By Tim Baffoe-
(CBS) “Manny being Manny” became part of the sports lexicon years ago, mostly with a slightly-to-fully negative connation. He was Manny Ramirez, the major leaguer, a massive talent with a personality, ego and brain that often took off behind the Green Monster figuratively and literally came to embody the monsters sports had created. The player so talented, so hyped, so warped into narcissism most of his life that he became a necessary evil. Too good at the game to hate, but too full of himself to love.
It became a meme that transcended the dreadlocks. Jay Cutler throws two touchdowns and two interceptions in a Bears loss? That’s just Jay being Jay. A superfluous column about Brian Scalabrine with a lot of lame ginger jokes? Baffoe being Baffoe.
But in 2014, Manny being Manny was Manny being a coach. Many were surprised, if not troubled, by the hire as a Triple-A hitting coach/player that the Chicago Cubs made of a guy stigmatized as a problem-child with a penchant for PEDs. And to specifically work with the young names that prophets of Cubdom foretold would come after wandering in the desert for more than a century, no less. How could baseball Satan be allowed to lure the virginal saviors Jorge Soler, Javier Baez and Kris Bryant to the Dark Side?
But most also refuse to believe monsters can be undone.
“If you had asked me a few years ago,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said of it, “I never would have believed that we would voluntarily put Manny in a position to impact our most important players – and that he would come through.”
Nobody knows the worst of Ramirez better than Epstein, as the two were together in Boston when “being Manny” became “having a migraine” for the then-Red Sox general manager. Yet this past spring, Epstein decided the best choice to teach hitting and discipline to the most important crop of prospects in Cubs franchise history was Ramirez. Manny being Coach Manny.
And it was a huge success. It can continue to be so if the Cubs decided to fill the now-vacant assistant hitting coach job left by Mike Brumley with Ramirez. Let Manny be Chicago Manny.
He knows the star role and celebrity thing too well, and the Cubs are teeming with potential stars who are going to learn quickly that sports’ most infamously suffering fanbase is expecting no less than a World Series title very soon.
“He was always so fun, he kept everybody loose,” Bryant said of his time with Ramirez. “You’ve got people in the stands asking you if you’re going to hit a homer today. You feel the pressure sometimes. But he definitely shows you how to handle it.
“I definitely learned a whole lot from him in terms of making it fun and just having a great time out there.”
The young Cubs are comfortable with Ramirez and barely even know the Manny the rest of us shook our heads about last decade — a Manny himself and others insist has been left in that last decade. It’s not just head shrinking he brings to the table. Tangible hitting instruction took place in Triple-A Iowa.
Besides setting an example of showing up early and working late, Ramirez threw batting practice, discussed at-bats and approaches during games and “instructed Baez to be more selective,” wrote Ken Rosenthal. He also “adjusted Soler’s swing path and talked situational hitting with Bryant, all with impressive results.” This all came after speaking with the Iowa team about not doing the dumb stuff he did as a big leaguer.
“He helped my approach to right-center, (following) his routine every day, going to the cage, the way he works,” Baez said. “He’s always got a bat in his hand doing something, either swinging the bat or just hitting in the cage. He talked to a lot of the guys. A lot of people learned from him.”
What about all that can’t be done with the big club? Remember, too, that this would be the assistant hitting coach position Ramirez could potentially fill. An ultimately harmless Costanzan title at the very worst. And while Cubs brass has to take every staff position seriously, it was no joke in Des Moines.
“Ramirez, speaking on the phone to Epstein, broke down every player on the Iowa roster, giving detailed, sophisticated assessments of not only their skills but also their personalities,” Rosenthal’s piece explains.
“Epstein found the conversation so impressive and surprising that he left his office immediately after getting off the phone with Ramirez and walked down the hall to visit with other Cubs executives.
“He had to repeat the conversation verbatim to his colleagues to make sure that it had really happened.”
Which is why Epstein is now considering Ramirez for the open gig, in the guarded Esptein-speak way we’ve grown accustomed to. Ramirez has yet to officially retire from being an MLB hitter, so the Cubs have to linger on his oh-so-selfish desire to still chase his dream for now. But one doesn’t really needed advanced metrics to guess that playing the game has passed him by.
Ramirez will soon accept that. And that will further the de-monsterization, the evolution of the new Manny being the new Manny, both the person and soon the full-time coach.
Tim Baffoe is a columnist for CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter @TimBaffoe.