I was born in the heart of Red Sox Nation, back when Boston was just a city with a lousy baseball team. Still, my passion and that of all my pals was baseball and the currency of our lives was the game and its stats. We were a generation that was schooled in historical dates—1215, 1492, 1776, 1861, Dec. 7, 1941, June 6, 1944—but we knew our baseball numbers—18, 56, 60, 190 (subsequently raised to 191), .406, 511, 714, 1947, 2130—even better, reciting them like a catechism.
Yet even at a tender age, we understood that these numbers were just touchstones and that the record-setting figures in our time—18 (most strikeouts in a game, Bob Feller, Sandy Koufax), 56 (consecutive game hitting streak, Joe DiMaggio), 60 (home runs in a season, Babe Ruth), 190 (most RBIs in a season, Hack Wilson), .406 (the last time a batter hit over .400 in a season, Ted Williams), 511 (most wins in a career, Cy Young), 714 (most home runs in a career, Babe again), 1947 (the year Jackie Robinson integrated the Major Leagues), 2,130 (most consecutive games played, Lou Gehrig)—did not completely define any ballplayers. Today that distinction seems to have been lost. As Bill James developed his statistical analyses and cult following, as fantasy baseball enveloped fans, as new "Moneyball" stats like OBP and OPS became the guiding light for baseball execs, numbers became the ultimate measure of a player. Words like "gamer" went out of fashion, used by only a few throwback guys like me.
A few years ago I stirred up a lot of anger among my readers with a column about Rafael Palmeiro after he had joined baseball's sanctified 3,000-hits-500-home-runs club but before his ignominious departure from baseball following a positive test for steroids. I argued that "I know one when I see one" and Palmeiro, despite his prodigious numbers, was not a legitimate Hall of Famer. Stats had become so warped in the modern game that basing election to the hall on numbers alone was ridiculous. A more discerning measure of Palmeiro was that in 20 seasons, he was selected for the all-star game only four times. It was ridiculous to consider a player hall-worthy just for being the third or fourth best first basemen in his league for a very long time. Of course, the Raffi-to-the-hall debate may now have been made moot by the drug scandal.
Which brings me to the career of a far more interesting player, Manny Ramirez, whose tenure with the Red Sox ended late Thursday when he was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers. Whenever Manny is being Manny—be it a bathroom break inside the Green Monster during a game or a fielding fiasco or an exuberant high-five to a fan midplay or his disappearance from the lineup for no apparent reason other than petulance—we are quickly reminded that he is among the most dangerous hitters of his generation and a mortal lock for the Hall of Fame. He is indeed an ultra-elite hitter, bashing more than 500 home runs while maintaining a .313 career average. Ramirez played in three World Series (to Palmeiro's none), hit 24 postseason home runs, won two championships and a World Series MVP—and, in his 16 years in the league, has been chosen to play in a dozen all-star games. (Manny being Manny, of course, he found excuses not to show up to three of them.)
On the stats scale, all those numbers add up, to a first-ballot Hall of Fame election. What gnaws at me, though, is that those stats simply reflect Ramirez's prowess as a hitter and say nothing about him as a complete ballplayer. And he is decidedly less than the sum of his hits. Manny is a trick-or-treat outfielder and an indifferent baserunner. Tuesday night at Fenway Park he was booed by the home fans after, with the L.A. Angels pitcher carrying a no hitter into the seventh, he loafed down the line on a high-chopper to third that could have been an infield hit if he were running full-speed. Ramirez is fortunate that certain stats haven't yet been invented that might better quantify his career. When we finally have a measure of the GIDPAFTRHTFB (grounded into double play after failing to run hard to first base) and the TDISBSIBBAHLB (turned double into single by standing in batter's box admiring his long blast) and the RTCSS (ran through coach's stop sign), we may finally know how much his frequent lackadaisical play has cost his team. Stats like these would hit Manny's reputation every bit as hard as one of his Monster blasts.
Manny has been a clutch hitter during his career, but that is not the same thing as being a gamer. Henry Aaron, Kirk Gibson, Cal Ripken, Derek Jeter and even Ramirez's former teammate Dustin Pedroia are examples of gamers. You cannot be considered a gamer when you take days off, and sometimes weeks or months off, for injuries that cannot be diagnosed and do not appear to require treatment.
Then there was this recent, bizarre episode. In a key game against the New York Yankees, Manny came to the plate as a pinch hitter in the ninth inning and took three strikes from Mariano Rivera without taking the bat off his shoulder. There was immediate speculation from sportswriters that his noneffort was an intentional slap at Red Sox management over a disciplinary matter for which he had been fined. Nobody but Manny will ever know for sure. Name another Hall of Famer about whom you can even imagine raising that same question.
In Hall of Fame terms, we treat something as a character flaw only if it is elevated to the level of rule- or law-breaking. Thus "Shoeless" Joe Jackson and Pete Rose have been kept out of the hall because of gambling scandals, and Mark McGwire is only the first of the recent eligible players whose hall ambitions may be thwarted by questions regarding steroid use. We don't seem equipped to handle character issues that are any subtler than that. So there is, at the very least, something ironic about the fact that "Charlie Hustle" sits in permanent exile from Cooperstown while "Manny No-Hustle" (or, to be fair, occasional hustle, but you never can count on it) will get himself a bust there.
I admit to being amused by some of Manny's antics through the years. And I have celebrated two championships that I once thought I'd never live to see and can't deny that Ramirez's talents have been a critical part of the winning formula. But I have always cringed, or at least the baseball purist in me has, when Ramirez defies what fans of my generation were raised to believe were the fundamental mandates of the game. And like it does everything else, age seems to have exacerbated these flaws in Manny and my impatience with them. "Manny being Manny" has escalated from gaffes and brain-glitches on the field to more serious issues. Already this season he has sat out critical games as a petulant response to the "disrespect" of a team that will have paid him $160 million for the last eight seasons. He got in a clubhouse scuffle with Kevin Youkilis. And in the worst incident of all, the 36-year-old man-child tried to throttle a 64-year-old Red Sox official whose sin was a failure to procure Manny enough extra tickets for a game in Texas. Personally, I will not grieve for a second when Manny departs for greener pastures, even if next year he returns to Fenway in pinstripes.
Those who, like me, believe they know a Hall of Famer when they see one, should take a good, long at Manny Ramirez's career beyond the stats. He may be destined for Cooperstown. But once you examine the man along with his numbers, it's hard to come away quite as enamored of his lofty place in the history of the game.