Friday, August 8, 2008
The Manny Experience
The Dodgers' trading of superstar catcher Mike Piazza ten years ago remains the most jarring moment of my relatively brief sports fanhood.
It happened exactly a week before my 10th birthday, May 15, 1998, and I remember sitting in the hallway at home, listening to the radio, and being a little bit depressed for the first time in my life. My dad and I had tickets to an upcoming game, and I was not in the least bit excited about the prospect of cheering on Gary Sheffield and Charles Johnson instead of Michael Joseph Piazza. We went anyway, but that was one of the last baseball games I attended. I haven't been to Chavez Ravine in years, and not only did the trade cause me to put a hex on the team that I still haven't lifted and never will, but it soured me on the game in general. The Dodgers had traded my hero, and all these years later, it still doesn't make sense.
Piazza was 29 and in his absolute prime, coming off a career year in '97 (.362/40/124/.431/.638). And he was a flat out star. Piazza was perhaps the most beloved player in Dodgers history, an icon, not only because he was the best hitting backstop of all-time, but because of his Montana-like mullet and hazel eyes. Piazza was a sex symbol, the swooning obsession of teenaged girls, not very much unlike Derek Jeter in New York. Probably the most popular athlete in the city.
And so what does FOX ownership do? They trade him, rather than giving him the cash they would spend the approaching offseason on a 33 year-old Kevin Brown.
But I say all that to say this: Piazza stood as the Dodgers last defining superstar until they acquired Manny Ramirez last week.
Gagne came awfully close, but his reign at the top was too short. Reminiscent of Fernandomania. And as great a ballplayer as Gary Sheffield was (wildy underappreciated in his time here), he was lacking that extra something that those most notable of players possess - he didn't have the it factor. But Manny? The man is simply an entertainer. "Manny Being Manny" and everything it entrails has taken on a life of it's own in the sports media, and the city of Los Angeles has welcomed it with open arms.
It's Manny Fever in Dodgertown right now, the organization to soon begin selling caps with dreadlocks attached to them. The dreads are part of the Manny package, part of his star, and judging from the reception he's gotten thus far, this town is certainly appreciative of it. I think the Dodgers faithful were desperate for a dose of true starpower, and well aware that it could be gone in only a couple of months, are basking in it and enjoying it while it last. Hey, what city wouldn't enjoy the honeymoon period with a character like Manny Ramirez?
But more than his personality, I'm enjoying the ManRam Experience because of his bat. Good Lord can this guy hit. Even after going 0-for-5 Friday night in San Francisco, Manny is still hitting .464 in seven games with his new club, with four homers and nine runs batted in. It's taken him literally no time to adjust to a brand new league after playing 15 1/2 seasons in another, and he's been so good that I might have to start monitoring Dodgers games just so I can watch his at-bats. With no disrespect meant to Albert Pujols, Manny is the smartest hitter in the game with Barry Bonds currently unemployed.
Juice aside, Bonds' plate discipline in his latter years was inspiring. He wouldn't flinch at balls an inch outside the strike zone, but if the next pinch was an inch closer to the plate, it was almost guaranteed to end up in McCovey Cove. Like Bonds, Manny seems to treat hitting like an approach to a science, and it is something to behold.
And like everybody else, I'm soaking it up. All of it. He's brought a much needed buzz back to the team, stealing back some of the spotlight from the Angels, who have dominated Southland baseball in the 21st century. The Dodgers haven't felt this relevant in years. Manny's arrival won't make me start rooting for the Dodgers again, but it has piqued my interest in them.