By Brandon DuBreuil
TAOYUAN, Taiwan -- In December of 2000, the Boston Red Sox signed Manny Ramirez to an eight-year, $160 million contract and asked him to do what no one else had been able to do in more than 80 years: bring a World Series to the city of Boston. Four years later, Manny delivered.
Fast-forward through 13 years, four MLB teams and a slew of off-field issues, and Ramirez has been asked to come through again. This time the contract is a little smaller and the task is a little different: Manny's job is to help save Taiwan's Chinese Professional Baseball League.
Numerous game-fixing incidents over the last decade have plagued the league, and 2012 was just about rock bottom. A once-prosperous, seven-team league was down to just four teams and an average attendance of 2,433 per game. One of those four, the Sinon Bulls, had to fold, putting the league in danger of having just three teams. The E-United Corporation then stepped in and bought the franchise -- not as a sound business investment, but simply out of goodwill. The Bulls were renamed the EDA Rhinos.
Enter Manny Ramirez. Unable to find a contract stateside after two suspensions for PED use, the man with 555 career home runs signed a short-term contract to play in the Chinese Professional Baseball League, or CPBL. It was a perfect fit: Manny needed a stage, and the EDA Rhinos needed some way of jump-starting a franchise that finished 31 games out of first place while averaging 2,086 fans in 2012.
Ramirez, one the highest-paid players in league history at $25,000 a month, was a risky move by the Rhinos, but one that has paid off handsomely. Through a quarter of the season, the 2013 EDA Rhinos are averaging more than 10,500 fans per game -- an increase of 412 percent from last year. TV ratings have jumped 221 percent. And the team that finished dead last in 2012 now finds itself just a single game out of first as it chases down the half-season championship and an automatic berth in the league playoffs.
"He has helped the team a lot," says Rhinos closer Zach Hammes, a native of Iowa and former second-round draft pick of the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2002. "He is a big stick in the middle of the lineup. And his presence can affect how pitchers pitch the guys before and after him."
Some might question Ramirez's motivation for playing second tier professional baseball thousands of miles away from his home and family. It can't be money, seeing as Ramirez has earned over $200 million in his illustrious career. (The Rhinos did not make Ramirez himself available for comment.)
"He may have a laid back personality on the outside, but the beast of baseball in him still lives!" says Dallas Williams Jr., the Rhinos hitting coach who also worked with Ramirez as the Red Sox's first base coach back in 2003. "He has a great sense of preparation and still remains a great student of hitting and the game of baseball. His routine is pretty much the same as the other players, although he may spend a few minutes more in the batting cage."
Ramirez is enjoying a successful season as a 41-year-old designated hitter. Through 52 games played, he sits third in the league with a .352 average, second in home runs (eight), and third in runs batted in (43). He's also fourth in walks and fifth in total bases.
Has Ramirez had to make any changes as he enters his third decade of professional baseball?
"We all get older and things don't work as quick for us for all our lives so we make adjustments," Williams Jr. says. "For example, he doesn't hold his hands as high as he did and his lower half in his setup is just a bit lower now. Just a couple of minor adjustments to shorten his path to the baseball.
"My advice to him is just to swing the bat!" Williams Jr. continues. "[Coaching Manny] is not difficult because he basically knows what he needs to do, I just remind him of a couple little things."
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Three months into the CPBL season, the Ramirez signing has been a huge success, both statistically and financially. But if these were the only factors to consider when having a personality like Ramirez around, an MLB team likely would've given him the opportunity to work his way onto a roster at the league's minimum salary.
Putting aside his on-field skill, Ramirez's antics off the diamond are likely what kept MLB general managers from taking a chance on the two-time World Series champion this past winter. Trade demands, shoving matches, two failed drug tests and an arrest gave a new meaning to the phrase "Manny Being Manny" as he entered the twilight of his career.
Not that he has flown under the radar in Taiwan. Ramirez's time on this small island has indeed led to quite a few Manny moments, well covered by both the local and international media -- from incredibly slow home run trots to a mistimed slide into second and even a "moonwalk" across home plate. The 12-time All Star even donned an Incredible Hulk suit for a train ride to an away game as part of the team's rookie initiation.
"I think it speaks to what kind of a teammate Manny is by him wearing the Hulk outfit," says Hammes. "That's how he has been. A team guy. That's the Manny that I have experienced this season."
So what has changed in Ramirez over the past decade?
"The obvious change is his hairdo!" Williams Jr. says, referring to the dreadlocks that flow so long it's hard to read the number 99 on his back.
All joking aside, Williams Jr. echoes Hammes' feelings.
"Manny has been a total team player for as long as I've been associated with him. The players love him here. They go to him for advice and he's always there for them."
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Having Ramirez in an EDA Rhinos uniform has been quite a treat for Taiwanese baseball fans. As the biggest name ever to play pro baseball in Asia, he has brought excitement into the league and made local baseball matter again. But as the CPBL season nears the halfway mark, Ramirez's future in the league remains the biggest question on local fans' minds.
Amid swirling rumors, the EDA Rhinos have confirmed that Ramirez can indeed opt out of his contract at the end of June. While Manny himself refuses to comment on the situation, his son shed some light on Manny's plans.
In a recent interview with the Boston Globe, Manny Ramirez Jr. said that his father's baseball career will end in September, and that he will then " Probably just hang out with the family and relax." Whether this means Ramirez Sr. will finish the CPBL season or leave the team a month before the playoffs remains to be seen.
It seems as though Ramirez's polarizing career will end in one of two ways. The happy ending is he sticks out the rest of the season in Taiwan, stays healthy, leads the Rhinos to a CPBL championship and leaves Taiwan a baseball hero.
Then there's the alternate ending -- the one where Manny pulls a Manny and disappears midseason. He leaves his teammates hanging, wondering what could have been, and rips the hearts out of Taiwanese fans who are just starting to trust baseball again.
Ramirez is in a unique position, one that many pro athletes before him would have loved to have been in. He can choose the ending to his own career. Taiwanese fans, and the CPBL, can only hope it's the right one.
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UPDATE: Manny has indeed pulled a Manny. In a press release June 19th, the EDA Rhinos stated that Ramirez has decided to opt out of his contract. The CPBL confirms that he has already been removed from their active roster and will leave the country on June 21st. The Rhinos will not comment on reports that he could be heading to Japan's Pacific League to play for the Chiba Lotte Marines.
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Brandon DuBreuil is a Canadian freelance sportswriter currently based in Taiwan. He is the creator/writer at www.mannydoestaiwan.com and is spending the summer of 2013 chasing Manny Ramirez and the EDA Rhinos around Taiwan. He can be found on Twitter @brandondubreuil.