As a high school baseball player, and for a brief time in college, I did everything and anything to improve my swing. Shortly into writing this column, I got an email from Mike Callaghan. Mike used to work at the Astoria Batting Range, where I would spend my Sunday evenings in high school. Mike would crank up the machine to 90 miles per hour, and I would hit range balls for about 45 minutes until they closed at 10 p.m. There were times when Mike would shut the lights in order to get me to leave, and I would stay and try to hit by the sound of the ball.
I did other nutty things to make myself a better hitter. I swung bats underwater and tried to hit numbered tennis balls as a way of developing a better eye at the plate. Once, in a tournament in Mississippi, I bought a mop from a discount store and jumped into the Radisson Hotel swimming pool. Since I was not allowed to bring a team bat into the pool, I took swings with the mop. It's a story that has followed me, I am embarrassed to say. (That story rarely includes me getting five hits in a nighttime doubleheader after using the mop, however.)
These types of crazy efforts are part of sports. Baseball lives through its folklore. In the end, players who love this game will do just about anything to get little bit better. Use of an illegal substance, however, is completely different. Whether you like Manny Ramirez or have spent the last 15 years rooting against him, his suspension is a blow to the game. He is almost without question the best pure hitter in the last 20 years.
I remember watching a tall skinny kid from George Washington High School play at Shea Stadium in 1988. Even then, Ramirez was a man amongst boys. Then, as a college student with Yankee season tickets (they were terrible back then), I saw Ramirez as a rookie with the Cleveland Indians. Only a few weeks into the majors, and he could make minced meat of Yankee pitching. My favorite memory of Ramirez, however, was when the Yankees beat the Red Sox in Game 7 of the 2003 American League Championship Series. I sat near home plate. I saw every terrifying at-bat where Ramirez threatened to end the Yankees' season. And then, in the 11th inning, I saw Aaron Boone's homerun sail over the left field wall, and more importantly, over Manny Ramirez's cocky swollen head. I remember him not even looking up at the ball. He simply walked off the field.
There is little that I like about Manny Ramirez, but I am disappointed in this recent news because he is a natural hitter. His talents require no supplements or enhancements. For years, baseball people would deal with his lack of intelligence by saying "let Manny be Manny." In other words, in order to not mess with his success, you are better served to ignore his two-cent head. But now, baseball cannot ignore it. It's one thing for people - critics and writers - to think the man is an idiot. Now, however, science tells us this.
Ramirez did not break any sacred records on an illegal substance like other players have done. But, for some reason, it feels worse with Ramirez. He never needed this. I hope he can be found innocent. If there is any player - or person - that can be injected by a doctor with a female hormone and not have questions about it, I suppose it would be Manny Ramirez. Watching Ramirez struggle to explain the unexplainable reminds me of an old Rodney Dangerfield line, "My old man was so stupid, he worked in a bank and they caught him stealing pens." Manny Ramirez will now know what it's like to get no respect.