Open Mouth, Insert Football: Mannyball

Ben Morrow
Sports Columnist

Manny Ramirez was once the greatest right-handed hitter to ever pick up a bat (not named Albert Pujols or Ted Williams). His clutch, game-winning performances, his eccentric personality and his dominant swing combined to make him one of the more compelling figures of his era. (Some would add a fourth ingredient – a chemical ingredient. But that’s a different conversation.)

Manny’s impressive career began with the Cleveland Indians in 1993, with his most notable seasons lasting from 1995 to 2008. His career .313 batting average ranks him fourth all-time for hitters with more than 500 home runs (he has 555). Ramirez will be most widely known as a catalyst for bringing two long-awaited World Series titles to the Boston Red Sox in 2004 and 2007.

The problem now is that Manny doesn’t know his era is over. His latest effort at playing ball with kids half his age is starting to look like Manny being Granny.

In 2008, Ramirez demanded a trade from the Boston Red Sox in the middle of the season. The Sox shipped him to the L.A. Dodgers, and his performance has steadily declined ever since. Since 2008, Manny has a total of 28 home runs in 634 official at-bats, or an average of about one every 23 at-bats. His career average through 2008 was approximately one every 14 at-bats.

Like many aging athletes before him, however, Manny can’t stop coming back. Although he “retired” last year after being hit with a 50-game suspension for performance-enhancing drugs, Manny quickly realized that once a slugger stops jacking homers, the fans move on to the slugger who will.

He wasn’t ready to move on. He didn’t want to stop being Manny. At least not yet.

Ramirez signed a one-year minor league deal with the Oakland A’s this week for $500,000 that included an invitation to spring training. (It should be noted that Manny will still have to serve his 50 games before he can play.) It’s a move that has some pundits wondering whether A’s GM Billy Beane and Ramirez should consider retiring together. The two could discuss the days when both were still relevant to baseball, and by their mental powers combined they might uncover why Beane is still getting national recognition as such a baseball genius.

Let me stop there and digress for a moment. Yes, I read “Moneyball” (I didn’t see the Brad Pitt version. Too many mixed reviews, and it didn’t pass the smell test). But has anyone noticed the A’s in the standings the last couple of years? So why is Beane receiving all this love as a mastermind now?

“Moneyball – The Art of Winning an Unfair Game,” by Michael Lewis, is a New York Times bestseller written in 2003 covering the success of the 2002 Oakland A’s. Now I’m no math major, but that’s about a decade or so ago, right?

What the successful, long-awaited, and underachieving movie failed to reveal is once other GMs around baseball started adjusting to Beane’s way of doing business and evaluating talent the team hasn’t done jack squat. In fact, how many titles did they win in the height of “Moneyball’s” success? Precisely as many as you and I did.

If you want an example for my skepticism, look no further than this latest offseason. The Ramirez signing is just the tip of the iceberg. Anyone paying attention saw that Beane just traded away nearly his entire starting pitching staff – and not an overly priced staff at that – for pennies on the dollar before swooping in to sign Cuban slugger-to-be Yoenis Cespedes for $36 million. Now he signs Ramirez.

So is Beane buying or selling? No one knows. Maybe Moneyball 2.0, or Manny-ball, should be defined as “underpaying for over-the-hill sluggers and potential sluggers (but not actual sluggers) at the expense of pitching in the hopes the team can win each game with football scores. Maybe Beane is taking a cue from church-league softball. Who knows? Maybe he hopes they can win a majority of their games in the 23-22 range next year.

At any rate, this season we baseball fans will have to look in from time to time and see how this glorious combination of Manny being Granny and Billy Has-Beane work together. Beane is spending plenty of time on the red carpet of late. Maybe this production has a chance to make more at the box office than Moneyball 1.0. My prediction is it too will be a mediocre showing at best.

But what do I know? Don’t forget, I’m the guy who broke down for you all the reasons why Pujols would be back as a Cardinal this year. So much for that.

Maybe Mannyball is the new Moneyball after all.