Ahead in the Count

Manny…

posted by Dan Spring

 

Hearing the Yankees offer a pitcher who will, at most, play every fifth day $160 million dollars got me thinking about the absurdity of the free agent market which inevitably got me thinking about Manny…

 

Manny Ramirez joined the Dodgers last summer and, for the first time since 1989, Los Angeles became a baseball town again (and no, I don’t consider the Los Angeles Angels of Disneyland an LA team).   I saw enthusiasm this past summer at Dodgers Stadium that I had never seen before.  Casual fans were showing up early for batting practice, instead of arriving fashionably late in the 4th inning, and they were actually staying through the end of the 9th inning, instead of leaving fashionably early before the start of the 7th inning.  Here’s a brief outline of what attending a Dodgers used to be like for those of you living in other parts of the country. 

 

5pm: Get in the car

5pm – 8pm: Sit in traffic

8pm – 9pm: Watch Jason Schmidt not pitch and Jeff Kent play truly uninspired baseball

9pm – 11pm: Sit in traffic

11:30: Get home and promise yourself that you will NEVER do that again, even if you get free tickets.

 

But Manny changed all that (except the traffic).  He electrified the city.  Tickets started selling out (along with every piece of merchandise with “Ramirez 99” on it within a 100 mile radius) and as a result of his presence, the spirit inside the stadium was unlike anything I’d seen at Dodger Stadium in my 5 years living in L.A.  The lone exception to this was when I was fortunate enough to witness Steve Finely’s walk-off grand slam to beat Barry Bonds and the Giants and win the NL West a few years back.  For the record, when Finely actually hit the homerun in the bottom of the 9th to cap a SEVEN run inning, about half the seats were already empty. 

 

If you’ve ever been to a game in Yankee Stadium, Fenway or Wrigley, you know that when a starting pitcher gets to 2 strikes against the lead-off hitter, every fan is on their feet cheering for the strikout – even in the first week of June – three months before they know if their team will even make it to the playoffs.  Well, that is a brand of fan enthusiasm that rarely makes it inside Chavez Ravine, yet it actually happened in Dodger Stadium, in July¸ and in the FIRST INNING – a part of the game that, prior to Manny’s arrival, most Dodgers fans heard on AM radio in their cars as they sat in traffic on the 405.   When I closed my eyes during the first game I saw Manny play in L.A. , I just as easily could have been in New York , or Boston , or Chicago , or St. Louis .  It was awesome.

 

So what does this have to do with youth sports?

 

Well, as we all know, the only reason Manny ended up in L.A. was because he quit on his teammates by faking injuries so he didn’t have to hit against the “tough” pitchers, physically assaulted a Red Sox secretary in the clubhouse, and bad-mouthed his boss and the town of Boston in the media.  In other words, it was too much trouble for him to show up to “work” everyday in Boston and earn his $20+ million dollar salary.   And his reward for giving up on his teammates and disrespecting the game?   A trade to the city of his choice and another new multi-brazillion dollar contract waiting for him in the off-season.

 

As a coach who stresses the importance of attitude, commitment to teammates, and respect for the game above all else, I definitely felt conflicted about Manny’s arrival. 

 

On one hand, I loved seeing how excited our summer campers were after he arrived (it certainly didn’t hurt his stock that the second he got off the plane at LAX he immediately started hitting absolutely everything thrown at him).   Kids were showing up to camp every morning in Manny shirts and Manny do-rags reciting box scores and statistics.  As a lover of the game, there is little that fires me up more than seeing our campers excited about baseball.

 

Personally, I loved getting to watch him hit up and close and personal.  Like watching Greg Maddox pitch, watching Manny hit is a thing of beauty.   Those two guys are once-in-a-generation talents and to have them both within a few miles of my front door was a gift from the baseball gods.

 

On the other hand, it was difficult to stoke the camper’s enthusiasm about the Dodgers knowing that the only reason Manny was in L.A. was because he did absolutely everything in his power to get himself expelled from the Red Sox.  He was a horrible teammate, a terrible employee, and from all published reports, a total cancer in the clubhouse. 

 

So here we were at camp: Load your hands like Manny, but don’t jog to first like Manny when you hit a potential doubleplay ball.  Hit down on the ball and drive it to the opposite field like Manny, but don’t treat your teammates like Manny does.  Work your buts off in the cage like Manny, but remember, the left fielder is NEVER the cut-off from centerfield (my favorite baseball blooper ever, by the way).

 

Barry Bonds was justly vilified by his teammates and the media while simultaneously achieving incredible things on the field (we’ll have the steroid debate in another blog).  But how many kids ran around little league fields wearing “Bonds 45” their back?

Outside of the Bay Area, I’m guessing very few.   Barry was so easy to hate.  Not so much with Manny.  The paradox about Manny is that he can be both the clubhouse cancer and play (when he chooses to) with a youthful enthusiasm and joy for the game that is so appealing.

 

So what’s an educator supposed to do with a split personality like Manny who is the perfect personification of both the good and the bad?

 

I told the kids how hard Manny works in the batting cage, how he trains his eyes with vision exercises so difficult that his teammates won’t even attempt them, and how many hours he puts in the clubhouse studying film of opposing pitchers in the hopes that the campers take his preparation and dedication to hitting to heart.

 

And then I reminded them that one of the greatest right-handed hitters of our generation has also never won an MVP award, with the hope that they understand that being a truly great player requires far more than just performance on the field, it requires character off the field and in the clubhouse.  

 

For any further inquires about the marriage of on-the-field performance and off-the-field character, please see below.

 

 

– Spring

December 12, 2008 - Posted by | written by Dan Spring

1 Comment »

  1. An excellent posting by coach Spring. I would hesitate to vilify Manny without also vilifying the Red Sox organization, however. How many times can you call the best right handed hitter of our lifetime a “cancer in the clubhouse”, and how many times can you put a guy on waivers or try to trade him before he stops being the face of the franchise (I lived in Boston from 1999 through 2003, and that’s what he was), and starts dogging it.

    That said, it’s never ok to not leave it all out on the field. I worked for Ripken Baseball and the Aberdeen Iron birds in the summer of 2002, and there is nobody more respected and revered than Cal. At his youth camps, Cal stressed the importance of hard work, not just on the batting tee or taking ground balls, but also his hustle and diligence EVERY minute he was between the lines and in the dugout. While he was playing, if he wasn’t working to get the hit or turn the double play, he was working to make his teammates better, watching the pitcher’s delivery or move to the bases, or where the infielders or outfielders positioned themselves for each hitter. Playing SS at 6’4″, he wasn’t going to be the quickest fielder in the league, but he always seemed to be in the right place on the field, because he never stopped studying and working.

    There’s a reason the right way to play baseball is known in many circles as “The Ripken Way”.

    Comment by Coach Fisher | December 30, 2008


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