Manny Ramirez was one of his generation’s best hitters. He sullied it all by getting popped twice for performance enhancing drugs. His legacy is noteworthy, loaded and controversial. How we perceive it will evolve with our changing perception of the sport.
His Cooperstown candidacy is uncertain. He wouldn’t be elected today, but he won’t be considered for another five years. He will have 15 years of eligibility beyond that. How we view baseball and performance enhancing drugs over that time may transform radically.
Sabermetrics are altering the baseball paradigm, shifting our focus from compiled, countable stats to objective and more statistically meaningful reflections of value. Cumulative home run totals and similar stats are becoming far less relevant now. They will, as well, when future players are assessed.
This paradigm shift has shattered the myth of the homogeneous baseball record book. Baseball has had the same name, but been a radically different game depending on circumstances. Comparing raw numbers across eras is unfair and not very useful. If players are no longer judged across eras, sacrosanct touchstones such as “61” and “755” hold far less weight. The stigma for PED users breaking them becomes far less intense.
Asterisk debates are passe. Manny Ramirez will be judged against his peers. In his case, the peers he dominated – 12-straight seasons with a 140 OPS+ or higher – were often taking steroids, HGH and amphetamines as well.
Manny’s disgrace may keep him from the Hall of Fame, but does Cooperstown even matter? The voting process has been endlessly scrutinized. Induction isn’t the mark of immortality it was once perceived to be. It’s the collective, controversial whim of aging sportswriters many of whom (a) hold personal grudges and (b) remain willfully ignorant of the sport they cover.
It’s madness, with votes subject to arguments such as Jim Rice being “capable of inducing an intentional walk with the bases loaded” used as justification when Jim Rice never induced an intentional walk with the bases loaded. Some writers will address history honestly and dispassionately. Some will clamber up Mt. Pious to make a sanctimonious moral stand. The respective numbers of each is largely irrelevant.
For me, Manny Ramirez’ legacy is personal. I’ll remember the visceral enjoyment of watching him play baseball.
I’ll remember Fenway erupting when he turned a game with a three-run homer. I’ll remember a taunting Cleveland crowd turned to abrupt silence when he took C.C. Sabathia’s pitch 400-feet to the opposite field. I’ll remember his playful grins on the exceedingly rare occasions when he decided to try on defense and gunned down a runner or saved a home run with a stupendous catch. I’ll remember the palpable momentum when he had “the look.”
Most of all I’ll remember 2004 and Manny’s pivotal role in the greatest sports drama I will ever experience.
The steroids taint hurts. It stains his achievements. He did cynically risk his public esteem to make more than $200 million, though most would demean themselves much further for far less. Manny wasn’t a hero. He was a human and, for most of his 19-year career, he was an incredibly entertaining one.
[Photo via Getty]