By Mike Piellucci
ROUND ROCK, Tex. -- By the end of his first day back in American professional baseball, Manny Ramirez had spoken to the media at length about his hair on no fewer than three occasions in just over 20 minutes of availability.
Until last week, Ramirez's hair was one of the few remaining fragments of his mystique that hasn't withered in one way or another. Now -- gnarled together in short tendrils, buzzed tight at the sides, gray encroaching on his temples -- it is one of the only constants within a sea of variables as he embarks upon an open-ended, last-gasp effort at returning to Major League Baseball.
And so he discusses it at others' behest with familiar detached aplomb, a sly grin creasing the corners of his mouth. There is no better demonstration of the durability of Ramirez's star power than this: Edged forward at a podium giving updates about his haircut, nearly two hundred miles from the nearest major league park.
Minor league baseball has a way of ignoring the present tense. It is an incubator for prospects still in development and formaldehyde for ex-major leaguers in decay; the rest are usually treated as if they don't matter. Over the next two days, Ramirez repeatedly insists that he is only concerned with the status quo, and implores those around him to do the same. But that does not happen because, stripped of context, a 41-year-old removed from his last relevant major league moment is not interesting. Who Manny Ramirez once was is how he got this job.
Who Ramirez was also extends far beyond the diamond. It made headlines and garnered endorsements; it also burned bridges and netted him a suspension from the sport. What, exactly, "it" is has never been accurately explained, and so it was instead couched in rhetoric: Manny being Manny, convenient enough shorthand for the bizarre comportment of a complicated man.
I went to Round Rock to find out if Ramirez can still play at a high level, and how he would approach what may be his final opportunity in professional baseball. What I discovered is that, even at 41 years of age, Manny Ramirez is as hard to figure out as ever.
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Over the course of his 21 seasons in baseball, Ramirez has laid down roots in seven American cities (and Taiwan, most recently), each one suiting him to a different degree. Other than his adopted hometown of Miami, it's hard to imagine a better marriage for his zaniness than Los Angeles, and for a time he lorded over the city with his own brand of goofy charm and wayward shenanigans. Boston sought to shackle him and he bristled, waging melees with the press and team management, suffocating his once-considerable goodwill in the process. Cleveland loved him, though he never seemed to be a natural fit in the Rust Belt. He never stuck around long enough in Chicago, Tampa, or Sacramento to draw conclusions of any sort. Taiwan embaced him like a prodigal son, and he hit .352 with eight home runs and 43 RBIs in just 49 games overseas.
None of those places are an odder fit than Round Rock, a whitebread suburb of Austin erected around Dell Inc.'s corporate headquarters. The Express play their home games at Dell Diamond, a park splattered with reminders of the team's main sponsor, from the eye-catching video board in left-center field to the Intel Lounge. The tech boom was kind here and a forgiving Texas economy kinder still when that bubble burst, and so the view outside the park's boundaries is a portrait of a thriving sprawl: a tree line beyond center that buffers a nearby cluster of designer homes; SUVs meandering down the toll road out past right field; an endless stream of chain restaurants.
If Ramirez is to resuscitate his career, he will do so with this as his backdrop. Round Rock is better suited to handle it than most organizations, having hosted extended tune-ups for Andy Pettitte and later Roger Clemens when the team was affiliated with the Astros. The fervor for Clemens, in particular, dwarfed any reception Ramirez is likely to cook up, a fact that owed itself as much to where the Rocket was at the time (reigning All-Star) as to who he is (part owner of the team, Texas Longhorn, native son).
Still, Ramirez has fostered plenty of hype since his arrival on July 4th. The team's social media traffic spiked in the first five days after he reported, and the usual throng of pregame autograph seekers has become more robust, some showing up as early as two hours before the game in hopes of getting Ramirez's signature. When pressed for a point of comparison, 27-year-old outfielder Joey Butler, Round Rock's longest-tenured player in his third season with the club, can only offer up a rehab start for Rangers outfielder Nelson Cruz as anything close. Bill Wahl, a season ticket holder for 15 years, estimates Ramirez is among the top five players he has ever seen suit up for Round Rock, with old Red Sox fan friends already leaving word that they want to take in an upcoming game.
