Some things never change

Damn, it feels good to beat Manny.

Ramirez’s return to Beantown marked last weekend’s Red Sox-Dodgers series, and it meant different things to different fans — a fact made clear by a seemingly divided Fenway crowd.

For me, the series presented an opportunity to see my Sox spank Manny—and Joe Torre—for three games. Which they did.

I had mixed feelings about the eccentric slugger when he wore the Sox emblem. My tolerance for his characteristic whimsy has waned since his departure, and his performance during the recent series was a sour reminder of why I was mostly glad to see him go in 2008.

It’s not that the outfielder’s antics were too imprudent for me—I’m a tolerant enough person, especially with a guy who batted .312 with 868 RBIs and 274 home runs over eight years in Boston — but I feel compelled to point out I never once shrugged off his behavior as “Manny being Manny,” as so many Sox fans did. It’s one thing to have a quirky personality; it’s another thing entirely to commit crucial errors on fundamental plays in the field and run the bases like an amateur.

At any rate, he proved last weekend that even Torre’s tough management style in Los Angeles hadn’t been enough to break his lackadaisical spirit.

Manny was on first—with an inadequate lead, I’m sure—when James Loney grounded into a potential double play. Manny jogged out of the basepath, making no attempt whatsoever to disrupt the inning-ending twofer.

Not that a better effort would have necessarily changed the outcome (nor was I unhappy with the result, which worked out to my team’s advantage), but Manny’s effort, especially on that particular play, is a good example of the laziness which mars his near-impeccable statistical record.

I don’t expect every professional ballplayer to be a top-rate baserunner, just as I don’t expect every batter to record a slugging percentage over .400, or every infielder to come up with every well-hit ground ball. Some players don’t hit the long ball. Some players haven’t, and never will, win a Golden Glove. Some players — David Ortiz comes to mind — can’t run the bases any better than a little leaguer.

But most players put forth the effort at every turn. Most players sprint out infield grounders and try to break up double plays. Most players work to hone and master their situational awareness, both on the bases and in the field — Manny has been playing pro ball since 1993, and I refuse to believe he isn’t capable of running the bases like a professional.

I think he’s just lazy. And those who make millions of dollars every year—or, as in Manny’s case, tens of millions—don’t get to be lazy. They just don’t.

Compare his effort to that of Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia, who a few innings earlier had stolen second with Ortiz batting, and, knowing the infield shift was on for the southpaw slugger, popped up from his slide and took third when the throw went wide.

Compare Manny’s effort to almost any other big leaguer of his speed and stature.

Compare his effort, even, to that you or your kids most likely put forth on the little league, Babe Ruth, high school or American Legion diamond at every game.

I played ball up until high school, and I never had a coach who tolerated players who didn’t hustle down the baseline, who didn’t hustle to retrieve line drives hit to the outfield gaps, who didn’t hustle back into the dugout from the field, even.

My coaches had patience for fundamental mistakes and miscues. We were kids, and we were still learning.

But they had no patience for sloth, and neither should big league coaches.

Players like Manny Ramirez are lionized, and fiercely defended, by our nation’s younth. What do they learn about persistence and determination, when one of their idols plays lazy baseball day in and day out? What does it teach them about community and sportsmanship, when he makes it abundantly clear he has no intention of playing for a team, and plays only for himself?

It teaches them that they can put in a bare-minimum effort and still collect big returns. Of course, very few children will have pro-caliber talent, and fewer still will cultivate a batting prowess like Manny’s.

Maybe it’s a hard truth they must learn, that the naturally talented often can slide by without lifting a finger to promote a common cause. I’d want my kids (if I had kids) to learn  instead that any predisposition — be it for baseball, jazz flute or advanced mathematics — must not be taken for granted. It must be sharpened to a fine point and applied to a good cause with grace and passion. It must be used, and they must hustle, and not just down the first-baseline.

I see every tumultuous baseball season as a microcosm of life, with all its subtle (and not-so-subtle) ebbs and flows, but orchestrated on a grand, dramatic scale, and played out on a national stage, by larger-than-life characters with big personalities and bigger hearts. I want to escape the grind of reality in that happy illusion: the idea that somehow it makes one bit of a difference who wins the World Series or pitches a perfect game.

I might sound a little idealistic, and maybe I’m asking too much, but I prefer to see whatever romantic notions I harbor encapsulated within the realm of spectator sports, and personified in its greatest players. I can’t abide sports infected by all the world’s difficult truths—like the fact that lazy, talented people often make it big, and that little in life is ever really fair.

So play well, players, and never stop hustling. Sustain my blissful illusion.

Sports will prove utterly meaningless if and when they are robbed of their power to make us forget everything else.