I’ll keep this as brief as Ellsbury vs. Farnsworth since most of my pro-Manny arguments passed their expiration date last Friday, when one of the most fun and frustrating players we’ll ever see shamelessly abandoned one last team with a shrug, the red tail lights heading for Spain while he left his legacy behind in self-inflicted shambles.
For someone who considers Manny and Pedro (no last names required) Nos. 1 and 1A in terms of the most charismatic and compelling superstars to call Fenway Park home in my lifetime, the ending to Manny’s career was both disappointing . . . and appropriate. Leave it to the man-child who once used the inside of the Green Monster as his private urinal to have his career ended by a tragic case of peeing-in-a-cup-gone-wrong.
I suppose I should apologize for making light of that, since apparently levity is frowned upon by the national baseball media in such Serious Matters as Manny’s disrespect for the game. Levity is apparently acceptable only when it’s used to make Manny a punch line. The New York Times’s outstanding baseball writer Tyler Kepner tweeted this when the news broke Friday: So which hat will Manny Ramirez wear when he’s dropped from the Hall of Fame ballot after one year? It’s a clever line, one even an accomplished Manny apologist such as myself wishes he’d thought of first. Unfortunately, it also foreshadowed some nonsense to come featuring the same sentiment but lacking the humor.
Heaven knows we’ve heard a lot of ridiculous commentary on ESPN’s “Sunday Night Baseball” the past 20 or so years, most of it having to do with slidepieces and the Big Red Machine and stubbornly wrongheaded conventional wisdom. But Joe Morgan is finally gone this year — I almost miss his habit of falling silent whenever a replay would prove him wrong — and the thoroughly professional and informed team of Dan Shulman, Orel Hershiser, Bobby Valentine and reporters Wendi Nix and Buster Olney is in place.
My regard for all of them is high, particularly Olney, whose column, a mix of insight, statistics, and links, is worth the price of ESPN Insider alone. Which is why it was so aggravating Sunday night during the Red Sox-Yankees telecast to hear Olney say that he’s voted for Mark McGwire for the Hall of Fame, that he will probably vote for Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, but that he will not vote for Manny. He was one among a number of prominent writers to suggest in the aftermath of Manny’s adios that he would not get the requisite five percent of the vote to remain on the ballot a second year.
To which I say: You have got to be kidding me. I mean, I don’t even know which decoder ring I need to use to try to decipher that tangled logic. Olney sort of explained or implied that Manny is held to a different standard because his transgressions — two failed tests since April 2009 — came after performance-enhancing drug testing was implemented in 2004. (He also reportedly tested positive for a banned substance in 2003.)
[Update: According to The Big Lead, Olney has said Manny’s transgressions are worse because baseball is trying to clean up the sport. In other words, it was OK to do it when Bud Selig and the players union turned a blind eye to the epidemic. Huh? I’m more confused than before.]
But the notion that Bonds (whose homer totals — 37, 49, 73 — grew at a similar rate to his cap size), Clemens (“Uh, them is Debbie’s syringes”), and especially McGwire (whose benefits from PEDs are right there in bold type on his baseball-reference.com page, and yet are probably less fraudulent than that prolonged charade with the Maris family in the summer of ’98) could and maybe even will get in while Manny, whose outstanding but hardly bloated numbers rarely fluctuated from season to season, is one-and-done . . . well, that’s just warped. All of the aforementioned superstars cheated. The real difference between them and Manny, as I see it, is twofold: Major League Baseball was complicit in duping the public before testing was implemented. And Manny was dumb and dumber enough to fail the test twice.
Now, I realize I sound like a Giants fan defending the indefensible Bonds, or a Cardinals fan still deluded that their McGwire memories were the genuine article. So be it. Watching Manny hit — when he was really locked in, when he’d set up the pitcher and annihilate a pitch he’d missed earlier in the game — ranks among the all-time great joys of being a Red Sox fan. It’s disappointing that so many fans around here dwell on the ugly scenes and the departures — from Boston, from the game itself — more than they do all of the good times, all of the endearingly goofy antics, the silly handshakes, the two championships, and did I mention the long drives over the Monster that looked like they’d soar all the way to Worcester?
Manny’s legacy in my mind is best captured by his three-run homer off Barry Zito in Game 5 of the 2003 ALDS. The bomb, off one of the best pitchers in baseball at the time, was as clutch as it got at that point in Red Sox history. And yet before the baseball landed deep into the left field seats, the broadcasters were caterwauling about the disgrace of Manny pausing to watch it. Sometimes, he couldn’t win for winning. And when he did something wrong or offensive, which was more than occasional, you get what you had last Friday: analysis that alternated between solemn and vicious, with the same tired conclusion. Manny disrespected the game, and it is our duty as alleged guardians to punish him for it. No Hall for you, Ramirez.
If you’re familiar with the baseball nerdhood that powers this blog, you know I love the Hall of Fame. Love going to Cooperstown and the museum, love writing about who’s on the ballot and who should be elected and who isn’t quite worthy, love all of the nostalgia and circumstance. But I also have some longstanding problems with its machinations, beginning with the arbitrariness of who’s in and who’s out and the pretzel logic that often leads to such contradictions. Tell me again why Catfish Hunter is and Luis Tiant isn’t, or why Lou Whitaker lasted just a single season on the ballot while the inferior Phil Rizzuto is in or . . . well, we could write a couple of chapters on all the scumbags, rascals and racists who are revered while the all-time hit leader remains banned.
Maybe I’m too much of a completionist, or maybe I’m not putting the appropriate stock in the morals of the game, but to me, the Hall of Fame is supposed inform us about the history of the game as much as it celebrates it, and that means acknowledging the dark days with the sunny. Legendary players who may have built that legend by nefarious means shouldn’t be ignored.
Even with Jose Canseco’s dubiously motivated but relatively accurate whistle-blowing, there’s still so much we don’t know about who and how many were using from the late ’80s on. But this is certain: You watch a classic game from 1998 or 2001 or 2004 now, and you will be astounded at how much bigger almost all of the players are than they are now. The Mitchell Report was not an epilogue. There are other Radomskis and McNamees out there who will eventually tell another first-person sordid tale that indicts even more of the presumed innocent. It’s premature and irresponsible to say a player who tested positive last week won’t and shouldn’t get in five years from now. The context is still hazy.
Admittedly, my opinion on who should be a Hall of Famer has changed by several degrees in the aftermath of the steroid era. I do believe Bonds should get in, I do believe Clemens should get in, and I will always loathe both of them. And I will listen to arguments for the likes of McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro, both of whom would probably be distant afterthoughts on the ballot if not for their apparent chemical advantages.
Ultimately, the Hall of Fame is incomplete when the definitive players of each era are not recognized. Mention steroids and failed tests and obstruction of justice convictions on the cheaters’ plaques; hell, put a giant asterisk on their bronzed foreheads. But give me honesty and perspective and the whole story over arbitrary judgment any day. I’d rather see all the juicers who turned the record book into a comic book get in than have a single clean player excluded because of wrongful suspicions, and I’d rather see all of the game’s history acknowledged than just those moments suitable for all audiences. Bonds, Clemens, Manny . . . maybe they don’t deserve to be in the Hall of Fame. They probably don’t. But they belong in the Hall of Fame.
(OK, so that wasn’t brief. Hopefully we’ll say the same thing about Manny’s stay on the ballot in five years.)