Hero. Cheat. Prodigy. Ingrate. Free spirit. Knucklehead. Hall of Famer. Pariah. Enigma. Manny Ramirez, one of the great right-handed hitters of his generation, who retired from baseball this month after once again testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs, was many things to many people — fans and family and teammates from Santo Domingo to Washington Heights to Cleveland to Boston. Sara Rimer, then a reporter for The New York Times, met Ramirez in 1991 at George Washington High School in Manhattan. Over two decades, she enjoyed a memorable and mystifying acquaintanceship with Ramirez.
When I heard that Manny Ramirez had retired, the first person I called was his high school coach, Steve Mandl. I reached him at George Washington High School in Upper Manhattan, where he has coached varsity baseball for 27 years.
He was sad and stunned. I pictured him at the dented metal desk in his cramped office, where a 20-something Manny Ramirez in his Cleveland Indians uniform looms from the autographed poster that hangs on the wall.
“Steve,” I said, “that was real, wasn’t it — the Manny in high school, that swing, his work ethic, all that pure talent?”
“Oh, yeah,” Mandl said, “that was real.”
And then the coach had to run.
I stumbled upon the George Washington Trojans of Washington Heights in the spring of 1991. The high school was bursting with new immigrants, and the 25 varsity baseball players were all Dominican.
Mandl invited me to spend the season following the team. He told me he had a great hitter, an 18-year-old from Santo Domingo who got the bat around faster than any other high school player he had seen.
I knew next to nothing about baseball, but even someone with the scantest technical knowledge of the game or the mechanics of hitting could recognize that Ramirez was a star in the making.
I don’t remember the first time I saw that quicksilver swing. What I remember is what it felt like to be there on that rock-hard artificial surface atop the hill next to the high school, among his euphoric teammates and fans shouting his name, merengue blasting from someone’s boom box in the concrete bleachers behind the third-base line, the major league scouts lined up behind home plate as Manny came up to bat in his baggy black-and-orange secondhand uniform and red cleats and slammed one home run after another, day after day.
Up in the stands Manny’s beautiful 16-year-old girlfriend, Kathy Guzman, would practically be swooning. A vendor in a Yankees cap would push a grocery cart serving pastelitos and the sweet, blended orange juice and milk concoction known as a morir soñando: to die dreaming.
Manny, batting .650, walloped 14 home runs in 22 games. Not one of those home runs was on television or saved on videotape. Mandl could barely keep the team in baseballs and gloves let alone think about videotaping his future major leaguer.
But maybe it’s better that way. Those home runs, the memory of them, are part of the Manny that belongs to Washington Heights. He was the shy, happy-go-lucky boy with the perfect swing who everyone knew was going to the major leagues. The boy who loved to hit more than anything else. The boy who worked harder than anyone else. The baby-faced boy who never drank anything stronger than the nonalcoholic Puerto Rican eggnog from the corner bodega he chugged to bulk up.
That was the Manny who at least seemed knowable, before he disappeared behind the wall of all that surreal major league fame and money. Who is the real Manny? The 18-year-old prospect with everything ahead of him, or the 38-year-old major leaguer who walked away from baseball rather than face a 100-game suspension after testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs for the second time in recent years? Who knows?
‘See the ball. Hit the ball.’ Far.
But perhaps Manny was never more himself than when he was an adolescent, playing for George Washington and Washington Heights. Maybe that was Manny at his most essential, when more than at any other time he could live by what later became his maxim: “See the ball. Hit the ball.”
One of the home runs: George Washington was playing Brandeis High School at home. The Brandeis pitcher, Kiki Valdez, was one of Manny’s best friends. His first time at bat, Manny clobbered a home run.
The second time he came up, he tapped home plate with his bat, the way you would see him do it later in the majors. He was ready, as perfectly balanced as a ballerina, as Mandl put it.
Then he called a timeout, taking his right hand off the bat. But the umpire did not give it to him.
Everyone who was there swears Manny did not have time to get his right hand back on the bat, that he swung with one hand. I can’t really say that I saw it. Maybe I was too busy taking notes.
The ball went over the left-field fence and all the way to the old handball courts on the street below. It had to be more than 400 feet. His teammates and the fans were screaming: “Oh my God! Oh my God!”
Mandl, coaching third base, tried to maintain his cool. He may have muttered an astonished expletive under his breath as he waved home Rafael Gonzalez, who had been on first, followed by Manny.
In those days Manny did not indulge in major league theatrics. He simply ducked his head and ran home, into the arms of his teammates.
In the playoffs, the Trojans were facing their rival, Kennedy, on Kennedy’s turf in the Bronx. Manny slammed a shot that came so close to hitting the apartment building beyond the center-field fence that the people who had been watching the game from the building’s terrace ran for cover.
