothing about baseball, but even someone with the scantest technical knowledge of the game or the mechanics of hitting could recognize that Ramirez was a star in the making.

I don’t remember the first time I saw that quicksilver swing. What I remember is what it felt like to be there on that rock-hard artificial surface atop the hill next to the high school, among his euphoric teammates and fans shouting his name, merengue blasting from someone’s boom box in the concrete bleachers behind the third-base line, the major league scouts lined up behind home plate as Manny came up to bat in his baggy black-and-orange secondhand uniform and red cleats and slammed one home run after another, day after day.

Up in the stands Manny’s beautiful 16-year-old girlfriend, Kathy Guzman, would practically be swooning. A vendor in a Yankees cap would push a grocery cart serving pastelitos and the sweet, blended orange juice and milk concoction known as a morir soñando: to die dreaming.

Manny, batting .650, walloped 14 home runs in 22 games. Not one of those home runs was on television or saved on videotape. Mandl could barely keep the team in baseballs and gloves let alone think about videotaping his future major leaguer.

But maybe it’s better that way. Those home runs, the memory of them, are part of the Manny that belongs to Washington Heights. He was the shy, happy-go-lucky boy with the perfect swing who everyone knew was going to the major leagues. The boy who loved to hit more than anything else. The boy who worked harder than anyone else. The baby-faced boy who never drank anything stronger than the nonalcoholic Puerto Rican eggnog from the corner bodega he chugged to bulk up.

That was the Manny who at least seemed knowable, before he disappeared behind the wall of all that surreal major league fame and money. Who is the real Manny? The 18-year-old prospect with everything ahead of him, or the 38-year-old major leaguer who walked away from baseball rather than face a 100-game suspension after testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs for the second time in two years? Who knows?

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Categories: Baseball, Journalism
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