Ramirez actually came through this park as a visiting player last year on a similar mission during a seventeen-game stint for Oakland's Sacramento River Cats. It did not go well. By most accounts he was surlier, angrier; Wahl described him as abrasive when he approached Ramirez for an autograph, to a degree he had not experienced before or since as a minor league fan.
The Express, judging by the earliest returns, did not wind up with that Manny. The Ramirez they're now acquainted with, the one that holds court at his locker at the middle of the right wall in the clubhouse, giggles. And saunters. He spends press conferences, like one the afternoon of his debut, snapping photos on a commandeered iPhone and performing his own mic checks, bopping each one three times with his pointer finger. He finds endless delight in trifles like first baseman Mike Bianucci's last name, which during an afternoon lull he takes the better part of five minutes to abridge into Nucci, then Bucci, then the bat manufacturing company Marucci before descending into laughter. He claps teammates on their shoulders and saturates the room with Spanish, just one of the guys while still maintaining his own orbit. And, yes, he signs autographs -- dozens of them, including one for every boy on the four little league teams that joined the Express on the field before a recent game. There's a wariness about him and he is anything but carefree, but if this is not the Manny Ramirez that America adored when he bashed baseballs in Cleveland and ducked behind outfield walls in Boston, it's at least a reasonable facsimile.
It is such a radical departure from what we've seen of him in recent times -- occasionally petulant, habitually indifferent, perpetually annoyed -- that it's now de rigueur to wonder what, exactly, prompted all of it. Necessity? Sure, with so much riding on this lifeline, Ramirez is incentivized to be on his best behavior. Greener pastures is another; Ramirez admits as much in that aforementioned press conference, noting that "coming from Taiwan" -- where players often wash their own uniforms and there was no home field -- "[Round Rock] is like the big leagues." Regardless of motive, though, the sheer magnitude of that shift has startled Wahl enough to make him forego conventional wisdom altogether and invoke the metaphysical, as though the only rational synthesis is that Ramirez has undergone an out-of-body experience.
"It's like he had an exorcism," he says.
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None of which is to say that Manny has lost his propensity for the enigmatic.
His fickleness for dealing with the media lingers, his tolerance for group question and answer sessions -- one-on-ones are anathema -- vacillating by the hour. A day after that boisterous press conference, he begrudgingly consents to a few minutes in front of his locker, but it all dissolves in a matter of four questions, perturbation rapidly giving way to thinly-veiled disgust. Yet, after a beat, he was almost sheepishly foisting us upon teammates, playing press liaison for his own story. He volunteers to make his uncle and traveling partner Carlos Ferrera available, animatedly describing a man with long hair; when we track him down after the game, the first thing we notice is Ferrera's skull is as smooth as the face of a baseball. On Sunday, he says his family is en route and should be in Texas by next week; the next afternoon, he proclaims he's going to live with 22-year-old second baseman Leury Garcia, a winter ball teammate who has become a sort of younger brother figure. At one point Sunday afternoon, Ramirez references his focus; not even ten seconds later, when asked about that night's opponent, he admits to having no idea who the Omaha Storm Chasers are.
The clarity, what little there is of it, comes from performance. It wouldn't be surprising, in a vacuum, to hear his new teammates and coaches vouch for Ramirez's remaining hitting chops. After all, what else would they be expected to say? But the observational evidence does indeed point to something of value still left in the tank. Thirty three-year-old catcher Eli Whiteside was the lineup's oldest player before Ramirez came aboard. He also played for the division rival Giants when Ramirez was a Dodger. Now, a half-decade later, he says Manny "looks pretty similar to what I've seen in the past." Butler points out Ramirez's approach to batting practice, always to right field, hardly any wasted motion. For outfielder Jared Hoying, it's the hands, shopworn but still quick. Hitting coach Scott Coolbaugh makes note of his stance, confident and coiled. He says Ramirez doesn't need to cheat on fastballs, even at an age when most of his contemporaries have gone extinct. Third baseman Mike Olt focuses on Ramirez's efficiency, the ability to take 30 cuts with a purpose instead of 200 without focus.
The latter is the sort of loose change Coolbaugh and manager Bobby Jones hope Ramirez leaves lying around should he hop a bus to Arlington. Befuddling as the man is, no one here questions his credentials as a hitting savant, and while the physical skills aren't transferrable, the bank of observations can be. It's already helped Olt, the Rangers top prospect, who had been mired in a slump in the days leading up to Ramirez's arrival.
