If I told you a story about a Red Sox slugger who asked to be traded because he felt victimized by the Boston media, who would you think I was talking about? I’ll give you a clue, it’s not Manny Ramirez.
It’s arguably the greatest hitter of all time - Ted Williams. In 1940, Williams was the most hated athlete in all of Boston. You’d be hard pressed to find too many people that remember him that way though. Perhaps that’s because it would be equally hard to blame Williams for the media fiasco that lead to his reputation. The winter before the 1940 season, Ted William’s parents decided to become divorced. Williams, obviously hurt, decided to spend the offseason in Minnesota instead of at home in San Diego.
He returned to Boston for the 1940 season, still upset by the happenings of the winter. He then got off to a slow start at the plate, in what was his second season in the majors, and the press attacked him for it. Among other things, the papers blamed his slump on psychological issues that could be traced back to a bad upbringing. One paper even said that he was raised to be such a horrible person that he didn’t even care about his parents. This hurt Williams who admitted himself to be a sensitive person. He was an eccentric as well. He went pigeon shooting in the outfield of Fenway Park and when he hit his 400th home run, he spat at the press box no less than 5 times as he rounded the bases.
Now, 60 years later, history appears to be repeating itself. Manny Ramirez, another one of the greatest hitters of all time, is also the most criticized member of the Red Sox. If he stays healthy in two years he’ll have passed both Carl Yastrzemski and Ted Williams himself on the list of most career home runs. In 3 years he’ll have passed them both in runs batted in as well.
So why is he considered one of the laziest players in the game? Is it really fair to say he’s such a bad teammate? More importantly, is the bad press justified or is he simply the victim of a venomous sports media? One that’s been a part of Boston as long as our grandfathers can remember.
The first part of the Manny stigma which I’d like to address is the notion that Manny’s lazy. While there’s quite a list of Boston sports writers who have criticized Manny for his work ethic, everything that’s been said by his actual teammates seem to indicate the opposite. Dan Shaughnessy and Gordon Edes don’t see how Manny prepares for games, his teammates do. When Shaughnessy criticized Manny last year for coming late to Spring Training, many of his teammates were quick to defend him. Former Red Sox pitcher, Bronson Arroyo claimed that, “everybody understands Manny. He’s a hard worker. He’s in the gym every day in the offseason.”
And Curt Schilling, not exactly known for being an the easy teammate to get along with, agreed with Arroyo. Schilling chimed in, “one thing Manny always does is put his time and effort into getting ready, I’m not worried about that. Once it’s April 3 and he’s healthy, we’ll be fine. Manny’s one of those guys who if he didn’t show up for Spring Training, I’d still know he’d be ready for the season when the season started.”
Manny does in fact spend quite a bit of time preparing for games both before and during the season. His teammates have also attested to how he can be found regularly in the batting cages. Even sports writers are familiar with the way he prepares for certain pitchers. Most hitters watch video of the pitchers they’ll face but Manny takes it to another level. He watches video of all the relief pitchers as well. That way he can sure that when the game’s on the line he’ll have a pretty good idea of what pitches are coming.
Manny’s teammates were so upset when he was criticized last Spring Training that they took even further steps to protect him. Pitchers Curt Schilling and David Wells refused to talk to Dan Shaughnessy and even advised younger players like Jonathan Papelbon to follow suit. When She Hillenbrand came up to the majors in 2001, he had nothing but good things to say about Manny as well. According to Hillenbrand, Manny really took him under his wing. He went out of his way making the young player feel comfortable, even going as far as to buy him meals and clothes.
If you payed close attention to the games last year you could see Manny taking a similar role with other young players. He was often shown on camera while talking hitting with Kevin Youkilis. Perhaps Manny even helped Youkilis have such a successful 2006 campaign. The effect that former Red Sox hitting coach Ron Jackson had on hitters new to the Red Sox has been widely discussed. Many of the players who improved their hitting with the Red Sox however were also close with Manny Ramirez. Shea Hillenbrand, Kevin Millar, David Ortiz were all close with Manny and they all improved once they became his teammate. Perhaps that is why his teammates defend him so loyally. Or maybe it’s because they know Manny’s place in the history books.
So many lessons can be taken from those who came before us, especially in a city as rich with history as Boston. On Tremont Street there’s a cemetery called the Granary Burying Ground. It’s there that Samuel Adams, John Hancock, Paul Revere and even Crispus Attackus are buried. For those unfamiliar with him, Crispus Attackus is the most famous victim of the Boston Massacre. Many consider him to be the first ever African-American to give his life for American freedom.
There is an epitaph in the Granary Burying Ground that has written on it one of the more haunting and relevant things that I have ever read. On it are the words, “Remember, friend, as you pass by/As you are now, so once was I/As I am now, so you will be/Prepare for death and follow me.” Those words carry a message that is relevant to much more than death.
Just as our ancestors before us have watched legends such as Jimmie Foxx, Ted Williams, Carl Yastrzemski, Carlton Fisk and Wade Boggs, we too are watching legends in our own time. We should all be paying extra careful attention to Manny Ramirez. That’s because when our children ask about Red Sox players of the past, more than anyone else they’re likely to ask about him.
Regardless of what some may think of him now, when his plaque goes up in Cooperstown, the stigma surrounding his name will be based on his play and nothing else. Of all the players who currently don the Boston uniform, we should taken him for granted the least. We’re lucky that we have him for at least a little longer.