I’m tossing the puck out-of-play for a moment to discuss the recent retirement of Manny Ramirez. As disgust and criticism swirled around the record-breaking athlete, I couldn’t help but think how troubled players appear quite differently under the same ballpark spotlight.
I had the pleasure of hearing Josh Hamilton’s journey with his wife, Katie, in Raleigh a couple years ago. His baseball beginning was Hollywood ugly, full of self-destruction, angst, and addiction. Today, Hamilton is a baseball hero. Adored and admired by countless fans. If you are unfamiliar with Josh Hamilton’s rough start, may I suggest reading, “I’m Proof Hope is Never Lost.” The 2007 ESPN Magazine article was narrated by Hamilton (as told to Tim Keown).
I also had the satisfaction of watching a young Manny Ramirez mature into one of MLB’s most colorful hitters. Before his recent retirement, Ramirez was an All Star player twelve times, won two World Series, nine-time Silver Slugger Award honoree, World Series MVP in 2004, and two-time American League Hank Aaron Award.
I will admit, besides hearing and reading Hamilton’s tale, I have not followed the Ranger’s career. However, similar to Ramirez, the North Carolina native was the 2010 AL MVP, three-time All Star, and was awarded the Sliver Slugger honor twice.
Two history-making athletes. Two drug abusers. One a hero. One a scarlet letter.
Should the young Hamilton find himself in a familiar dark place, will fans be there to encourage and support his recovery? Would he be given a second chance?
Manny had a previous suspension for using drug-enhancing stimulates. The admiration from his Cleveland and Boston days fell with a thud and never appeared to fully recover. If the fascinating hitter were to have an organic return to baseball, would he be welcomed back as a recovered hero? No, probably not.
Although the drug abuse differs from each athlete, the mental health of an individual making those disparaging decisions may be more similar. Peer pressure to career pressure, caustic choices stem from sincere problems. Does the age, length, or purpose of such abuse solely impact how the individual is either forgiven or forever dismissed?
First, anything Manny Ramirez used before the 2004 season is not only unproven, it is irrelevant: there were no restrictions on drug use in MLB before then, so nobody has any business passing judgment. By 2003, Manny had played for the big leagues eleven years — ten of them full seasons and one in which he played 91 games — and had clearly established himself as a Hall of Fame-level player with a .320 batting average, 345 home runs, and eight seasons of 107 or more RBIs. He had lead the league in slugging twice, on-base percentage twice, and batting and runs batted in once.
I do admire Hamilton for his upturn and faith. I am pleased to see him as a role model for his teamates, fans, and those who have struggled with addiction. However, it saddens me to see a remarkable competitor like Manny Ramirez fall from grace, as Hamilton once did early in his career, to be discarded as a odd-ball, deceitful player. He has clearly made choices with definite consequences, but I will continue to support the rookie I watched make magic from right field nearly two decades ago.
Thanks for reading.