Beyond the usual pleasure of whiling away a few hours watching a ballgame, there didn’t seem to be much particularly memorable about the Tampa Bay Rays’ game against the Los Angeles Angels on Wednesday.
Tampa Bay had lost their first four games of the season heading into the contest and there was a decidedly downbeat mood at Tropicana Field.
The Trop is far from being the most atmospheric ballpark at the best of times. The dome creates a sterile feeling, the artificial turf and blocking of the sun’s rays being an affront to the natural environment that baseball should be played in. There were less than 12,000 fans in attendance during the day-game on Wednesday and mercifully few had cowbells in their hands. The gentle hum of idle chatter was broken occasionally with a cheer or groan, but full-blown excitement was scarce.
This muted setting was understandable in light of the team’s 0-4 start and the run of bad luck that has plagued the home team in recent months. Their penance for turning the world upside down and beating the free-spending Yankees and Red Sox to the AL East division last year was to lose a whole host of players, snapped up by rivals including New York (closer Rafael Soriano) and Boston (left-fielder Carl Crawford).
On top of those losses, the Rays had barely started their season when their batting star Evan Longoria suffered an oblique injury – seemingly the fashionable injury of choice for ballplayers, closely trailed by appendectomies – landing him on the Disabled List, where he’s likely to stay until the latter part of April.
All of which meant that the crowd was waiting for something bad to happen, rather than holding onto the normal April optimism. The Rays’ TV announcers even took time during the broadcast to provide a cookery lesson in the form of a military subsistence package that cooks when you add water to it. “It’s definitely food” was the most enthusiastic thing commentator Brian Anderson could say about it and there was little enthusiasm elsewhere after the Angels took a first-inning lead.
The game had all the hallmarks of one that would be an easily forgotten part of a losing sequence quickly wiped from the memory when better days arrive. But you never know with baseball; every game has the potential to produce a moment that will last and that’s what happened in this case. Trailing 4-1 in the bottom of the eighth inning, with one runner on base and two outs, Manny Ramirez was summoned from the bench to pinch-hit.
Ramirez had been taken out of the lineup by manager Joe Maddon in response to the slugger going 1-for-16 to start the season. “I really think he’s trying to carry too much of this load right now”, said Maddon. “I want him to understand that I’m seeing that, that I think he’s trying way too hard”. It had been announced that Ramirez would miss Thursday’s game due to “personal matters”, but he was on the bench on Wednesday and Maddon decided to use him in this spot.
The Angels brought reliever Kevin Jepsen into the game and Ramirez sent his 2-1 pitch harmlessly into right field, where Torii Hunter made the catch to end the inning. What we didn’t know at the time was that the play had also marked the end of Manny’s career.
The news came through on Friday that Ramirez was retiring after “an issue” with MLB’s drug programme. That issue was reportedly a failed drugs test during Spring Training and he decided to retire rather than sit through the second-offence penalty of a 100-game ban.
It’s a curious part of the MLB drug programme that Ramirez’s decision leaves the whole matter in limbo. Officially he hasn’t failed a test and the standard process hasn’t been completed. This would only take place if Ramirez decided to play again, which isn’t going to happen. The result is that he has retired under a cloud, with no definite facts being formally announced. Did he indeed test positive for something, as is suspected? If so, what banned substance was he found to have used? Maybe the truth will out at some point, but that won’t be made official and that means it will be a case of conjecture and suspicion, rather than hard facts.
The lack of hard facts is exactly why evaluating players from the last twenty years or so will remain problematic. Ramirez’s one positive test, and the suspected second, put more evidence towards his case than most others, but in some respects that only confuses things further. The testimonies from within the game upon his retirement tell you one thing: most consider Ramirez to be one of the greatest right-handed hitters of all time and the skills that made him such are extremely unlikely to have been enhanced to any significant extent by any substance. So how do we evaluate his career?
That’s a very involved question for another day. The immediate consequence of his sudden departure is that it gives Rays fans even more reason to be despondent. Signing Ramirez was a calculated risk that hasn’t paid off and as he was only on a one-year/$2m deal, Tampa Bay don’t have a significant sum of money now available again to bring in a replacement. While they were not expecting MVP-level numbers from him, Ramirez was there to add some power to the heart of the batting lineup and power is one of the most expensive commodities to buy or trade for. Just like Manny’s standing in the history of the game, the Rays’ 2011 prospects are now in limbo.
Only Manny Ramirez could quietly walk away from the sport in such a noisy manner.