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The genius of Manny Ramirez

"The reluctance to put away childish things may be a requirement of genius."

-- Former New York Times Book editor Rebecca Pepper Sinkler

The following column is dedicated to the admittedly bizarre proposition that one Manuel Aristides (Onelcida) Ramirez, sometimes known as Man-Ram or Manny Being Manny or just plain Manny, is a genius. Now, it's not an easy case to make that a man who tries to run to third on a ground rule double, who sometimes disappeared into the Green Monster during pitching changes, who gets pulled over by police for having overly tinted car windows is a genius.

Then, nobody is saying Manny Ramirez is an all-around genius.

"You don't know what to throw the guy," says Bill Swift, a one-time Olympic hero and 20-game winner who faced MannyBManny eight times in his career. Ramirez crushed six hits, three of them doubles, two of them homers. "You just look at him in the box, and you know that no matter what you throw -- fastball in, curveball away, slider down, change-up -- it doesn't matter. He will hit it."

MannyBManny joined the Los Angeles Dodgers on August 1. This was less than a month after he pinch hit at Yankee Stadium and blandly watched three Mariano Rivera fastballs go over the plate for strikes in a crucial spot. The bat never moved, and even Rivera was baffled, and his days in Boston effectively ended. After his first game in Los Angeles, the Dodgers were a game worse than .500 and seemingly dead in the water.

Since that day, MannyBManny has hit .401, a homer every 11 at-bats, more than one RBI per game, and the Dodgers have just about run away with the National League West.

"There must be a pitch that can get him out," Swift says. "I never found it."

*****

"There was never a genius without a tincture of madness."

--Aristotle

For a while there in the 1990s, it seemed like the Cleveland Indians had some sort of Awesome Hitter Tree, and whenever they felt like it they would pluck some new hitting star from it.*

*We Clevelanders accepted this as a fair karmic payback for 30 years of troublingly bad baseball. When you have seen enough Tommy Veryzers and Miguel Dilones and Jim Norrises you start to feel like you somebody up there owes you something.

In quick succession, the Indians found Albert Belle and Carlos Baerga and Kenny Lofton and Jim Thome. The surplus grew so overwhelming that, ultimately, the Indians simply could not find a place for all the incoming bats. And so Brian Giles (who hit 35-plus homers four straight years in Pittsburgh) and Richie Sexson (who would twice hit 45 homers for Milwaukee) and Sean Casey (who would make three All-Star teams and hit .300 over a lengthy career) rarely made it off the bench.

The great and powerful hitters came fast and furious, and it was easy to miss the fact that one of those young hitters was Mozart. MannyBManny's first game was in Minnesota on Sept. 2, 1993. He went 0-for-4 against Twins' pitchers Kevin Tapani and Carl Willis, though he did hit three balls hard. The next night he was in his town, in New York, at Yankee Stadium, facing the Yankees, and he crushed two home runs. That accomplished, he promptly went zero for his next 15.

From a distance, there seemed something quirky about this guy ... he smiled on the field but did not appear to be having a lot of fun. He appeared pleasant enough, but plainly he did not have much interest in talking. He was a good hitter almost from the start -- when he was 23 years old he had a .400 on-base percentage and hit 31 homers. The last three 23-year-olds to do that were Frank Thomas, Ken Griffey and Reggie Jackson.

The thing was the Indians already had Albert Belle, so the position of "Intimidating And Moody Right-handed Hitter Who Crushes Pitches To Every Field And Does Not Talk Much To The Press And Grounds Into Too Many Double Plays And Often Seems Disinterested In The Outfield," was already filled.

All in all, Belle was moodier, Manny seemingly more disinterested, and together in 1995 and 1996 they probably made for the most lethal right-handed hitting combo since Willie Mays and Orlando Cepeda or, if you want to go back, Jimmie Foxx and Al Simmons.

In 1997, Belle signed a big money deal with Chicago. In 1998 and 1999, MannyBManny drove in 310 runs, the most in back-to-back seasons since Hank Greenberg 60 years earlier. Other than his overpowering numbers and his odd brush with the law in Cleveland (not only was he ticketed for having darkened windows, he was ticketed AGAIN after making an illegal U-turn as he drove off), nobody knew much about Ramirez. He seemed happy that way. In 2000, he hit .351 and slugged .697. Then he signed the second-largest contract in baseball history, with Boston.

"What Boston didn't know," one baseball executive says, "is that in every possible way but one Manny Ramirez is like a child. The only place he's an adult is in the batter's box. In there, he's like the smartest man in the world."

"Talent does what it can; genius does what it must."

-- Edward Bulwer-Lytton

Bill James, a baseball writer (and Boston Red Sox advisor) who has spent much of his life knocking down baseball myths, believes that Manny Ramirez is such a good hitter, he will purposely get into full-counts when there is a runner on first base. The reason? With a full-count, that runner will be running on the pitch and, as such, will become an RBI when Ramirez hits a double into the gap.

