The Manny I saw when he signed with the Cleveland Indians as their first selection (No. 13 overall) in the 1991 First-Year Player Draft was a happy, engaged, lethal right-handed hitter with an ability to punish a pitcher. He was almost childish, enjoying the game in the same manner I did as a youngster in Little League. He didn't have a care in the world. He was a natural hitter. He had thunder in his bat. Pitchers feared him.
Along with hitters like Albert Belle and Jim Thome, Manny could bring fans in Cleveland to a frenzy with long, majestic drives far beyond the fences. That Manny, teamed with David Ortiz and their friends in Boston, ended an 86-year World Series championship drought.
This past weekend I saw Manny Ramirez trying to be the old Manny. I saw Manny trying to be an integral part of the River Cats team. I saw Manny strive to once again be relevant with a bat in his hand. I saw Manny trying to relax and do what he has done countless times before with such natural ability and ease -- hit a baseball like only the best hitters can hit a baseball.
I didn't see the former Manny Ramirez.
The Manny I saw this past weekend was trying too hard. He was pressing. He took pitch after pitch after pitch. Waiting. He was waiting for the fastball he could drive all the way to Mars. It didn't happen. All he saw was breaking balls, and it wasn't pretty.
After being away from the game for a while, he looked like he was trying to get his timing back. Timing is crucial to Manny's swing, but the clock keeps ticking. Manny isn't 19 anymore. He's 40.
I saw the same stance with the same pre-pitch mechanics. Looping the bat around while waiting for the pitch. He really wasn't comfortable at the plate. He looked out of sync. He wanted to use those fantastic hands -- that lightning quick bat speed to drive the ball. It just didn't happen.
With the exception of one situation when there were runners on first and third, Manny took every first pitch. Most were very hittable. He was waiting for the pitch he could drive. But a pattern emerged. He saw nothing but pitches on the outside corner.
It was the last swing in an at bat with runners on base that I won't forget. Manny could put the game out of reach with a base hit. He took pitches. Waiting. Down two strikes, Manny flailed hopelessly at a pitch a bit outside. He looked helpless. I had seen Manny pound that same pitch to the deepest parts of ballpark after ballpark countless times in the past. He lived to hit that outside pitch. Not this time.
Prior to his last game at Sacramento, Manny's manager, Darren Bush told me he felt Manny was "feeling more comfortable at the plate." He said Manny was an outstanding teammate and an extremely hard worker. "He shows up to play." That's the Manny I had seen year in and year out. He has always worked hard. He was constantly early to the clubhouse. He was constantly working on his hitting. He was obsessed with being a fantastic hitter, and he was just that, a fantastic hitter. And he was beginning to get more comfortable.
But then, during the lull before the game, a note came to the press box indicating Manny had asked for and had received his release from the Oakland Athletics. I wasn't surprised. I was sad.
When Manny received his release, he was hitting .302 with 14 RBIs for Sacramento. He had 69 plate appearances. He struck out 17 times and walked on five occasions. He had no home runs in the 17 games in which he played.
When I saw Manny this past Spring Training in Phoenix, Ariz., he looked totally uncomfortable at the plate. He was searching for his game. He was coming off the long layoff following his suspension and he was trying to regain his timing. He hit lots of ground balls. He had trouble getting loft on the ball. Interestingly, that's what I saw in Sacramento -- during batting practice and during the game. Not much loft. Few, if any, line drives. The motivation was evident, but not the results.
Manny is trying to play a younger man's game with an older man's skills.
The guy Indians scouts and front office personnel said at the time was one of the best right-handed hitters they had seen come out of high school is looking for a place to play.
Manny. Say the name and every baseball fan knows who that is. Just like Ichiro.
I remember talking with Manny about how he punishes pitchers. With great humility he looked at me and said, "Sometimes I get them, sometimes they get me."
Things change. Times change. The game has changed. Manny is taking pitches and looking for one he can drive.