IT IS THE FACE OF A GREAT SILENT COMIC, ONE THAT MACK SENNETT would have cast on the spot. It is open and broad. Part of the appeal is the huge brown eyes and another part is the wild, brambly hair above them. But mostly it comes from the ability to reveal most of the humor without sharing all of the joke. � He is smiling at them now, the Boston Red Sox fans clustered three-deep outside the glass windows of a radio booth tucked into a wall just below the more famous wall that rises above leftfield at Fenway Park. You can almost see the smile go through the glass and out into the crowd, see it ripple through them as they poke each other and smile back at him. Manny Ramirez smiles again, waves and touches his heart, and the crowd seems to buckle from the radiating joy of his grin.
A year ago it was impossible to imagine Ramirez here, suffering the endless reiteration that's the life force of sports-talk radio. A year ago, if you listened to the smart guys in baseball's Holy Office (particularly Cardinal McCarver, let alone the philosopher now d/b/a Bob on a Car Phone), the Boston leftfielder was a cancer, a malcontent; a guy who didn't run out fly balls, posed after his home runs, jaked out of a game in Philadelphia and, worst of all, hung out with guys who played for the New York Yankees. He blasphemed against the game, is what he did, and then he blasphemed against the Red Sox, which is worse.
This being the modern world, the Red Sox responded not with torches and a stake but by putting Ramirez and what was left of his eight-year, $160 million contract on irrevocable waivers in October 2003. Not a single team offered to take him, not even the Yankees, for whom the bait was clearly dangled. Nobody made a move for a guy who, with all this nonsense swirling around him, hit .325 in '03, second in the American League, while adding 37 home runs and 104 RBIs.
Nobody in baseball wanted Manny Ramirez, so here he stayed, and here he is, in the window, behind the microphone. This is supposed to mean something--that he's changed, that he's learned, that he realizes he owes some public obeisance to that vague (and endless) liturgy through which baseball celebrates itself. But that's simple, and it's wrong, if only because to cast him as the lead in a cheap redemption drama is to devalue his scope, to diminish the vast pleasure he takes in his skills, to confine him within limits he doesn't even see, let alone acknowledge. It is to reduce to tawdry orthodoxy one of the game's most brilliantly gnostic figures, a player occasionally as baffled by what he can do as is anybody in the stands watching him.
"I'm not doing anything different, man," Ramirez says, responding to a host's question. "I'm going out there and having fun, you know. Maybe talking a little more to the press, but that's it. I'm smiling no matter what, man. I don't got nothing to lose. I'm blessed. I got a big contract. I got nothing to worry about.
"This game is weird, man. That's the way it is. Sometimes you have it, and sometimes you don't, so I don't worry. The more relaxed you are, not having a lot of stuff on your mind, that's the best way to hit."
Now he's talking all about why he happened to go down to the Ritz-Carlton in Boston one night during the 2003 season, when he was supposed to be too ill to play in a crucial September series against New York, and met Enrique Wilson, a friend of his who plays for the Yankees.
"Enrique, man, you know, Enrique is my brother, man," Ramirez says, sitting up a little straighter behind his microphone. "You're my brother, you're my brother no matter what, no matter if you play for the Yankees or whoever."
Outside, on the sidewalk, they're all nodding now. Of course. How silly could we have been? Makes perfect sense. A fan from Medford is next on the air. Manny Ramirez smiles through the window, and, outside, they all seem to buckle again, as though a great warmth has come over them.
Baseball's central paradox always has been that it is a game of mysterious individual skills operating within a structure as formalized as the calendar of the saints. It is not kind to its gnostics, players so consumed by the study of their individual abilities that they've lost sight of the game's fundamental rituals, like marshaling their postgame clich�s or listening to bad country music on the clubhouse sound system. Baseball's orthodox theologians call these people "flakes," and they are always on the lookout for them, lest the game find itself unduly plagued with unusual ideas or alternative rock.