"I've seen it too many times to doubt it," Bill says.

Allard Baird, a longtime baseball scout and executive (and Boston Red Sox advisor) believes Manny Ramirez is such a good hitter, he will sometimes swing and miss at a pitch in April so that the pitcher will throw him that same pitch in September. The idea being: He won't miss that pitch in September.

"When it comes to hitting, the guy's mind works on a whole other level," Allard says.

These are a couple of guys who have seen Manny Ramirez play a lot. Then, with MannyBManny -- unlike almost anyone else -- it seems like the more you see him as a hitter, the more in awe you become. The more you know, the more of a folk hero the guy becomes.

That's genius. At the moment, there are four right-handed hitters in baseball history who hit 500 homers and 500 doubles. It's only for a moment because Frank Thomas figures to limp his way to five more doubles, and in time Alex Rodriguez and Albert Pujols should put up numbers that will scramble the mind.

For now, though, it is four. There's Mays, of course. There's Hank Aaron, of course. There's Frank Robinson, who often seems forgotten in these conversations. What do you have with those three? With Mays, you have all-around brilliance, with Aaron a staggering consistency, with Robinson an unquenchable ferociousness. There's a sturdiness about those three.

What does Manny Ramirez -- the fourth in the group -- have in common with them? The answer seems to be: Nothing. This is a guy who jogs after balls in the gap, who has brought his iPod to the outfield, who so frustrated the Boston Red Sox they put him on waivers. But he was faster to 500 homers and faster to 500 doubles than any of them.

Yeah, he's a goofball. But it's different for him with a bat in his hands. During last year's playoff series with Cleveland he famously said in reference to reaching the World Series, "If it doesn't happen, who cares? There's always next year. It's not like it's the end of the world." Manny being Manny. Then, he reached base six of his next 12 times at bat and the Red Sox won three straight.

On July 27, 2003, against the Yankees, Ramirez ran to the outfield with a giant water bottle jammed in his back pocket. The incident would be mentioned again and again as a way to describe the kookiness of Manny ... that very same game, though, he hit a home run off of Mike Mussina.

In Game 1 of the 2004 World Series, Manny made two of the funniest errors in the history of postseason baseball. He also went 3-for-5 with two RBIs. And he ended up winning the World Series MVP award.

"You can't judge Manny like you judge anybody else," says one former big league manager. "Again and again, he will make you wonder if it's worth it. But then you will watch him hit, and you will remember: 'Yeah, it is.'"

*****

"Genius is the ability to put into effect what is on your mind."

-- F. Scott Fitzgerald

Sure, that's easy to say, F., but maybe what keeps Manny being Manny, is that nobody knows what's on his mind. Kansas City pitcher Brian Bannister has had some moderate success with Manny. He has faced him six times and struck him out twice. And one of the two hits he gave up was an infield single, a Manny rarity.

Still, Bannister admits to being entirely spooked by Ramirez. Bannister is probably baseball's most cerebral pitcher -- often, baseball men say, to his detriment -- and as such it drives him nuts that he cannot figure out what Manny might be thinking.

"He has such an ambiguous personality," Bannister says. "He doesn't give anything away. You have no idea what he's feeling at the plate. He could be in the middle of a slump or the best hitting streak of his life, and he has that same blank expression on his face.

"It's freaky. Sometime he will just let a good pitch go by, like he doesn't care. If you're lucky enough to strike him out, he will just kind of walk back to the dugout like it didn't even matter. And you're on the mound thinking, 'What's going on here? Is he setting me up? What's going on in that head of his?'"

In July 2007, Bannister faced Manny Ramirez for the first time in his life. First at-bat, Manny had cracked a deep out to right. He shrugged in his disinterested way. Bannister was suitably freaked out by the experience.

The second time, Bannister pitched carefully, worked to a 2-1 count. Then he felt a bit stumped. He had watched Manny video and it had been like some math puzzle he could not figure out. He decided to throw a fastball low and away, but he made a mistake. He got the ball up and watched with horror as it it tailed back over the plate. Bannister knew instantly that it was a bad mistake. He could only hope that Manny would miss.

Manny didn't miss. Manny doesn't miss. Bill James would later call it the hardest ball he has ever seen hit in his many years of baseball watching. Manny's home run was crushed to center field, one of those natural wonders so awesome that afterward you didn't want a distance estimate as much as you wanted to know how fast it was going. Bannister watched it go and realized, almost immediately, that Manny had beaten him, somehow, some way. Genius.

"I think, in the end, you can't help but admire it," Bannister said. "It doesn't happen every day. You realize that that are only a handful of people in the entire world who can hit a baseball that far, that hard. Maybe not even a handful."

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