In the new book “Glory Days in Tribe Town” (softcover $15.95 / 336 pages / ebook $9.99), Terry Pluto teams up with legendary broadcaster Tom Hamilton to tell the story of the Cleveland Indians of the 1990s. The book also includes personal recollections from dozens of Tribe fans. This excerpt looks at Manny Ramirez’s peculiar attitude and early years as a high school athlete.
“Well, that’s just Manny being Manny.”
Baseball fans heard that thousands of times about Manny Ramirez.Manny being Manny was why Ramirez stole second base in a game, then walked back to first and was tagged out. He said he thought Jim Thome had hit a foul ball. Thome had taken the pitch, which was a ball.
Manny being Manny was piling up hundreds of dollars in fines at video stores because he rented a few movies and forgot to return them—for years.
Manny being Manny was telling Manager Mike Hargrove that he couldn’t play “because of a sore throat.” That was in 1994.
Manny being Manny was him being hit in the chest . . . with a fly ball. He was in right field for Class AA Akron-Canton. He fell down as if shot by a bazooka. It went for a four-base error.
Manny being Manny was a paycheck left in his locker for months, in one of his cowboy boots. And it was bundles of $100 bills stuffed in his glove compartment.
Manny being Manny was jumping on the back of former Akron Beacon Journal baseball writer Sheldon Ocker and expecting Ocker to give him a ride. Ocker is about 5-foot-7, and Ramirez is 6-foot-1, 205 pounds. And it’s Manny agreeing to be interviewed by another writer, but stopping after two minutes: “I have to brush my teeth.” He left and never came back.
Manny being Manny was having two different agents representing him at the same time in 1999. And three different ones in 1995. Whenever Manny became friends with a player, he sometimes gravitated toward that player’s agent—creating problems for himself and his team.
Or as Tom Hamilton said, “To me, Manny being Manny was a very young guy who became perhaps the best right-handed hitter that I’ve ever seen. He was even better than Albert [Belle]. The only one who comes close is [Detroit’s] Miguel Cabrera.”
The Manny being Manny that Hamilton saw with the Tribe was the story of a young man from the Dominican Republic via Washington Heights in New York City. He reached the majors and found life overwhelming. While it’s not that simple, there is quite a bit of truth to it—at least when he was with the Tribe.
“We never saw the worst of Manny,” said Hamilton. “That happened after he got big money and went to Boston.”
The most Ramirez made with the Indians was $4.2 million in 2000, his final season. He then signed an eight-year, $160 million contract with Boston.
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Early in his life, Manny discovered that he could do one thing better than about anyone else—hit a baseball. And in his Dominican culture, so many boys and young men longed to do what Manny could do when he held a bat in his hands.
Because he could hit, exceptions were made and some excuses for selfish behavior were accepted.
Ramirez and his family moved to the Washington Heights section of New York when Manny was 13. His father drove a cab, his mother was a seamstress. Washington Heights is at the northern end of Manhattan. The vibe is definitely Dominican, the soundtrack a combination of salsa music and rap. English is a second language . . . a distant second. It was like that when Ramirez grew up there in the 1980s, and not a lot has changed. Drugs have been an epidemic. The walls of buildings have long featured colorful gang graffiti. It is two different worlds, one during the day and one at night. When the sun is out, so is the best of Washington Heights. The bodegas and restaurants are filled with working people, with senior citizens, with smiles and laughter coated with the smell of rice and beans.
During the time when Ramirez lived there, the nights were when too many drug dealers and thugs controlled the streets. The rest of Washington Heights retreated to their apartments. Doors were locked. Lots and lots of locks on the doors.
Manny went to George Washington High School. It opened in 1925, a lavish building with pillars in the front. It looked like an old lavish theater with marble floors and high ceilings. Among the famous alumni are Henry Kissinger, Jacob Javits, Harry Belafonte, Alan Greenspan and broadcasters Edwin Newman and Marvin Kalb.
And the school also had two Hall of Fame caliber hitters: Rod Carew and Manny, although Manny’s use of steroids definitely puts his Cooperstown credentials in question.
This was once an elite academic school, but it was more of a baseball powerhouse when Manny was there. At one point during Manny’s time at the school, there were about 4,000 students—at least 1,000 too many, according to a New York Times story. During Manny’s time, there were bars on some of the school windows, metal detectors at the doors.
Security men patrolled the halls. It was a preview of how many other urban schools would have to deal with the problem of keeping students and teachers safe.
The school has since been split into four branches, returning to its strong academic roots.
Manny’s coach was a man named Steve Mandl, who was inducted in the National High School Baseball Coaches Hall of Fame. That was in 2014, also Mandl’s 30th year teaching physical education and coaching at the same school.
Mandl was conflicted when talking about Manny in a 1997 interview.
Because of Manny, Mandl won a lot games and received a lot of media attention. In Manny’s senior year, the New York Times did an eight-part series on his high school team.
Let’s repeat that: In Manny’s senior year, the New York Times did an eight-part series on his high school team.
At the heart of most of the stories were Manny and Mandl.
“I never had a player work harder,” Mandl often said of Manny.
Mandl tells stories of Manny running through the streets of Washington Heights, a rope around his waist attached to a huge tire. He dragged it along a place called Snake Hill. He tells of how Manny would show up hours early for games or batting practice, but would skip team pictures and some meetings.
“He was a great talent, absolutely obsessed with baseball, especially hitting,” said Mandl.
The coach talked about Manny’s fear of being embarrassed and his tendency “to be a follower.” Mandl battled to keep Ramirez attending class. Ramirez never did graduate from George Washington, although he reportedly did later pick up a G.E.D.
Over the years, Ramirez would visit his high school. Once in a while, he’d take some of the players to a store and buy them equipment. But Mandl had asked him to purchase uniforms and help with the team in others areas. For a while, it seemed Manny agreed to do so, but he never followed up.
Later, their relationship became strained. Some believe it was because Mandl suggested to a few reporters that Manny may have had a learning disability. Or else, Manny just drifted away from his old coach for whatever reason. But it seemed Manny missed an opportunity to re-invest in the school and the team that helped launch his career.
Adapted from the book “Glory Days in Tribe Town” (c) 2014 by Terry Pluto and Tom Hamilton. Reprinted with permission of Gray & Company, Publishers. Available at Northeast Ohio bookstores and online from Amazon.com. For more information, call the publisher at 1-800-915-3609 or visit their web site: grayco.com.
Photo: Dan Mendlik/Cleveland Indians