As Manny Ramirez tests positive for a banned substance and gets slapped with a season-crushing 50-game suspension, an intimate new biography reveals the private life of the Los Angeles Dodgers' oddball slugger.
At one point during the multi-year process of writing the biography of Manny Ramirez, the Los Angeles Dodgers slugger forgot the book existed, telling his new agent he’d never heard of these people claiming to be his biographers. “This was like three years into the project,” says author Jean Rhodes, a professor of psychology at UMass-Boston. “At this point we had already met with him and his family many times. He forgot all about it.”
It was an incident that could be interpreted as a sign of arrogance, but baseball fans recognize it as a simple case of “Manny being Manny.” Ever since joining the Cleveland Indians in 1993, Ramirez has been baseball’s most enduring enigma: one of the best hitters ever to play the game, but at the same time, an inscrutable figure who seems to live on his own planet. After he was traded to the Red Sox in 2001, Ramirez and Boston’s baseball-crazed fans developed a love-hate relationship. They adored him for his skills, but were frustrated that he didn’t appear to take the sport as deadly serious as they did. His final season with the Sox, in 2008, devolved into melodrama. Eager to leave Boston, Ramirez fought with his teammates and appeared listless in the field, nonchalantly refusing to run out ground balls. The enraged Boston fan base accused him of becoming a prima donna, and he left the team midseason in a wake of bad blood.
He would say things to me like, "If this is your whole life then you’ve got to go outside that and get a better life." He just didn't get that Red Sox Nation mentality.
The debacle was caused, says Rhodes, by Ramirez seeing baseball as a simple game, and forgetting that it’s also a high-stakes industry that includes money, media, fame, contracts, and fans. Rhodes, who wrote the authorized biography, Becoming Manny, with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Shawn Boburg, believes this naiveté is what makes Manny such an anomaly and why he holds the public’s fascination. She and Boburg spent hours with Ramirez, his friends, and family, and came away with a startlingly intimate picture of a notoriously press-shy athlete. Rhodes spoke to The Daily Beast about what’s behind the Ramirez’s strange ways.
What’s Manny like in person?
He's very innocent. He's not trying hard to project anything. He's very sincere in a way, almost vulnerable. He's not thinking about the PR implications of what he's saying.
Usually that’s the type of person the press falls in love with—someone who isn't always spinning. That’s why they loved John McCain. But the press has always had a strained relationship with Manny. In the foreward to your book, sportswriter Leigh Montville compared him to Ted Williams, who also had a strained relationship with the press, but for different reasons.
Yes. Ted would spit at the press box. He just hated them. He got really mad when they started to encroach on his personal life. Manny is different. He just feels like they're too intense. He just wants to play the game and go into his little zone.
Do you think reporters just don’t like Manny? Or is it that they don’t understand him and that’s frustrating?
It's a combination. The frustration had to be there because he just wouldn't talk. He played with the press. There is a story, I'm not sure if I put it in there, where he called a press conference and made everybody wait for an hour. He said, "I'll be right back." Then he came back and said, "I've decided I'm going to give away $3 million of my own money to keep Pedro [Martinez] on the team.” The press went crazy about that and then he and Pedro go in the back and just start cracking up.
Did they write about it?
Yeah, it was in the paper.
You also write that Manny was never comfortable with the intensity of Red Sox fans.
He just didn't get it. He would say things to me like, "If this is your whole life then you’ve got to go outside that and get a better life." He just didn't get that Red Sox Nation mentality.
His sense of humor is so odd—his idea of a joke is to put on his teammates clothes. I mean, it's kind of funny, but really strange.
He did something to Shawn [Boburg] and me. Shawn called him. [Manny and his former coach, Macaco] had just gotten back from Brazil. He's like, "Oh man, Shawn, I wish you could have been there—Macaco got married!" Shawn and I are like, what? He says, "Oh yeah, he met a girl at a bar. They're still working out the immigration, but isn't it great?" So we show up with a bottle of single-malt whiskey and he’s sitting on the couch and they burst out laughing. What a weird thing. That's the point, you know?
He also has a reputation for being lazy, which couldn’t be further from the truth. He’s incredibly dedicated to the game.
He studies video. But he doesn't just study starting pitchers, he studies every pitcher and learns what they're going to do, given the pitch count. So because of that he's able to anticipate pitches and it gives him a slight advantage. Frank Mancini, the clubhouse guy, told me a lot of guys would write that stuff down, but he just kept it in his head.
It's almost like counting cards.
It's almost like Rain Man. He's a very intellectual player, which people don't realize.
No one associates the word “intellectual” with Manny Ramirez.
Right. But those closest to him do. They talk about him being a savant. The guy who coined the phrase "Manny being Manny" compared him to Einstein. Einstein would walk into a room with his zipper down because he was thinking about an equation. Manny's head is locked into this very specialized talent.
Why do people question his work ethic?
I think some of it is racism. People like to attribute laziness to his flowing dreadlocks and his baggy uniform and not running out the pop flies. He doesn’t play like scrappy little [Red Sox second baseman] Dustin Pedroia, who runs out everything even when it's obvious he's going to be out.
I think people think of him as a stoner, too. They think he smokes pot before and during the games.
Of course he doesn't. There was even a bumper sticker recently with an image of him looking like Bob Marley and it said, "Legend." People equate it to him.
You write that he’s also very shy. How do you think that shyness played out during the 2008 season when he was accused of being a prima donna? His behavior was not exemplary that season, but he must have been thinking, I'm not this guy.
I think in some ways he's insulated. I was visiting him the week everything was melting down in Boston. I was up in his penthouse and he was really hurt. He was like, "I've given so much to this team, everything I've had, and they don't appreciate me." In some ways he felt—I don't want to sound like an apologist, but he experienced it as a betrayal that he wasn't getting treated as he felt he should be. Of course, the Boston management would say, “Oh God, we bent over backward for this guy.” It's all differences in perception.
Boston fans often treat it as a personal betrayal when a star player goes to another team, like when Johnny Damon was traded to the Yankees.
It’s true. They treat it like they’re a scorned lover. And like any scorned lover there is a lot of emotion wrapped up in it. They want to see that person rot in hell.
Even though he probably gets overly characterized as an oddball, Manny is genuinely weird. For instance, you write that he’s obsessed with going to the mall. Why is Manny a mall rat?
I don't know exactly what it is. Think about growing up in the Dominican Republic. There are no malls there. His first time ever in a mall was in North Carolina. But it's so strange, right? It’s the same with him selling things on eBay. There’s this disconnect between his being a superstar and being press-savvy.
Right, he's doing all these things that normal people do, but famous people wouldn't because of how it might be perceived. Another one: You write that he never carries money with him, so he’s always having to borrow $15 for lunch. You actually get into a bit of psychology with that one.
There is this thread of distrust. He was taken advantage of in his early years. He just kind of clammed up. And I've noticed Dominicans have a hard time just saying no. So I think for him, having money put him in a position of having to say no when he didn't want to. The fact that he doesn’t like to say no is probably why we got him to do the book.
Will Doig is the Features Editor at The Daily Beast. He has written for New York, The Advocate, Out, Black Book and Highlights for Children.