A New Manny, An Old Manny

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.

March 31, 1991:

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.

June 3, 1991:

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.

Aug. 18, 1991:

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.’ "

Sept. 4, 1993:

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.

29 comments… add one
  • Great research Paul, this was a good read. Bad man, indeed.

    Tyrel SF October 11, 2007, 1:45 am
  • Indeed, fantastic stuff, Paul. Many, many thanks.
    (P.s. Where are all the Manny haters now, esp. among SF’s on this site? He sure knows how to disappear in meaningful games, huh, while faking an injury? What a disgrace…)

    Pete October 11, 2007, 3:01 am
  • Thanks so much for the kind mention.

    soccerdad October 11, 2007, 7:23 am
  • Pete- I still hate manny!
    Just kidding, nice article Paul.

    Sam-YF October 11, 2007, 7:42 am
  • “But he hit his way out of one of New York’s most deadly neighborhoods, avoiding drug dealers….”
    I live in this neighborhood, Paul, on 174th St., and back in 80’s and 90’s, yes, Washington Heights was one of the deadliest places to live. But increasing rents across Manhattan are forcing more and more (well, I’ll just say it) white people uptown and bringing gentrification along with them. This, in turn, is forcing the Dominican population northward to the Bronx because, as my superintendent Ernesto says, “no one wants to move to Brooklyn.” The population is still very much dominican and the drug dealers are still on the corners (I did an impromptu study of the economics of my own street corner…sad) but baseball is a joy to watch on the weekends in the parks. It also doesn’t hurt to know Spanish.

    rz-yf October 11, 2007, 8:54 am
  • I don’t hate him, but yes, he does have a fairly new habit of disappearing towards the end of they year…is that debateable? Just because I just read this feel good story about him doesn’t make the last two years any less true, Pete.
    Great post, Paul. You’re on a freaking roll..

    Brad October 11, 2007, 9:19 am
  • I still say, despite of this, that this should be Manny’s last year in Boston.

    Brad October 11, 2007, 9:21 am
  • This makes me like so much more when he stands and stares at every ball he hits hard at the plate.
    Well, not really.
    Good post though – great research.

    IronHorse (yf) October 11, 2007, 9:37 am
  • Interesting take, RZ. I got that impression from one of Rimer’s follow-up stories when the Sox-Yankee rivalry was really getting going in 2003/04. It seemed that his old teammates were doing better almost than she expected returning to that neighborhood, and I kind of got the impression the neighborhood had changed.
    Is Las Tres Marias still running? It’d be fun to eat there whenever I return to New York.

    Paul SF October 11, 2007, 9:39 am
  • Paul – I’ll have to look. There are still pockets of the neighborhood where you just don’t go, and along Amsterdam Ave. is one of them. I’ll cruise by on my bike tonight.

    rz-yf October 11, 2007, 10:05 am
  • I grew up in Washington Heights and I remember when this series of articles came out. I also remember hearing about this high school kid named Manny who played for GW and hit 500 foot shots daily and batted .700.
    It’s amazing timing that Paul posted this when he did. Last week, my lady and I wandered around Inwood and ended up happening upon Diamond 6 where I used to play my little league games. I’m not sure Manny played in Inwood Little LEague although plenty of my teammates at the time knew who he was and claimed he did. Anyway, there was a game going on between the Inwood Mets (in orange) and the Inwood Yanks. The orange team (the team I used to play for!)won the gamne whih was the finals and it brough me back 17 years to when my team won the championship in orange unis. We were, however, called “Chemical Bank” for our sponsor. The old neighborhood has been on my mind a lot, and these articles are pretty cool. Thanks for posting this, Paul!

    Nick-YF October 11, 2007, 10:23 am
  • Nick and Paul,
    Again the timing here is random. I was 11 years old when this article came out and didn’t read it. But, when I was 14 and had finally broken out of the East New York neighborhood mentioned in these articles as the “other worst place to live in NYC”, I at some point had to read back issues for a school project. Being Dominican, i recall reading one of these articles and feeling a certain delight. I was old enough then to know baseball and followed Manny’s career from that point on.
    I always hated that the Yankees couldn’t grab him in 1993, and he always seem to hit us harder than most.
    Its strange what perspective can provide, because seeing Manny now and imagining Manny 15 years ago gives a watcher a real big jolt.

    carlos (YF) October 11, 2007, 11:17 am
  • My favorite part of these articles — aside from the writing, which is really wonderful — is Manny’s attitude. Seeing that shy kid come to life in these articles, you can better understand him now, and when he says stuff like he did after his walk-off in ALDS Game 2, you realize just how far a hard-working Dominican immigrant from a bad neighborhood has come. It’s really a form of the American dream, and the idealist in me applauds these stories, even if the ballplayer he’s become is flawed.

    Paul SF October 11, 2007, 11:28 am
  • Great story Paul, for the first time in all my life I could feel myself (gulp) respecting Manny and his accomplishments. I can relate to the story very well. My first coaching job at age 21 was at an inner city school in one of the worst towns in North Jersey. (If you have ever seen the movie “Lean on Me” it’s the other public HS in the same town) Our baseball team was filled with kids that had just come over from DR. Most of them barely spoke english. Our basketball team was filled with kids who had to endure life in the projects. Yet everyday they showed up to practice ready to work. There were harldy any parents or students at the games to support them, yet everyday they showed up and worked purely out of love for the game. Sports in the inner city are so important for the simple fact that it helps in the over development of these kids. It gives them something to look forward to everyday and kept a smile on their face. I was only at this school for 2 seasons, but they really were 2 of the most rewarding seasons I have experienced as a coach.
    If you are ever looking for a feel good sports book to read, check out http://www.shesgothandle.com/
    It’s the story of a young lady I had the opportunity to coach in basketball. It takes you through her fours years in HS and the struggles she had to endure growing up in the inner city. She wound up being the states all time scoring leader and went on to play basketball at Auburn. As a bonus you get to see a picture of Trisk and read a little about him (as he was at 21) as well. LOL.

