The Manny Ramirez experiment moves to Colorado Springs, where Triple-A Iowa’s new player/coach will try to repair his image and mentor some of the can’t-miss prospects the Cubs are betting on now.
After getting in shape at the team’s Arizona complex, Ramirez will be activated for Thursday’s doubleheader, joining Javier Baez and Kris Bryant, two powerful right-handed hitters the Cubs believe could anchor their lineup for years to come at Wrigley Field.
No one disputes Ramirez is a kind of hitting savant, putting up 555 homers and a .996 career OPS while quietly studying pitchers, breaking down video and working out at Fenway Park the mornings before night games. That production helped the Boston Red Sox win two World Series titles and turned Dodger Stadium into “Mannywood.”
It’s the personality quirks and the off-the-field issues. Even those numbers come with an asterisk after Ramirez got suspended 50 games for violating baseball’s drug policy in 2009, and “retired” two years later after failing another test.
Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein believes Ramirez has turned his life around and can offer some perspective to young players. Epstein wondered how many other potential Hall of Famers would go back to the minors to keep playing at age 42, after earning more than $200 million.
Epstein said Ramirez deserved another chance after finding religion and cooperating with Major League Baseball investigators. Ramirez made a better impression across the last two seasons, playing 47 games combined with the Triple-A affiliates for the Oakland A’s and Texas Rangers.
As Red Sox general manager, Epstein had to engineer a three-way trade at the 2008 deadline and ship Ramirez out of Boston. (That October, Ramirez would torture the Cubs by hitting two homers during a three-game playoff sweep.) Jonathan Papelbon – Boston’s eccentric closer at the time – unloaded on Ramirez in a 2009 Esquire profile.
“Manny was tough for us,” Papelbon told the magazine. “You have somebody like him, you know at any point in the ballgame, he can dictate the outcome of the game. And for him not to be on the same page as the rest of the team was a killer, man!
“It just takes one guy to bring an entire team down, and that’s exactly what was happening. Once we saw that, we weren’t afraid to get rid of him. It’s like cancer. That’s what he was. Cancer. He had to go. It sucked, but that was the only scenario that was going to work. That was it for us. And after, you could feel it in the air in the clubhouse.”
Epstein had discussed the idea of inviting Ramirez to spring training as a guest instructor, and it evolved from there. The move still shocked the baseball world on Memorial Day weekend.
“The more I thought about it,” Epstein said last month, “the more I realized that as long as Manny’s intentions were pure, and that he’s coming at this from the right place – and I believe he is – then the player/coach setup could possibly work. Because he’s only going to be playing once a week, twice a week at the most.
“As a player/coach, there are no boundaries with his teammates. Sometimes, when you’re a coach, no matter how well you can communicate, no matter how well you can connect with players, there’s always a little bit of a boundary there.
“One person’s a coach, one person’s a player. But as a teammate, there’s often full transparency and you can admit things (about) your mental approach and your anxieties in the box and things like that. So I actually think it could work and I became more comfortable with that concept.”