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BOOK REVIEW

'Becoming Manny'

An authorized bio on baseball slugger Manny Ramirez does a solid job on researching his childhood, but it falls short on insights and info on his pro career.

March 09, 2009|Erik Himmelsbach | Himmelsbach is a Los Angeles writer and producer.

In a sport whose lexicon is built almost entirely on cliche, "Manny being Manny" falls somewhere on the flip side of "giving 110%." Translated, it's shorthand for the rap sheet-length list of boneheaded transgressions committed by baseball slugger Manny Ramirez over the course of his 16-year career in the majors.

Patrolling left field in Dodger Stadium last season after falling into team owner Frank McCourt's lap at the 2008 trading deadline, Ramirez spent two months furiously attempting to rebuild a thrashed reputation with his bat -- his eyes focused on one last monster payday.

At least the baseball part worked out. In Dodger blue, Ramirez was larger than life, a cuddly mashing messiah who hoisted his young teammates on his back and nearly brought them to the promised land. He made the Dodgers cool again. His teammates loved him. The fans loved him -- they wore dreadlock-festooned baseball caps and his No. 99 jersey. Dodgers owner McCourt loved him, or at least the revenue his presence generated. Best of all, Manny cost nothing more than an over-hyped prospect. It was a public display of affection on a massive scale. "Manny and Los Angeles fell for each other like teenage lovers," write Jean Rhodes and Shawn Boburg in "Becoming Manny: Inside the Life of Baseball's Most Enigmatic Slugger."

Everyone was happy, including Ramirez's previous team, the Boston Red Sox. They even footed the bill for the remaining $7 million on his contract. That's because Manny being Manny had run its course in New England. Though his career numbers suggest he's one of the greatest right-handed hitters ever, the Sox front office tired of Ramirez's loafing, his alleged injury-faking, his endless trade requests, his shoving of the team's 64-year-old traveling secretary. Manny had played the "man-child" card for eight years in Boston, and his act had become stale. Never mind that the only world titles won by the Red Sox over the last 90 years came with Ramirez in the heart of the order.

But instant redemption just wasn't in the cards. With Mephistophelean agent Scott Boras by his side, suitors for Manny's services were nearly nonexistent. Only the Dodgers publicly pursued Ramirez, who settled for a measly $45 million for two years, a far cry from the four-year, $100-million-plus deal he'd been seeking.

Now the Ramirez redemption tour is in book form. "Becoming Manny" attempts to reveal the roots of Ramirez's enigmatic behavior and to somehow justify it. But it's not a mea culpa, nor does the journey from childhood fully explain the unpredictable adult.

Although Ramirez authorized "Becoming Manny," he's mostly a ghost hovering over the story. He's quoted infrequently and offers little insight other than garden-variety baseball-ese. Instead, Boburg and Rhodes are left to serve as official apologists: "He lives in the moment, neither suffering regret nor calculating the consequences of his next move," they write.

In theory, the conceit of "Becoming Manny" is fascinating: While Boburg is a reporter from the Bergen (N.J.) Record, Rhodes is a psychology professor at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, and the book attempts to get into Ramirez's childhood head and his surroundings to determine how Manny became Manny. Unfortunately, interesting anecdotes bleed into overreaching psychological studies. Instead of humanizing the subject, they turn him into a statistic.

In truth, Ramirez's story is hardly unique: By age 7, he wanted to be a ballplayer and he had the skills to back it up. He was a golden child, a hitting prodigy from the streets of Manhattan's Washington Heights, where he moved after the first part of his childhood in the Dominican Republic. Once his talent was recognized in his early teens, he was coddled and already focused on his surest ticket out -- the possibility of a big-league career. He truly was a baseball savant: If he made it to class, it was to practice writing his autograph.

"Becoming Manny" is best when searching for clues in Ramirez's childhood. The authors speak at length with family members -- his sisters, his mother and the man who's mentored him since childhood, Carlos "Macaco" Ferreira.

They describe Dominican traditions. As the sole son and youngest in a family with three sisters, Manny was allowed to pursue his baseball dreams while his sisters were sent to work. Thus Ramirez's only pressure was to refine his baseball skills. According to his high school coach, "He was never a leader . . . he was a follower, but the players loved him. He was like he is now. He was a clown. . . . He was shy unless he was around close friends.

Not much changed when Ramirez reached the big leagues in 1993 with the Cleveland Indians. He put up huge numbers as the team reached the World Series in 1995 and 1997, but even then he was being called out for those things he was not -- the press suggested he get a "brain transplant" after a series of baserunning gaffes, for example.

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