On Monday night, Manny Ramirez did Manny Ramirez things. The twelve-time American League All-Star, presently employed as an unlikely player-coach for the Triple-A Iowa Cubs, turned on a pitch from Sugar Ray Marimon and deposited it 450-feet over the right-center field wall for a two-run moonshot. Despite the accompanying intrigue, Cubs President Theo Epstein insists nothing will see Manny join the Cubs Major League roster; the inimitable slugger is here to teach rather than dominate, raising anew the traditional debate as to the practical worth of player-coaches in baseball. Do they work? Can they work? Will they work?
Well, maybe. In a theoretical sense, experienced superstars like Manny Ramirez are better-placed than most to provide instruction. After all, the ultra-relaxed outfielder destroyed the record books during his wild nineteen-year career. In 9,744 Major League plate appearances, Manny hit 555 home runs, drove in 1,831 runs, and honed a prolific slash line of .312/.411/.585. The long history of baseball has seen only thirteen players hit more homers than Ramirez; seventeen drive in more runs; and eight finish with a higher career slugging percentage. In most cases, those are immortals with names like Ruth, Mays and Williams; Gehrig, Cobb and Foxx; Aaron, Yastrzemski and Griffey.
The opportunity to have cornerstone prospects like Javier Baez and Kris Bryant learn from a man of such ability was too much to resist for the Chicago Cubs, an organisation which finds itself at an important juncture of an intricate rebuild. In his prolonged quest to bring success to Chicago, Epstein has placed almost exclusive emphasis on young prospects, with the Cubs farm system being transformed into what fans hope will be a sustainable production line of high-end, championship-winning talent.
Such is the importance of Minor League talent to the Cubs’ long-term complexion, the Front Office will try almost anything to improve the skills, mentality and potential of those players within its system. If Manny Ramirez, a guy who has experienced every possible situation on a baseball field and made every possible mistake off it, can impart even a fraction of his insight and further smooth the path from Iowa to Chicago, that can only be a positive gain.
“Manny is not only one of the best hitters of all-time,” reasoned Epstein, who worked with Ramirez for seven years in Boston. “He is also a dedicated student of hitting and has proved to be a gifted teacher with younger teammates who have worked with him in the batting cage.”
Naturally, Cubs fans hope this approach will further improve the production of those players currently at Triple-A. In an ideal world, Manny Ramirez will work closely with Arismendy Alcantara, a talented infielder who also hails from Santo Domingo, and finally help the youngster reach the big leagues. Similarly, one would like to see Javier Baez blossom with instruction from an inspirational, Spanish-speaking mentor; Kris Bryant learn from from a fellow hitter of prodigious home runs; and even Brett Jackson, Matt Szczur and Josh Vitters spark back into life.
However, nothing is guaranteed when Manny Ramirez is around. Employing him as an even-keeled bridge between the Front Office and it’s cherished progeny is a noble, perhaps even romantic, concept. But, like most things in baseball, transforming boardroom idealism into practical reality may prove troublesome.
A prominent worry amongst Cubs fans is that Ramirez, a rookie coach without any grounding in player development, may be too keen, too arrogant and too iconoclastic for this role. He may tamper too much with the swings and approach of core players. He may take a players approach to teaching, rather than that of a learned coach. He may change these players beyond recognition!
Whilst I don’t believe Epstein would allow that to happen, and feel we must respect the maturity of these players to make their own decision, it’s worth comprehending just how the entire future of this organisation depends on the success of those prospects currently working on the farm. Nobody, least of all Manny Ramirez, should interfere too much in the natural growth of that ability.
Ultimately, employing Ramirez will be deemed a success if he has a tangible impact in steering these young starlets to Wrigley Field and Major League Baseball.
However, one would worry about his ability to provide that impact whilst focusing on two different jobs and maintaining his own hopes of returning to The Show. Ramirez, whose repeated attempts at a comeback have taken him to Tampa, Round Rock and Kaohsiung, Taiwan in recent years, left the door ajar shortly after joining the Cubs, stating that “while I would love to return to the major leagues, I leave that in God’s hands.”
To the Cubs, this must be ever-so-slightly worrying. Initially, one would fear that, whilst harboring hopes of a big league return, Manny isn’t solely motivated by potentially helping young players; that, really, he sees the “coaching” aspect of his contract as a necessary trade-off to put himself back in the shop window and get one last shot at glory. To that end, matters would be further complicated if teams began showing interest in Manny as a mid-season Major League upgrade. What happens if, for arguments sake, the Yankees or Red Sox come calling offering to employ Manny as an occasional DH or fifth outfielder? Would the coaching plan and, indeed, the Cubs investment, be simply nixed? Right now, Chicago can’t afford to walk on such unstable ground.
Similarly, one has to wonder whether Manny Ramirez is really willing to commit all the due diligence which comes with coaching a modern day baseball team. Nowadays, coaches are required to study hit charts, scouting reports, and reams of statistical analyses before games, help make strategic decisions during them, and run a gauntlet of media sessions thereafter. This is a lot to cope with even for a full-time coach, let alone one who also plays every three or four days and has such a laconic outlook on life as Manny Ramirez.
Increasingly, the player-coach/manager has become an endangered species within baseball, mainly due the aforementioned strain of balancing the duties of two demanding jobs. Whilst the game’s ancient history is littered with player-managers, with a lineage stretching from Cap Anson and Connie Mack to Frank Robinson and Joe Torre, nobody has served in such a dual capacity at the Major League level in a quarter-century.
When faced with such evidence, one must ask whether the concept of playing and coaching is entirely obsolete in contemporary sports; whether it is more hindrance than help; whether the Chicago Cubs actually need Manny Ramirez at this point?
Certainly, this situation is unique. It’s more stop-gap experiment than long-term solution. Therefore, like always, we can’t view Manny in the same context as everybody else. No, he must be viewed in his own eccentric bubble. Perhaps this episode in his career will go swimmingly for all involved. Perhaps it won’t. We may see the entire arrangement grind to an abrupt halt at any moment. Yet maybe, just maybe, bringing Manny Ramirez aboard may be another stroke of genius from Theo Epstein as he constructs his prospective juggernaut.