Manny Becoming Manny
It was just another pop foul, but Manny’s career must have flashed before his eyes.
With the Red Sox trailing, 3-2, in Game 2 against the Angels, Manny was up with Dustin Pedroia representing the tying run ninety feet away. His partner in crime, David Ortiz (aka Senor Octubre), had been intentionally walked. The Angels wanted Manny. In the heyday of this prolific tandem, a Papi free-pass was about the only thing that could make Manny’s blood boil. Little else could evoke such a palpable sense of anger and disdain from the goofy and benign slugger. In the heyday, the instant four fingers were held up from the dugout, Manny was simultaneously “locked in”. You could always feel it; feel the Manny-brainwaves buzzing: You serious? You want Manny?? I’m one of the best hitters in the history of the game! And you want me!? You loco?? More often than not Manny would step to the plate, peering down the line at Papi, and hit the first good pitch he saw square on the seams. And it would usually go far, very far.
This was the case again in the fifth inning of Game 2; Mike Scioscia had decided he’d seen enough of Ortiz beating his club, and concluded he’d rather take his chances with Manny. After the first intentional ball was thrown to Papi, like a slow roll of thunder, the Fenway-chant began: Manny-Mannnny-MAAAANNNNNNNYYYYY. By the time Ortiz was trotting down to first, the entire Nation was on its feet; the chorus echoed from coast to coast. He stepped to the plate, and appeared to be “locked in”, just like the old days.
Then came the pop foul, followed by a collective, incredulous sigh from the Nation. Then came the first web gem in playoff history by a 17-year old kid (aka the anti-Bartman), who stole the ball away from Angels’ catcher, Jeff Mathis. Manny parlayed his new life into a walk, which allowed Mike Lowell’s fly ball to tie the game.
That moment represented more, though. For Manny, who this year has been as un-Manny-like as we’ve ever seen, that moment represented clarity. After that at bat he was locked in for the first time in ’07. Despite the ongoing struggles of mind versus body, preparation versus timing, Manny was finally able to rediscover himself. It was a feat he couldn’t accomplish while healthy early in the season, nor while ailing late in the season. Like everything with Manny, his swing and swagger were things only he was going to find again, and on his terms.
When Papi came up in the bottom of the ninth with two outs and Julio Lugo as the winning run on second base, there was little doubt that the game would be Manny’s to stamp. Scioscia held up four fingers; Manny started to stew. As the guy on deck for each one of Senor Octubre’s playoff walk-offs at the Fens, Manny might just have begun to feel a sense of history. Here he was, one of the great run-producers of all-time, just shy of 500 home runs, second-most postseason homers in MLB history, a sure-fire first ballot Hall of Famer with a World Series MVP to boot, yet eleven years removed his last walk-off home run.
Manny’s “legacy” is something that probably never held much water in his proverbial cup of tea. He is, and has always been, a studious and artful baseball mind, dedicated to mastering every conceivable aspect of hitting a baseball. For a guy who at times doesn’t even know the count when he’s up at bat, to say that his legacy was ever a matter of personal concern would be to greatly overestimate what is most important to Manny. In Manny’s world, the concepts of “time” and “history” are less significant than those of “routine” and “consistency”. By following routine and maintaining consistency, over time Manny ultimately impacted and changed history. That’s his career in a nutshell: 13 full seasons, 11 of them with 30+ home runs and 100+ RBIs; .313 career average; 490 home runs; 1,604 RBIs; nine playoff appearances; one title (and counting).
Manny’s body of work itself is history. However his mode of thought and workmanlike nature simply never allowed that notion to register. His production was a constant; time and years didn’t pass, merely at bats and games. Until this year. This year Manny never found his stroke; never settled into his trademark groove. For the first time in his career Manny went an entire season without being truly, undeniably, “locked in”.
By the time he came up in the ninth against K-Rod he could’ve been about to pilot the space shuttle and still wouldn’t have been as locked in as he was in that batters box. The Manny-stare was back. The Manny-swing followed suit. And once the ball cleared the coke bottles above the seats on top of the Green Monster, with Manny’s (plus another 38,000) hands raised towards the heavens, the entire baseball universe was shown that the Manny-swagger had returned as well.
And then he spoke.
Players concerned with and aware of their image are talkers. Those select few who contain greatness and are thus concerned with and aware of their legacy are illustrators. They’ll achieve greatness on the field before using the media to mold and re-craft it in such a way as to maximize its magnitude and staying power. Manny has forever epitomized the “silent star”. He didn’t need to talk in Cleveland (guys like Roberto Alomar, Albert Belle, Kenny Lofton and Jim Thome handled that) and never really desired to talk in Boston (minus, of course, “Media” Manny of 2003). Other than an interview he gave before the 2006 season, the last we heard from Manny was during the 2004 playoffs. That was when he talked about how the Sox “took it to another level” against the Yankees, explaining that “it was destination”.
Frank and sincere; witty and at times lost in translation, whenever Manny has spoken it has always been from the heart and informative. No spin. No slant. Just Manny being Manny (where have I heard that one before…). The microphone was Manny’s after Game 2. He gave an on-field interview to TBS, then he granted an exclusive to Peter Gammons for ESPN. To cap it off he made his first appearance in a post game press conference since I-don’t-know-when.
When Manny speaks he doesn’t embody the aura and potency of his track record. He’s just a guy, who knows he’s the best at what he does, talking about doing what he’s great at, with injections of humor. His personality lies in his sense of humor, which is pointed, but sometimes difficult to decipher because some jargon is tough to translate from Spanish. We do know that Manny’s “train doesn’t stop there” and that he is indeed “a bad man”, regardless of how he’s feeling.
The Nation got some reassurance in Game 3 that Manny seems to be feeling perfect at the ideal time of year. In his first at bat, Jered Weaver threw him a 3-2 changeup, which Manny just barely got a piece of. He stepped out of the box and took another look at the swing on the scoreboard replay, almost refusing to believe that he came so close to missing the pitch. The ensuing pitch was ball four. In his next at bat, following an Ortiz-home run, Manny fouled off two 3-2 pitches before sending a hanging breaking ball way over the left-center field wall. This was the same pitch that he’d been fouling straight back all year, but no longer. A game after hitting a walk-off home run for the first time in his playoff-career, he went back-to-back with Papi for the first time this season.
Recently there have been quite a few “firsts” for a guy who, over 13 years, has been one of the steadiest the game has ever seen. For as long as Manny has been Manny, he’s been the complete hitting package. We all know Manny’s train will stop in Cooperstown.
As for his legacy, if Manny stays as hot as these unseasonable October nights, sky’s the limit.