Gonzalez had been standing behind home plate when Manny came up to bat that day. Fifteen years later, I sat with Rafael and his wife, Claribelkis, who had been his high school sweetheart, in their living room across from George Washington on a wintry February afternoon while Rafael, home from his Army tour of duty in Iraq with a Purple Heart, recalled the sound of Manny’s aluminum bat connecting with that ball.
“I’ll never forget that sound,” Rafael said. “I’d never seen anything hit, thrown or shot that far.”
Manny hated being the center of attention. He just wanted to be one of the guys. That was one of the things people loved about him. He’d hit, say, two home runs and a triple for the Trojans. Then he’d go back to his block, and the men on the corner would ask how he had done.
Manny would just shrug and say, “I went 0 for 3.”
But you cannot have a swing like that, a swing that is going to take you to the majors and bring you a $160 million contract with the Red Sox, a $7 million penthouse at the Ritz-Carlton condominiums in downtown Boston and two World Series championships, and keep being one of the guys.
I don’t think I ever got to sit down to talk with him for more than a few minutes at a time. It did not help that I did not know a word of Spanish, while Manny, who had arrived in Washington Heights at 13, spoke little English. He did invite me to his family’s sixth-floor walk-up tenement apartment to meet his father, who drove a livery cab, and his mother, who stitched blouses in a factory, and two of his three older sisters.
It eventually dawned on me that I did not need to talk to Manny. The way to know him was to watch him hit — and run up a hill with a tire.
Working on His Speed
At the start of his senior season some of the scouts had put out the word that they thought he needed more speed on the bases. So he started running up the steep hill beside the high school in the early morning with an automobile tire roped around his waist. The cafeteria ladies on their way to George Washington, the factory workers heading to the subway for the morning shift downtown, everyone cheered him on. It was as if he were pulling all of them up the hill with him.
Those were hard years in Washington Heights, when it seemed like the only people getting out of the barrio were the dealers selling crack cocaine to customers who poured in from the suburbs over the George Washington Bridge.
That season sports did what it was supposed to do. Manny gave people something to feel hopeful about. Everyone could dream along with him.
So much could have gone wrong. One day that spring a gun battle erupted a couple blocks from the high school. Gonzalez and another teammate, walking home after a game, had to jump under a parked car.
Sure, there were some signs Manny was flaky and naïve and easily led by others. But for all his in-the-moment free-spiritedness, Manny must have already known something about protecting his talent.
Back then the high school, with 4,000 students overflowing a building designed for 2,000, was a place where even the most committed students struggled to get an education. There may have been teachers who gave Manny a pass when it came to grades. Maybe that was when he began to realize that for a gifted athlete like him, the rules did not apply.
Unless hitting was involved, he could be maddeningly unreliable. He didn’t show up for team pictures or meetings or even the day Ken Burns dispatched a film crew to George Washington to film the Trojans for his baseball documentary. He stood up the major league scouts, too. It wasn’t like they were going to stop coming to see him.
Manny worshiped his mother, Onelcida. She and his sisters doted on him. His father, Aristides, however, seemed convinced that his son was a bum who would never amount to anything.
Manny turned 19 at the end of that May. He did not graduate from high school. The Cleveland Indians drafted him in the first round, signing him with a $250,000 bonus.
A Glowing Report
Wary about taking on a kid from Washington Heights, the Indians had dispatched Winston Llenas, a Dominican former major leaguer, to visit Manny at home and size up his character. Llenas came back with a glowing report: Manny was a nice kid from a hard-working, immigrant family.
A few weeks into June, Joe DeLucca, the Indians scout who had signed Manny, picked him up at his apartment in his blue Cadillac Seville. Manny was off to Burlington, N.C., to start his professional career in the rookie leagues.
DeLucca had one rule for Manny: Don’t let anyone talk to you about changing your swing.
Two years later, in September 1993, the Indians called up Manny to the majors, and within days he was back in New York, at Yankee Stadium.
By then I had moved to Boston as The Times’s bureau chief. I flew to New York to write about Manny’s hometown debut. The afternoon of the game Manny showed up at his favorite neighborhood restaurant, Las Tres Marias, and ate fried steak and plantains with several of his high school teammates.
A block away, his father stood on the sidewalk outside their apartment building, bragging to everyone who walked by. Manny’s mother and three sisters went to Ana’s beauty salon to get their hair done.
Carrying homemade banners, a parade of his friends, and past and present Trojans, walked across the Macombs Dam Bridge to Yankee Stadium that night.
Manny hit two home runs and a double that night. Then he went home and partied with his block into the early morning.
Not long afterward, Manny presented Mandl with the oversize, autographed poster that still hangs on his office wall. Season after season, the varsity baseball players would stare at the poster and ask Mandl the same questions:
Is it true Manny ran up the hill with the tire?
