The biggest news of this young baseball season is that Manny Ramirez is hanging up his batting gloves and saying goodbye to the Major Leagues. This is sad because Ramirez was one of the game’s great natural hitters and because he was (probably without meaning to be, but occasionally I wasn’t really sure) one of the most compelling performance artists in pro sports. He was a kind of Beckett of baseball, forever finding ways to question the meaning of the game, the absurdity of its rules and traditions, even while he was out on the field wearing a uniform. Over and over again, he reminded us that the ballpark is always a theater, that the dramas played out on the diamond are full of artifice as well as passion. The man—Manny—was an unwitting (again, I’m pretty sure) meta-critic of the sport—of all sports, maybe. During his mercurial years as a ball player, I often suspected that Manny was more genius than jackass. And of course it really didn’t matter which was true, because he had the divinely constructed circuit between hand and eye that allowed him to prey on pitches like a falcon on field mice.
During Ramirez’s career, cataloguing and critiquing “Manny Being Manny” moments became a pastime within America’s Pastime. In Cleveland, when he was playing for the Indians, Manny once left his paycheck (which was worth a lot—a lot—of money) in an empty boot in the visitors’ locker room. As a member of the Red Sox team that won two World Series championships in 2004 and 2007, Manny began to re-conceptualize the Green Monster at Fenway as his personal man-cave, retreating to the backstage area of left field to sip a sports drink or talk on his cell phone or, most memorable of all, so he could pee (in the middle of an inning) behind the ballpark’s hallowed scoreboard. As a Los Angeles Dodger, Manny argued with manager Joe Torre about whether the slugger’s famous dreadlocked tresses would or would not be trimmed back. And it’s all led to this: faced with a 100-day suspension for using a performance-enhancing drug, Manny Ramirez has decided to quit the game for good.
Without Manny, we now have to rely on a handful of ball-playing crazies who seem to me mere shadows of Ramirez. Who are the clowns now? The San Francisco Giants’ closer Brian Wilson is at least interesting and genuinely eccentric. Like Manny, Wilson has crafted some sublime moments of theater during his career, including the time when he arranged for a mostly nude dude to walk across the room during an at-home interview. But the best bits of Wilson’s fooling take place off the field—the insane antics he performs during games are mostly predictable, game-related, the products of emotion and fierce competitiveness. You couldn’t really say the same about Manny Ramirez’s game-time behavior—odd, yes, but predictable, no. And Manny’s off-season weirdness was sublime in its own way as well. The best example of that, I think, was his attempt to sell (or help his neighbor sell) a grill on eBay in 2007. The listing included pictures of Manny standing next to the grill, along with a message that began, “Hi, I’m Manny Ramirez. I bought this AMAZING grill for about $4,000 and used it once…”
It’s funny to think of “performance-enhancing drugs” in the context of performance art. Did Marina Abramovic, performance artist extraordinaire, need banned substances to make it through her grueling performances at New York’s Museum of Modern Art last year? Abramovic sat for hours on end in the museum’s atrium, day after day, inviting visitors to sit across from her and look into her face. No one was supposed to say anything. Some visitors sat with Abramovic for a couple minutes, some for much longer. For Abramovic, who according to the MoMA website “began using her own body as the subject, object and medium of her work in the early 1970s,” it was just Marina being Marina. And I believe that if Manny had made it to MoMA for that particular exhibition, if he’d sat across from the lauded artist and looked into her eyes, he might have recognized himself.