"I had him watch a video the other day of my swing, because I just couldn't figure it out," he says. "He looked at it and within 10 seconds he said, 'this is what you're going to work on.' He said I was late and because I was late, I was dropping my hands and it was pretty easy for him to see."
Lo and behold, after going 2-for-23 in his last six games pre-Manny, Olt is 4-for-8 in three games since, including the team's only hit in a 5-0 shutout Monday.
"It's cool to have someone like that looking over your shoulder," he says.
There is no delusion among them, however: Ramirez's foremost objective is to get back to the major leagues and they all know it. The most common scene of all, then, is Manny alone in the batting cage, just the thwack of bat meeting ball. Ferrera says Ramirez spends two hours every day inside that room before the team convenes to work out, and then takes more cuts with them.
If there is anything certain about Ramirez, it lies in this and perhaps this alone: Should he indeed fail to reach his goal, it won't be for a lack of effort.
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The record shows that 8,910 fans made the trek to Dell Diamond to see Ramirez's debut Sunday night, but the stands appear noticeably thinner when the first pitch is thrown at 7:08 PM.
The presentation is about what you'd expect for a minor league game, a mixed bag of gimmickry -- a clip of a mutton-chopped Dwayne Johnson asking if you smell what The Rock is cooking; a promotion for a free car wash; a little league team joining the players on the field before the national anthem; the unerring persistence of the Chicken Dance. In spite of the hullabaloo, there's no Manny bobblehead or dreads cap or any similar schlock. Apart from the brief snippets surrounding his at-bats, there is hardly any indication that he is in the building at all.
Hitting cleanup, Ramirez looks the part of a player who hadn't taken the field in two weeks as he faces a flame-throwing prospect in Omaha's (by extension, Kansas City's) Yordano Ventura. Leading off the bottom of the second, Ramirez loops the first pitch he sees over the second baseman's head to the shallowest part of right field for a single, a hit he later admits was a little lucky. A decaffeinated "Man-ny! Man-ny!" chant percolates somewhere above the visitors' dugout for his second at-bat, only to quickly fizzle out when he again hacks at the first pitch he sees, this time knocking a soft grounder to the shortstop to end the inning. He appears downright feeble in the fifth, taking the first two pitches -- one ball, one strike -- before missing a breaking ball for strike two and getting blown away on a 98 MPH to end the inning.
Yet he recovers somewhat in his last at-bat against reliever Michael Mariot, grinding out a six-pitch walk to a serenade of a significantly more voluminous MAN-NY! MAN-NY! cheer. It isn't pretty; in the span of four pitches, he fails to pull back on a check swing, whiffs on a 93 MPH fastball and barely ekes out a foul on a 95 MPH fastball that was behind him to avoid strike three. But he gets the base, holding off on a fastball in the dirt and receiving the loudest ovation of the night when he's lifted for a pinch-runner.
It's similar tidings the next night, light on results -- he goes hitless in three at-bats -- but sprinkled with enough positives to foretell a breakthrough might be coming sooner than later (he would hit a home run the following night). Again, he draws the loudest cheer of the evening, this time coming on a pop fly that went to the farthest inch of the warning track in left field.
Manny was in a pleasant enough mood after his debut to hold a postgame media session in the batting cages, and so a half-dozen of us surrounded him to listen to rehashed mantras. He was just looking for good pitches to hit. He's playing with a great group of guys. All he needs is to get back into a rhythm. He's taking it a day at a time. I resign myself to hearing nothing of substance leave his lips when, on his way to the door, Ramirez offers a rare showing of vulnerability: "Actually, I was kind of nervous for that first at-bat." I murmur something back about him taking a good cut at it, surprised that he would make such an allowance after so many platitudes of relaxed confidence. By then, I'd come to understand that Manny isn't much for self-revelation. But maybe I was wrong. Days later, it occurs to me that I'm probably overthinking it.
I don't have all the answers for how Manny Ramirez's mind works.
Then again, I'm not sure that Manny Ramirez does, either.
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Mike Piellucci is a freelance writer from Dallas based in Los Angeles. You can follow him on Twitter at @MikeLikesSports.