How did he learn to get the bat around that fast?
How does he wait for his pitch the way he does?
How can he go 0 for 3 and not care?
Why doesn’t he cut his hair?
The Trojans would fantasize about Manny coming back and helping them with their hitting. They would ask Mandl: Why doesn’t he come back?
Mandl would shake his head. It was complicated and painful to talk about. He did not understand that part, either.
In 1991, it was all about getting out of the barrio. That was the dream: getting as far away from Washington Heights as possible, or at least over the George Washington Bridge to New Jersey.
In the beginning, when he was still with the Indians, Manny did come back during the off-season. He took his former high school teammates shopping for the designer clothes he had taken to wearing. He would walk into the George Washington cafeteria and the lunch ladies would ply him with pizza. Manny being Manny, he never called ahead.
As he failed to do so again one winter afternoon when Mandl was in the gym after school talking to the team about — what else — hitting. Manny strolled into the old gym as casually as if he were just another Trojan.
Mandl tried not to make a deal out of it. “Oh, speaking of hitting, ‘Hi, Manny,’ ” he said.
The Trojans, huddled on the floor around Mandl, could not believe it.
“Manny, want to say a few words about hitting?” Mandl said.
The young Trojans were as focused on Manny as they had ever been on any fastball flying toward them at the plate.
And then the great hitter spoke: “See the ball. Hit the ball.”
Mandl had always assumed Manny would help out his old team, though he made a point of not asking him for anything. The players desperately needed new uniforms, at a cost of about $7,000. One of Mandl’s former assistant coaches put in the request to Manny. Manny said, “Sure.”
But then he stuck Mandl with the bill. That was around the time he stopped talking to his former high school coach.
It seemed to stem from a misunderstanding that started when sportswriters asked Mandl why his former star committed so many wacky errors in the field. Mandl gave what he thought was an honest explanation: Maybe Manny had attention deficit disorder.
Mandl did not mean it as an insult. He would never hurt Manny. He was sure a lot of major league ballplayers had A.D.D. Mandl even wondered if A.D.D. had been his problem as a kid; maybe that was why he could never focus on school or anything except baseball.
The comment was tabloid news, and somehow it got translated back to Manny that his high school coach was telling everyone he was stupid. Manny was sensitive about his intelligence and easily hurt. Mandl became a nonperson. Mandl wished he could talk to Manny, explain things to him. But you did not call Manny, Manny called you.
A couple of weeks ago a friend gave me a gift: a pair of tickets to Fenway Park. The Red Sox were playing the Tampa Bay Rays, Manny’s latest team. They were the best seats of my life, right along the third-base line. My friend thought I would enjoy being that close to my favorite player.
You could smell the grass. You could see Johnny Damon’s dimples when he came up to take his practice swings for the Rays.
But Damon’s former Red Sox teammate was absent. Manny had retired from baseball that Friday. The game unfolded without Manny’s dreadlocks and goofy smile, the anticipation of what he might do with his bat.
I thought back to one of the last times I had talked to him. It was October 2003. The Red Sox were playing in the American League Championship Series against the Yankees.
I had gone up to Washington Heights to check in on Manny’s former high school teammates. I found eight of them watching the first game of the series in the basement of a bodega near Manny’s old apartment. They sat on milk crates, glued to a 19-inch color television wedged on a shelf between cans of evaporated coconut milk and beans and bags of rice.
Manny got his first hit, an infield single. In the basement of the bodega, the former Trojans, now in their early 30s, burst into cheers.
Carlos Puello, who was on a break from his job as a hospital boiler room operator, said, “It’s the same swing.”
When my article about Manny’s high school teammates ran in The Times a couple of days later, I happened to be in Vermont.
My cellphone rang.
“Hi,” said a familiar-sounding voice on the other end. “This is Manny Ramirez. Do you remember me? You wrote about me when I was a little kid.”
His Dominican former Little League coach from Washington Heights, Carlos Ferreira, known by the nickname Macaco, had given Manny my number.
“Are you going to the game tonight?” Manny asked me.
I laughed. “Well,” I said, “I’d love to go, but who can get tickets?”
Manny said: “I’ll leave you tickets for tonight’s game with Macaco.”
So I flew to New York, and took a cab to Yankee Stadium. The whole time I was thinking it was a setup, some kind of Manny-being-Manny joke.
I stood in front of a Yankee Stadium gate and called Macaco on his cellphone.
Macaco was waiting for my call. I sat with him and Carlos Puello in the stands behind the third-base line. Manny didn’t get a hit, but it didn’t matter.
I know it was real; I still have the ticket stub. But it was something like a dream, which is what Manny is now for all of us who followed him, who were thrilled and saddened and confused by him.
And who miss him, and will.