Boo Him, Eject Him -- Mannywood, Population 1, Ambles On
NEW YORK – The good citizens here rarely need justification to boo. They'd jeer a cockroach scurrying across subway tracks just as quickly as they'd hiss a nun moving too slowly in the crosswalk.
But it wasn't until the fifth inning of Tuesday's game at Citi Field that New Yorkers truly cleared their lungs. Whatever gunk had been accumulating – soot, rage over the home team's incompetence, disgust at cheating ballplayers – got expunged in a massive exhale, as Manny Ramirez threw a tantrum and was ejected for acting like a petulant baby.
Mariotti: Fans Glorifying Manny Need to Get a Life
Was this crew chief John Hirschbeck's way of telling Ramirez he should have more deference for the sport and its rules? Perhaps, and though the men in blue have hardly had a stellar spring or summer, there was something purifying about the home plate umpire showing Ramirez he was sick of the Dodger slugger's whining and disrespectful gyrations.
It was Ramirez's fourth at-bat in a laugher Los Angeles would win, 8-0. Already he had three RBI and one strikeout, with Hirschbeck ringing Ramirez up in the first inning on a 3-2 pitch that kissed the plate's outside corner. Hirschbeck's strike zone was generous, clearly, but Ramirez had been treated fairly by the full house in his third start since returning from a 50-game suspension for violating baseball's drug policy. Ramirez was booed in his first plate appearance in his hometown, but it wasn't the kind of vitriol New Yorkers showered on Barry Bonds when he came visiting, and it was a whisper compared to the fury Mets fans have been known to bestow on their own closers when they blow a game. (Somewhere, John Franco and Armando Benitez felt their ears burning.)
"Ster-oids! Ster-oids," sang most of the fans as Ramirez sauntered to the plate. "Man-ny! Man-ny!" came the chant from other pockets. New Yorkers do love a good argument.
The first time Hirschbeck called strike three, Ramirez briefly argued, and the conversation continued from the visitor's dugout, where TV cameras caught him barking at the ump. The second time Hirschbeck called strike three, there were two outs, the bases were loaded and the fans' throats were sufficiently lubed.
Pitcher Mike Pelfrey got Ramirez blinking on a slider away, and Ramirez responded by tossing his helmet. As he walked toward left field, Ramirez then flipped his elbow guard in the direction of Hirschbeck, who was looking elsewhere. Hirschbeck's delayed response was brilliantly timed, if only because Mets fans needed a reason not to start doing swan dives off the Triborough Bridge. As soon as Hirschbeck raised his arm to signal Ramirez's night was done, Citi Field imploded. The Mets might never win another game, but at least they had this one despair-snapping moment.
"He's human, he makes mistakes," Ramirez said later of Hirschbeck. "That's a ball. I only play five innings so I was leaving anyway, so that was good. It wasn't a big deal."
Ramirez lives in the moment, for the moment. If he has any regrets about the suspension that he jokingly calls his "criminal behavior," he has no desire to share them with the world. If he cares about the consequences of his sometimes-irrational actions, he rarely admits it.
He was as carefree as a hummingbird early in the day, when he spotted the ultra-large media blob waiting for him at Citi Field. "Guess I'm the most wanted man alive," Ramirez cracked, and when he told reporters to "put in a good word for the All-Star Game next year," it was clear whatever remorse he might be feeling is probably limited to the $8 million hit his bank account took. Baseball questions only, Ramirez warned reporters, as if the how and why behind his suspension had nothing to do with baseball.
MLB dodged a travesty with Ramirez finishing seventh among NL outfielders in fan voting for starting All-Star spots, but the sport will continue to take a hit as long as one of the game's most popular players persists on acting as if his unpaid leave was a harmless vacation. Dodgers manager Joe Torre implored Ramirez to answer all questions about his suspension honestly, with a dash of humility, but as he did in San Diego over the weekend, Ramirez swatted away inquiries with mindless indifference.
The more he repeated that he didn't want to talk about the past, the more Manny sounded like Mark McGwire. Ramirez wouldn't say why he was caught with a prescription for human chorionic gonadotropin, the drug prescribed for women undergoing IVF treatments in the hope of getting pregnant. When men use HCG, experts say it is because they are trying to restore natural testosterone levels in an attempt to help the body cycle off steroids. Say what you want about Alex Rodriguez's conflicting statements during his press conference where he admitted using performance-enhancing drugs, but at least A-Rod acted as if he understood his role in the contamination and corruption of an entire era. Either Ramirez hasn't a clue or, more likely, he simply doesn't care.
As Ramirez sparred with the media, longtime Dodger coach Manny Mota stood off to a side, rotating the mirror on Ramirez so it reflected a different angle. "He works harder than anybody on this team. You should see the way the younger kids look up to him and want to be like him," Mota said. "Manny brings us so much energy and fun and positive vibrations. I don't know how you can't appreciate that."
The Boston Red Sox, Ramirez's former team, would add that Ramirez committed the most egregious crime of all by quitting on his teammates so he could force a trade and sign a new contract. The kids at George Washington High, the school on the northern edge of Manhattan that Ramirez attended, would add that Manny has reneged again and again on promises to donate cash and baseball equipment to their dirt-poor programs.
The Dodgers still see Ramirez through rose-colored goggles. They've reinstated the Mannywood section in left field at Dodger Stadium, which promises to be a financial windfall. The Dodgers proved to be a very good team without Ramirez, but with him they are a traveling circus that packs ballparks, clogs TV airwaves and sprinkles dollar bills on everyone affiliated with baseball. The sport continues to profit from its sins.
New York was thought to be Ramirez's grand test, a city sure to torment and taunt him for his cheating ways. But fans here, like elsewhere, sounded mostly like they don't much care what Ramirez did to his body while thumbing his nose at the lofty idea of fair play. In San Diego, Ramirez was treated as though he was returning from a pulled hammy. At Citi Field, he was hissed and jeered, but not much more than any other player who hurts the Mets.
Sure, they mocked his eyes and his timing on those two strikeouts -- was it all the games he missed or the lack of drugs? -- but then came the sound of tens of thousands of fans collectively choking in the second inning when Ramirez slapped a bases-loaded, broken-bat blooper into center field. Two runs scored, the scoreboard flipping to 3-0, Dodgers, and Ramirez's RBI single in the fourth made it 5-0.
"Man-ny! Man-ny!" grew the chants, bolder and louder than before. He froze, then pouted, then got tossed in his final at-bat, but as he audaciously noted later, he never planned to play more than five innings. His solipsism is truly Hall of Fame material.