Information hounds, historians and news enthusiasts everywhere cheered the New York Times’ decision this month to remove a vast collection of its archives from behind its paid-subscription firewall. Readers finally have regained access to an untold wealth of history as described by one of the greatest newspapers in the history of the printed word. And by better understanding the past — in any subject — we can better understand the present.
What a treat, then, to flip through the stories compiled by a blog called Soccer Dad about a timid, Dominican immigrant who barely spoke English and happened to be possibly the best high-school baseball player in New York City — ever.
For those of us who had little interest in 1991 in the Cleveland Indians or Manhattan’s Washington Heights neighnorhood, the drafting of Manny Ramirez as the 13th overall pick likely flew under the radar. For those of us to whom Manhattan is Broadway, Times Square, Wall Street and the Village, we can finally read Sara Rimer’s beautiful prose about a boy who was still just a boy, and about a neighborhood that made him the symbol for all their hopes and dreams.
It’s a rags to riches story that doesn’t need to be told. It already has been.
A high fence encloses Washington’s ballfield. On the other side is the city. Two seasons ago, in May, 17-year-old Nelson Pena, a model student who played in the band at George Washington, was eating at a McDonald’s not far from school when a stranger killed him with a .38. …
Manny Ramirez, who plays center field and third base, batted .633 last season and is rated the best high school player in the city and one of the best in the country (he made USA Today’s top 25), will hit balls out of the park. He hit 16 homers last season.
His teammates say they admire Manny, the son of a cab driver, for not acting cocky. But he would like to be identified in the newspaper as the Hitman. The big-league scouts are following the Hitman; so is Washington Heights. Even the neighborhood’s greatest baseball success story — a Panamanian immigrant named Rod Carew who graduated from Washington in 1964 and was recently elected to the Hall of Fame — says he has heard of Manny Ramirez’s bat.
The modest ballplayer has brought a luster to Washington Heights. All spring, major league scouts and television crews flocked to Washington’s Astroturf diamond, at the northern edge of Manhattan, bringing their cameras, stopwatches and notebooks, all for No. 22. The Hardest Worker
"Not everyone can be that talented,’ said Victor (Big Victor) Capellan, Washington’s most loyal fan, who did not play baseball himself because, he says, he could never fit into a uniform. "When you’re around someone that talented, you feel like you’re a part of him. You get happy. At least somebody’s making it. Somebody’s looking forward to their life."
In Washington Heights, people are already telling Manny Ramirez stories. He will be remembered as the young man who worked harder than anyone else. He woke up at 4:30 A.M. to fit in his roadwork and practice before school, spent his weekday afternoons with his high school team and weekends in Brooklyn with his sandlot team. In the evenings, he swung a bat over and over in his apartment (without ever breaking a window). …
Luis Valdez, a special-education teacher at Washington who was the junior varsity baseball coach until budget cuts eliminated his team, says: "The other day I asked him what he was hitting. He told me, ‘Oh, about .300.’ Then he changed the subject." In fact, Manny finished the season batting .643. He hit 14 home runs in 21 games, including exhibitions.
But while the center fielder with the quicksilver swing feels at home within the confines of Burlington Athletic Stadium, the shy teen-ager from teeming, close-knit Washington Heights feels marooned here, in small-town America.
"You get homesick," Ramirez said, washing down a fried chicken dinner with his favorite drink, orange juice, at Perkins’ Family Restaurant, a few miles from the ball park. …
Ramirez’s struggle to learn English helped keep him from graduating with his classmates in June. His English has, however, improved considerably since he signed on as translator for his roommates, Fernando Hernandez and Ulises Colon, who came here directly from the Dominican Republic and speaks no English. …
Ramirez’s $469-a-month, two-bedroom apartment lacks a lot of things. The three ballplayers make do with two drinking glasses, two tin plates, one pot and one frying pan. Ramirez is the translator and Hernandez is the cook. "He’s a great cook," Ramirez said.
And, he added, Hernandez is a great pitcher. But when someone mentions his own home runs, Ramirez ducks his head and looks uncomfortable.
Suede said: "I told him, ‘Manny, you’re the best player on the team.’ He said, ‘I’m just another player.’ "
In Washington Heights this summer, the sweetest sentence in the Spanish language is this: "Mami, ya me subieron a las Grandes Ligas." Mommy, they called me to the major leagues.
That is what Manny Ramirez said when he telephoned his mother, Onelcida Ramirez, a factory worker, Wednesday night. …
"I miss my friends," Ramirez said as he held court in his unassuming fashion at Las Tres Marias, at Amsterdam Avenue and 170th Street. "I miss my food."
Surrounded by his friends, and with the familiar merengue music blasting from the jukebox, Ramirez dug into his favorite pre-game meal — steak and fried plaintains.
A few hours later, he slammed his first two big-league home runs in the stadium that he, like every other boys in Washington Heights, had been dreaming of since he came to America from Santo Domingo. The neighborhood, which had transplanted itself to the Bronx for the evening, went wild, waving banners and shouting: "Manny! Manny! Manny!"
There are many more articles in the series, and much more to the articles than can be excerpted here. Read them all. They are wonderful.
Some say Manny is rude or disrespectful, that he doesn’t play the game right. Maybe so, maybe not. But he hit his way out of one of New York’s most deadly neighborhoods, avoiding drug dealers by working hard and perfecting that swing. Now he’s the catalyst for a Boston lineup that desperately needs him if the Red Sox are to win another pennant and another ring. His story would be a fairy tale if it weren’t so true.
You’re a bad man, Manny.