    John - YF (Trisk) October 11, 2007, 11:50 am
  • Oh. By the way. You may have noted that Manny was the 13th pick in the 1991 draft. Yankee fans may recall that they had the #1 pick in that draft, and neglected the boy in their own back yard. Their choice: all-time flameout king Brien Taylor. For the record, those chosen ahead of Manny:
    1. Brien Taylor P New York Yankees East Carteret (Beaufort,NC)
    2. Mike Kelly OF Atlanta Braves Arizona State University MLB 1994-1999
    3. David McCarty 1B Minnesota Twins Stanford University MLB 1993-2004
    4. Dmitri Young 3B-OF St. Louis Cardinals Rio Mesa (Oxnard,CA) MLB 1996-2004
    5. Kenny Henderson P Milwaukee Brewers Ringgold (Ringgold,GA)
    6. John Burke P Houston Astros University of Florida MLB 1996-1997
    7. Joe Vitiello OF-1B Kansas City Royals University of Alabama MLB 1995-2003
    8. Joey Hamilton P San Diego Padres Georgia Southern University MLB 1994-2003
    9. Mark Smith OF Baltimore Orioles USC MLB 1994-2003
    10. Tyler Green P Philadelphia Phillies Wichita State University MLB 1993-1998
    11. Shawn Estes P Seattle Mariners Douglas (Minden,NV) MLB 1995-2004
    12. Doug Glanville OF Chicago Cubs University of Pennsylvania MLB 1996-200

    YF October 11, 2007, 2:36 pm
  • That’s amazing. I emant to look just out of curiosity and frogot, but I would have figured there’d be at least one player of whom we could say, “Well, he at least had a good career.”
    Not a one.

    Paul SF October 11, 2007, 2:40 pm
  • We could have had Joe Vitiello!

    Nick-YF October 11, 2007, 2:40 pm
  • Yeah, Dmitri Young is the best of that group. Then Shawn Estes.

    Nick-YF October 11, 2007, 2:41 pm
  • I also apparently “frogot” to hit Preview. Though I “emant” to… :-P

    Paul SF October 11, 2007, 2:53 pm
  • Brien Taylor. Wow. McCarty had a better pitching career.

    QuoSF October 11, 2007, 3:01 pm
  • Clearly a case can be made then that it is premature to draft the kids out of high school. Maybe the draft should have an age limit like the NBA, no one drafted below the age of 20, then teams will have a much better idea of what they’re getting. Agree or disagree?

    rz-yf October 11, 2007, 3:31 pm
  • Disagree. The NBA is different because of the lack of a minor-league system. You had high-schoolers with all the immaturity and confusion that goes along with that thrown into the world of pro basketball — not healthy.
    High school draftees in baseball will generally be in leagues filled with similar-aged players, all learning the same things, managed and coached by people who are there to focus on them and their well-being.
    If the team wants to take the high-risk/high-reard gamble on a player like Manny, why not? It’s their money.

    Paul SF October 11, 2007, 3:47 pm
  • It can be argued, though, that colleges and universities serve as the minor leagues for basketball.
    As a capitalist, I totally agree with high risk/high reward

    rz-yf October 11, 2007, 4:01 pm
  • Wonderful post, Paul.

    Andrews October 11, 2007, 4:36 pm
  • It’s great to see this series still making the rounds.
    I lived in Washington Heights from 1990 to 2005 and remember following Manny’s career during this series of articles and his time in Cleveland’s minor league system.

    redsock October 11, 2007, 4:51 pm
  • Great post! I’ve always thought Manny’s bad rep in the press came from the fact that he’s shy and not that comfortable speaking English. Nice to see he was admired for his work ethic and humility when he was a kid.

    eileen October 11, 2007, 4:56 pm
  • I don’t disagree at all about high schoolers and the NBA, but it is interesting to note that of the top 10 players in the NBA, 7 or 8 did come right out of high school. Of course, there is no way to know how many good or great basketball players never made it because of high school eligibility and leaving college after 1 or 2 years. I can think of more than a few.

    Tom sf October 11, 2007, 6:10 pm
  • Yes, and I’d argue that Basketball players are better prepared for the game of basketball than baseball players are prepared for the major leagues.
    Now for the basketball life? I really doubt 19 year olds are ready for the basketball lifestyle, but on the court I think they can develop as quickly as players from college.
    Baseball players are not ready for the majors at 18 years old. They require alot of work growing their bodies and learning the routines. And teams want a hand in that. I think basketball players grow in college, but they don’t necessarily learn anything new. They refine and develop, but the kernel is readily seen there in HS.
    There is a reason why the baseball draft has so many rounds and so many players. Few of them make it to the majors. It is much more of a crapshoot.

    carlos (YF) October 11, 2007, 7:16 pm
  • I think it is safe to say that the difference between the best high school basketball players and NBA players is nowhere near the difference between high school and even college players and MLB. The level of play and skill is just enormous with baseball.
    Maybe that’s one reason why I don’t like the NBA as much anymore.

    Tom sf October 11, 2007, 9:10 pm

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