Almost 17 years to the day after he debuted with the Cleveland Indians, Manny Ramirez’ career is defined by four characteristics: He will hit the ball—often, hard and far. He will put fans into the seats. His “Manny Being Manny” act will drive his employers crazy. And he will exit on bad terms that leave his former team and its fans alike wondering if it was all worth it.
But at 38 and suffering through his worst season ever, Ramirez is no longer a sure thing to do anything but serve as a giant, dreadlocked annoyance. The Chicago White Sox, which acquired Ramirez off waivers from the Los Angeles Dodgers Monday, August 30, are hoping Ramirez can turn back the clock and become the power-hitting gate attraction he was in the summer of 2008, when he lifted the Dodgers into the playoffs while turning a seat at Dodger Stadium into the hottest ticket in town.
Ramirez, who was traded by the Boston Red Sox to the Dodgers on July 31, 2008 following a month of increasingly erratic behavior, hit a blistering .396 with 17 homers and 53 RBI in 53 games for the Dodgers, which were 54-54 and two games behind in the NL West when the trade was made but went on to win the division and reach the NL Championship Series.
The Dodgers’ attendance surged along with Ramirez: The average crowd for the Dodgers’ final 25 home games was 49,370, more than 3,000 fans higher than their overall average of 46,057.
Playing in front of huge crowds was nothing new for Ramirez: He spent his first seven seasons with the Cleveland Indians, which set the Major League Baseball record for consecutive sellouts with Ramirez patrolling right field. Following the 2000 campaign, Ramirez signed an eight-year deal with the Red Sox, which began their own record-setting sellout streak in 2003 and broke the Indians’ mark in September 2008, shortly after Ramirez’ ugly exit.
While the Indians and Red Sox likely would have set those records without Ramirez, there’s little doubt the Dodgers late burst in 2008 was fueled entirely by Ramirez. After re-signing Ramirez to a two-year deal, the Dodgers made him the focal point of their marketing efforts in 2009 by dubbing a section in left field “Mannywood” and offering fans two tickets and two “Mannywood” T-shirts for $99 (in honor of his uniform number). The Dodgers also began selling dreadlocked wigs shortly after his 2008 arrival.
Alas, while the Dodgers finished last season atop the NL in attendance and once again reached the NLCS, the love affair with Ramirez began to sour May 7, 2009, when he was suspended 50 games by Major League Baseball after a drug test revealed a banned substance (the fertility drug HCG) associated with steroid use. Ramirez took three trips to the disabled list this year, during which “Mannywood” was closed without fanfare, and sealed his fate with the Dodgers by getting thrown out of a game after seeing just one pitch as a pinch-hitter Sunday, August 29. He hit just .287 with 21 homers and 83 RBI in 153 games following his suspension—as opposed to .380 with 23 homers and 73 RBI in 80 pre-suspension games.
The White Sox, with the fourth-highest payroll and the second-oldest lineup in the American League, were willing to take a chance on Ramirez in hopes of making up a four-game deficit on the Minnesota Twins in the AL Central. And the White Sox have already expressed an interest in selling Ramirez wigs at U.S. Cellular Field.
But both Ramirez and the White Sox will have to make an immediate impression in order to lure fans to “The Cell,” where the White Sox rank seventh in attendance in the AL with an average crowd of 27,352 at the 40,615-seat facility. The White Sox began a 10-game road trip Monday, August 30 that will take them back to Ramirez’ old haunts in Cleveland and Boston, before concluding with a series against the Detroit Tigers. One way or the other, the White Sox will probably know, even before Ramirez makes his home debut Friday, September 10, whether or not it was worth acquiring him.