Maybe Manny Ramirez’s best shot at getting into the Baseball Hall of Fame is to reinvent himself as the decade’s Julio Franco.
I know, upon initial consideration that may seem like an odd point. Franco’s black-ink feats in his 23-year major-league career include winning a batting title (.341, 1991) and … well, does leading the league in errors twice (36, in 1984 and again in ’85) count? He received just 1.1 percent of the vote in his lone year on the Hall of Fame ballot (2013), and that seems about right. Ramirez is a far more accomplished player than he ever was.
But if you caught Monday’s Manny news, you probably can see where I’m going with this. The former Red Sox slugger, at 44 years old and five years removed from his last major league at-bat, agreed to terms with the Fighting Dogs of Japan’s independent Shikoku Island League. While we’re over here bickering about his controversial Hall of Fame candidacy in his first year on the ballot, he’s packing up his bats and heading off to wherever they’ll let him take a few swings that count.
There’s something charming about a player who mashed 555 home runs and made at least $206 million in his career continuing to play for what looks like nothing more than the heck of it. And that’s where he’s reminiscent of Franco. After slipping out of the majors from 1998-2000, bouncing from Japan to Mexico to South Korea, save for a sole at-bat with the 2000 Tampa Bay Devil Rays — Franco found his way stateside again at age 42 with the 2001 Braves.
It turned out to be more than a cameo or a flashback; instead it was a delightful second act, with Franco hanging around until 2007 — when he was 48 years old — as a fairly productive pinch-hitter with the Braves and Mets. As far as we know, he still may not be done getting in his hacks: Two years ago, he played in seven games for Fort Worth of the United Baseball League. He was 55 years old — 30 years older than the average player in the league.
I doubt Ramirez will follow Franco’s old-man-who-can-still-kind-of-rake journey back to the big leagues. Two years ago, he hit just .222 with a .648 OPS in 77 plate appearances for the Cubs’ Triple A club. And there’s the permanent stain from his two failed tests for performance-enhancing drugs after Major League Baseball and the players’ union got around to implementing testing in 2005. Franco was not a better player than Ramirez. But he was a better player at age 44.
This foray to Japan could benefit Ramirez in the public eye — and in his quest, presuming it is something he cares about, to make it to Cooperstown. Franco was perceived as something of a nuisance in his younger days, fairly or not — it seems that label is attached carelessly to Dominican players, doesn’t it? But in that second act — or was it his third act, or hell, maybe it was his fourth? — Franco was beloved. When a once-bright star keeps playing on, even after his skills have eroded or abandoned him altogether, we take it as appealing confirmation that they love the game as much as we do, even though that was probably the case all along. Everyone digs a baseball Methuselah.
It’s tough to acknowledge for those of us who can’t fathom how a Red Sox fan could like watching Trot Nixon better, but Ramirez could use that image repair that comes only with time and reconsideration. On statistics and achievements alone, he is a no-doubt-about-it Hall of Famer. He’s not just the best righthanded hitter of his generation, he bats in the heart of the order in a lineup of the best all-time. As ESPN’s Jayson Stark pointed out this week in a thoughtful piece pondering Ramirez’s candidacy, only Jimmie Foxx among all-time righthanded hitters surpasses Ramirez’s .312/.418/.585 slash line in all three categories.
In a simpler world, he should be working on a draft of what surely would be a memorable Hall of Fame speech – perhaps the most anticipated since Rickey Henderson’s, another player regarded as a pain in the posterior when he was younger who became one of the game’s beloved geezers late in his career. But the era of performance-enhancing drugs sapped any simplicity (and a lot of joy) from the Hall of Fame balloting. There are few cases more complicated than Ramirez’s, who already was a magnet for sanctimony because of the various petulant acts that served as disappointing interludes to all the good times. He may be an all-time character, one people like miss still miss, nine years after his last game with the Red Sox. But the character clause has worked against him, and it was even before those two post-testing PED suspensions.
It has not helped Ramirez that commissioner Rob Manfred has been inconsistent in his guidance on how voters should consider PED users and suspects. Per Stark, he has advised voters to draw a line between those who tested positive after testing was implemented and those implicated before. That makes Ramirez a more damning and damaged candidate than even Roger Clemens or Barry Bonds, both of whom have tangled and obvious ties to PEDs but never failed a PED test that has been made public. I strongly suspect Ramirez’s comparative mistake is being lackadaisical in hiding his usage, post-testing. It fits his profile, doesn’t it?
Yet Manfred gave David Ortiz something akin to a pardon or an outright exoneration for his name being leaked as one of 103 players who tested positive for something during anonymous testing in 2003. It was a heck of a parting gift, and perhaps even an appropriate one. But Ramirez, Sammy Sosa and Alex Rodriguez also must be wondering when they’ll receive their pardons for that same cloudy transgression. (Also: Tell me who the other 99 names happen to be, and I’ll guarantee you we’re viewing the last several Hall of Fame classes in a very different light.)
Ramirez’s induction may come someday, but the chances of it happening in the next couple of years are a longer shot than that one he hit off K-Rod once upon a time. He’s appeared on 25.3 percent of ballots on Ryan Thibodaux’s super-informative Hall of Fame ballot tracker, and those who make their ballots public tend to be less conservative in their voting. Ramirez will stay on the ballot, but he has a lot of ground to make up, among the voters and in terms of perception.
While we agree on his qualifications but bicker on about his character, he happily meanders to wherever the game takes him. Perhaps he doesn’t need our redemption. He’s already found his own. Theo Epstein, who had as much right as anyone to be aggravated with Ramirez through the years, was among the first to notice the change, hiring him with the Cubs in 2014.
“In Manny’s case, the real changes he made in his life — his habits, his outlook, his behavior, taking more responsibility and accountability for the things he had done and how he wanted to present himself, that made us interested in the first place,’’ said Epstein, after Ramirez received rave reviews for his work with such ascending Cubs hitters as Kris Bryant, Javier Baez, and Jorge Soler.
His insight wasn’t always about how to approach a pitcher or an at-bat. It was about much more — things you wondered whether Manny ever considered. “I spoke to them about my suspension. I spoke to them about all the things that I did,” Ramirez said. “I told them about my family. I told them, when something like that comes up in your life, not only do you embarrass yourself, you embarrass your family and your kids.
“It made me proud just to go to those kids and tell them all the things that I did. They look up to me, the kind of player I am. Now they can look up to me and say, ‘Look at this guy with everything in the world. He’s coming to us and being humble.’
“Not a lot of people like to do that – make a mistake and go in front of people, and say, ‘I did this. I did that.’ At the end of the road, everyone respects you more. That’s why I did it.”
Ramirez’s progress on the Hall of Fame ballot will likely be incremental, if he progresses at all. But he’s progressed in other ways, starting with accountability for his own mistakes. Character flaws? Go ahead and let me know when Bonds and Clemens, masters of the game on the field and in the shadows, become so candid and self-aware.