COMPLETING THE (BASEBALL) CIRCLE OF LIFE
How anxious was Manny Ramirez to play in his first meaningful game in more than a year? Well, this is how excited he was: the Dreadlocked One flew into Albuquerque a day early, just so he could get in a few early hacks before his 10-game minor league stint began. That was yesterday, when A’s Director of Player Development Keith Lieppman—of all people—snapped this rather telling photo of Manny entering Isotopes Park in his maroon Sacramento River Cats uniform. Of course, Lip proudly reminded me that he did major in photo journalism during his college days at the University of Kansas.
I suggested to our baseball brass that it might take a little pressure off Manny and the Albuquerque Isotopes’ PR director if I flew to New Mexico and organized a couple of pre-game media sessions with Ramirez in the dugout. I arrived this morning and the first media fest was staged this afternoon, comprised solely of local journalists, with the Associated Press the only national presence. One writer asked Manny why he decided to try a comeback now. After all, he had already accomplished more than most players in Major League history. Manny answered the question with a question. “Why not?” asked the man with 555 career home runs and 1,831 RBI. Essentially, his reason was simple. This is what he does, and has done for almost his entire life, dating back to his days growing up in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan, where he was named New York City Public School Player of the Year as a senior at George Washington High School. And like all the great ones—Ted Williams, Stan Musial, Rod Carew, Tony Gwynn—Manny loves nothing in life more than swinging a bat. Former teammate Scott Hatteberg tells the story of when they were Red Sox teammates at spring training one year. “Manny drives into the parking lot in his sports car, opens the door and climbs out already wearing his batting gloves. That’s how much he loves hitting.”
Tonight, he’ll finally find himself penciled into a lineup. He’s batting third for the River Cats, followed by the twin towers, Chris Carter and Michael Taylor. But preceding the game here in Albuquerque, the Isotopes are staging a celebrity softball game between a team of actors that includes Bryan Cranston of “Breaking Bad” and Lou Diamond Phillips of “La Bamba” and “Young Guns” fame, and the Wounded Warriors, a group of veterans who have lost limbs in service to their country (and have recently been featured in a segment of “Bryant Gumbel’s Real Sports” on HBO). I understand that many of the veterans sat in the stands at last night’s game, and they had a visitor. Manny Ramirez, who by Major League rules was required to leave the field at the end of batting practice, stayed around and came up to visit with the U.S. military men. He shared his new-found faith, the tough lessons he has learned, and how he’s thankful to be given a second chance—in baseball and in life. Going full circle, from Phoenix, to Albuquerque, to Round Round, to Sacramento, and hopefully on his 40th birthday (May 30), to Minneapolis, where he hopes to make solid contact for the Oakland A’s in a big league game. How sweet the sound.