Even though Manny Ramirez will be remembered by many as a Red Sox star who led Boston to its first world championship in blah, blah, blah, he provided Cleveland Indians fans with enough moments that we still regard him as one of our own.
The biggest moment for me came in his second full season in the big leagues. It was July 1995 and the Indians were playing the Athletics. This was perhaps the peak of a baseball team's popularity in Cleveland, as the Tribe was on its way to 100 wins and its first pennant in 41 years. It was in extra innings, and the A's grabbed a one-run lead.
The A's called on one of the best relievers in baseball history, the incomparable Dennis Eckersley, to hold the lead. Even though Eck (a former Indian who was traded for cornerstones of the team's future that included Ted Cox and Mike Paxton) was 40 years old and nearing the end of his Hall of Fame career, he still brought an intimidating presence, with long hair, a mustache and a mean stare.
Having watched him shut down team after team for so many years, I turned off the game and went upstairs to ponder all the missed opportunities of the Indians that afternoon. I was 15. It was how I handled things back then.
I was removed from my gloom by the the booming voice of my father.
"Get out of here! GET OUT OF HERE!"
With two outs and Kenny Lofton on second, a 23-year old slugger had taken an inside pitch from Eckersley and planted it halfway up the Jacobs Field bleachers in left. Game over, Indians win.
While the Indians and their fans (and my father and I at home) celebrated the win, Eckersley stood on the mound and watched, with an almost amused look on his face. As he walked off the mound, with the camera on him, he mouthed a word that, as it turned out, would perfectly sum up Manny Ramirez's 19-year career:
One Hall of Famer left the field. Another, it seemed, had just entered it.
Ramirez retired Friday. Though he seemed destined to join Eck and other greats in the Hall, he leaves baseball with it being practically impossible. It's difficult to imagine a majority of writers giving a guy who had two performance-enhancing drug run-ins on his resume a stamp of approval.
Even before his PED issues became public two years ago, Ramirez was a bizarre figure, known as much for his childlike eccentricities as for his sweet swing and ferocious power.
When he arrived in Cleveland, he would do things that made one wonder how he managed to find his way to the ballpark each day. Once, when he was on first base and one out, he inexplicably took off on a popup and was doubled up. On a number of occasions, he would take a ball four, but would stand at the plate for what was seemingly an eternity. Finally the umpire told him he could go to first.
But, oh, that swing. The only player I've ever seen with a swing that nice in my lifetime was Ken Griffey Jr. Ramirez played on teams in Cleveland with prolific power hitters like Jim Thome and Albert Belle. But unlike those two, who swung hard and tried to kill the ball, Ramirez's swing suited his laid-back personality. Smooth and easy.
Between 1995 and 2000, Ramirez managed at least 30 homers and 100 RBIs every year but one. He often greatly exceeded those totals, hitting 44 taters and driving in a league-best 165 runs in 1999.
But like many who followed, Ramirez's talent elevated his price to the point where the Indians were unable to keep him. He signed with the Red Sox before the 2001 season and continued his ridiculous offensive output, even doing what seemed unthinkable - leading the Red Sox to World Series titles in 2004 and 2007, and winning the MVP for the '04 Fall Classic.
But it would be hard to say all the success, the money, and the notoriety changed Ramirez, at least to an outside observer. He was just as weird in Boston as in Cleveland, and eventually wore out his welcome there.
I must admit I had Ramirez pegged wrong. I always figured he would ditch the high school class clown persona, become more serious, and record a jazz album or something. Instead, he always appeared to be a 16-year old kid, never sure what to make of the world but not overly concerned that he didn't quite get it.
Even during the steroid era, when everyone was essentially a suspect for use, I never thought Manny was on the stuff. I never thought he needed it.
Turned out I was wrong on that, too.
Five-hundred fifty-five home runs, 1,831 RBIs. Retired before he had to face a 100-game suspension.
Probably won't make the Hall of Fame.
Eckersley was right.
Zach Baker is the associate sports editor for The Advertiser-Tribune.
Contact him at: