He is amusing and amazing. His career has occasionally been hysterical, and it will soon become historical. For 16 years, we've alternately been punked and wowed -- but never bored -- by Manny Ramirez, who seems to go through life marching to the toot of his own kazoo. For seeming to exist in his own world, Ramirez has often been called a "hitting savant," a Rainman who showers fields with base hits. Yet that label doesn't do his sparkling personality justice, ignoring his more extroverted sides. The billowing dreadlocks ... the pastel hairnet beneath the cap or helmet ... the loose uniform pants resting atop his cleats ... head bopping to the inaudible beat streaming through his headphones ... that cunning, slightly crooked grin ... even the light, almost rhythmic walk ...
He is the kind of spirit who years ago would have felt at home dancing on a Woodstock lawn. Manny is a power child of the '00s. Even the highest camp has big, serious undertones, an important message to deliver, and the long-running Manny Show is about to deliver one right between the eyes. When Ramirez deposits his 500th homer in some seat, he will become the 24th player in history to crack that circle. Which might provoke some yawns in this era of big round numbers -- after all, Ramirez will be the fifth active player at that plateau, and two others (Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa) were still around last season.
But Ramirez will get there with a higher career batting average (.313) than any of his 19 predecessors since World War II.The only ones in Club 24 with higher marks are Babe Ruth, Jimmy Foxx and Ted Williams. That's some serious punchline. And so it will be an opportunity to appreciate Ramirez's skills as one of the most brilliant hitters in the game's history, and the work ethic and dedication behind that talent. It will be the droll Ramirez's moment of homage, like Steve Martin getting saluted at the Kennedy Center. Although, don't expect Ramirez himself to contribute to any ceremony. He isn't getting to 500 as much as rushing through it, treating the target as much more of a rest-stop than as a destination. Asked early this season about 500 as a goal, Ramirez had responded lightly, "Not really. I want to get to 600." Reporters aren't likely to ignore a lure, so one of them bit: "Well, what about 700?" Ramirez came right back, accommodatingly, "Hey, why not? The sky's the limit." Unless you are someone often accused of being a space cadet, as has been Ramirez, in which case not even that can hold you. But there has always been more, much more, to this living bobblehead doll than meets the eye. He is an endearing, complex guy. He may not have a somber thought in that head, but he doesn't have a mean bone in that body, either. He is portrayed as the clueless guy who moves around left field like someone getting off a roller-coaster ride -- yet he has committed only four errors in 260-plus games since 2005, and in 2005 led Major League outfielders with 17 assists. He is portrayed as someone who needs a compass to get around the bases -- yet he averages over 100 runs a season, and is adept at taking an extra base on lackadaisical outfielders. He is portrayed as unsociably introverted, or painfully shy, or arrogantly aloof, or whatever tag you wish to apply on someone who doesn't love dealing with the media -- but ... well, there's another side to that, too. A few years ago, before Kevin Millar got the Red Sox to Cowboy Up, he got Ramirez to open up. One day, a reporter approached Ramirez postgame, expecting nothing more than the obligatory interview request eliciting the usual rejection. "Got a second Manny?" "Not right now." Ah, there it was. But then Ramirez continued: "I want to go grab a soda. You want one, too? Here, sit down, I'll be right back." With that, Ramirez yanked his chair out of his locker, virtually pushed the reporter atop it, headed off and, sure enough, returned in a couple minutes with two cans and loose lips. All this enters into Manny Being Manny. Which he apparently digs. Ramirez told MLB.com's Ian Browne recently: "I love it, I love it. That means I'm important. I love it. I don't know what it means, but I love it. If people are thinking about you, it means you're important." Though hardly a bat-control freak, Ramirez treats a bat more as a divining rod, seeking open spaces, than as a sledgehammer. In the batter's box, his eyes are often spotted slyly canvassing the field, inputting fielders' positions into his mental computer. Then, when he makes contact, the ball invariably finds a gap. Unless it soars over the wall. Ramirez is one of about 50 players in history with more than 1,500 strikeouts. None of the others have hit for an average even approaching Ramirez's mark -- the tipoff on how hard and where he consistently hits the ball. His 2000-01 seasons offer a typical snapshot. In his final season in Cleveland and first in Boston, Ramirez combined to hit .326, despite 264 strikeouts. It meant that when he made contact in his other 694 at-bats, he was a .455 hitter those two years. Baseball watchers with trained eyes often describe Ramirez as the most comfortable, confident two-strike hitter they had ever seen. That is explained partly by the fact Ramirez often orchestrates that count, essentially painting the pitcher into a two-strike corner. "He sets pitchers up," says Johnny Damon, the current Yankees outfielder who saw that act up-close as Ramirez's Boston teammate for four seasons. "You strike him out on a pitch right down the middle and he pretty much says, 'Big deal. I'm going to get him the next time.'" Ramirez uttered the team equivalent of that last October, when the Indians held a 3-games-to-1 edge on the Red Sox in the American League Championship Series. Boston, of course, never lost again, blitzing by Cleveland then Colorado in the World Series. Meanwhile, Ramirez upped his lifetime playoff numbers to 24 homers, the all-time record, and 64 RBIs, second to Bernie Williams' 80. He is money. He is Manny. He is a Manny-splendored thing of baseball beauty, for whom the homer-tracker and the laugh-track will forever intertwine.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.