Ted Williams was one of those players, so dedicated to the minute refinement of his hitting that he lost track of his family. Steve Carlton was another, silent throughout his great pitching career until long after he retired, when he started to grant interviews that revealed that his mysterious devotion to his craft was nothing compared to the strangeness of his geopolitical views. If it were simply conformity set against nonconformity, this wouldn't be half so interesting. Instead, it's a matter of an athlete's going so deeply inside his remarkable talent that he seems to vanish to the rest of the world. He becomes his talent, indivisible from it, and invisible even to those who have that same talent to a lesser degree.
"It's something that goes on in his head," says Johnny Damon, who plays next to Ramirez in the Red Sox outfield. "Like, the other night, he took a swing because he wanted to get pitched that [same] way."
Let's begin with the swing, then, because that's the heart of Manny Ramirez. The head stays down and the hands stay back, so he sees the ball "deeper," as the hitting coaches put it. And then the whip through the hitting zone and the high finish, the great flourish, even when he misses.
Professional hitters talk about the swing as though it's a living thing, something with which they're not completely familiar. "You see this guy's bat speed, and you know you can't teach that," says Red Sox first baseman Kevin Millar. "You can't teach a guy like [ Philadelphia closer] Billy Wagner, who's all of 5'9", to throw 100 miles per hour, and you can't teach somebody to swing 150 miles per hour through the zone."
Ramirez's swing--especially the great late explosion--gets to rattling around in the heads of pitchers, making them wonder whether even his bad cuts have a purpose to them. "He'll go up there and swing at ball three just to get you to throw it again," says Red Sox reliever Alan Embree. Ramirez himself dismisses that notion as fanciful, however useful the tactic might be. "No, man, I don't waste swings," he says. "It is fast up there, so you got to make up your mind what to do. All I try to do is stay focused and stay relaxed. When I'm in the box, I don't even hear nothing."
The swing carried the Red Sox through the early part of the season. Shortstop Nomar Garciaparra didn't play until June 9, the Red Sox' 57th game, and Trot Nixon didn't see his first action until six games later. Instead, Boston had solid pitching and Manny Ramirez, who came out of May batting .349 with 14 home runs and 37 RBIs, while no other regular on the team was hitting higher than .280.
It was the swing that got Ramirez to where he is. He's the son of a cabdriver and a seamstress who'd come from the Dominican Republic to the Washington Heights section of Manhattan in 1985. Aristide Ramirez drove his cab all over the city while Onelcida made dresses, piecework, in a factory and doted on her son.
"The way I am," Manny says, "that's my mom. She was never mad, always happy."
Ramirez's first coach wanted to make him a pitcher because he couldn't hit the ball. He refused, insisting on playing the outfield, because it was hitting that lit him up from inside. It was hitting that spread the grin across his great Toltec face. He worked on the swing until the swing was the statement of who he was. And he enjoyed himself along the way. He hung with his friends at Las Tres Marias, a small restaurant where they'd go to eat huge meals and guzzle orange juice after games. He argued with his friends who were Yankees fans, because Ramirez was devoted to the Toronto Blue Jays of the 1980s, a team with several Latin stars, including shortstop Tony Fernandez and fractious outfielder George Bell. He was drafted by the Cleveland Indians in '91, straight out of George Washington High.
Ramirez brought the swing to the majors in late 1993, and by '95 he was an All-Star. In six full seasons with Cleveland he put up baroque numbers--he batted .319 and averaged 36 homers and 123 RBIs a year. Most remarkably, in his final two seasons as an Indian he drove in 287 runs in 265 games. In Cleveland he also developed a reputation for being one of the game's more mysteriously blithe spirits. He dyed his hair orange. He borrowed teammates' bats. He borrowed their pants. He left a paycheck behind in one of his boots. He sent a clubhouse attendant out to wash his car, offering to pay the guy with some money he had in the glove compartment, and when the attendant looked in the glove box, he found more than $10,000 in cash.