Manny Ramirez – The Point at which Good Job Performance Isn’t Enough.

On April 8th, Manny Ramirez retired, ending an 18-year major league baseball career.  Watching ESPN and the MLB Channel and listening to talk radio, Ramirez is being branded as a villain.  He tested positive for steroids for at least a 2nd time, triggering an automatic 100-game suspension.  Rather than accept the suspension, he simply retired and went to Spain.  Given that he had a $2 million, one-year contract, there was really little upside for him to serve out the suspension, and clearly no team would sign him for another year after this.  A brilliant, sport-defining career ended abruptly and in utter ignominy.  Ramirez should have been hailed as one of the all-time greats.  Now he’s just another roid washup. As I thought about this post, which was intended to simply be an analysis of one of the cornerstones of the two Red Sox World Series in the 21st century, I realized there are some great life lessons here.

In the end, a brilliant statistical and winning career is going to be remembered for steroids and narcissism.  Ramirez is a tough player for me to identify with.  On the one hand, the Red Sox won 2 World Series championships that they almost certainly would not have won without.  I will always remember where I was when the Sox won in ’04 – in a Buffalo Wild Wings in Birmingham Alabama.  Edgar Renteria grounded to closer Keith Foulke, who underhanded to Doug Mientkiewicz and the Curse of the Bambino was finally done.  In the postseason that year, he hit over .400 with an OPS (onbase plus slugging) of over 1.000.  As it happened I was wearing a Red Sox jersey with #24, but not for Manny, but for Dwight Evans, my favorite player growing up. But for that moment alone, it felt good to have his number on.  But that was the minority of the time.

Lesson #1 – Production is more important than personality if your skill set is unique enough. As in Cleveland where he started his career, Ramirez was the heart of a terrifying batting order in which Bill Mueller, the batting champ in the AL, hit 9th.  He was a great player, but he was also a player where you always had to look the other way.  He did strange things, like urinating between innings behind the Green Monster, to forgetting counts in an at-bat.  He seemed happy go-lucky enough and, even in Boston where baseball is like a 162-game college football season, Red Sox nation had separate expectations of “Manny being Manny”.  Don’t run out every ground ball?  Whatever.  Show up late for Spring Training because it didn’t occur to you that you need a visa?  Enjoy the time off.  In the right clubhouse, that was OK.  Just show up and hit, and play just enough defense so we can keep you and David Ortiz in the lineup.  (In fact, I always thought that Ramirez was a better defense outfielder than given credit for.  He wasn’t above average, but he wasn’t awful for most of his career, especially in the relatively small left field of Fenway.)  But in the lineup of the Cowboy-Up Idiots, he was fine.  He could hide behind Johnny Damon’s beard.  But, when leadership of the club passed on to the high-strung, Paul O’Neill-like Kevin Youkilis and Dustin Pedroia, that was not going to fly.  Ultimately, it came to a head as Ramirez was upset that his $20 MM options were not picked up.  In protest, he picked fights with everyone from Kevin Youkilis to the Red Sox 70 year old traveling secretary.   But the behavior that led to Ramirez being traded was that he developed mysterious injuries to be held out of the lineup and the Red Sox sent Ramirez to the Dodgers in a three-way trade in which the Red Sox somehow salvaged Jason Bay.  In other words, he sent a clear signal that he planned to intentionally stop producing.  Suddenly, you can’t ignore those other things. I think to this day that was one of Theo Epstein’s most brilliant moves.

The fans’ relationship with Ramirez was one of an outstanding if quirky employee.  Think about the salesman who makes his quota quarter after quarter and nobody says a peep when he parks in the visitors’ parking space.  If you produce in sports, or in business, and you have skills that are not easy to replace, like hitting a baseball or being an outstanding salesman, the rules are different.  That’s life.  You have a hard time getting along with my egotistical salesman who brings in 25% of my revenue?  That’s a you problem.  Figure out how to get along with her.  You love the production if not the person.

Lesson #2 – You set yourself apart by how you perform in crisis. One of the reasons that sports is so compelling is that each event is a crisis, and the event within it holds super-crises, such as the 9th inning, the Two-Minute Warning, two minutes in the game, a shootout, and so fort.  There are plenty of ballplayers that can hit in the 3rd inning of a game in April for a team not expected to win.  Not as many can hit in a pennant race in a close game.  You won’t be successful every time.  Manny Ramirez had his share of strikeouts in the 9th.  Michael Jordan missed his share of buzzer-beaters.  John Elway had his share of 2-minute drills fall short.  But when the perception is that you won’t perform worse than normal under crisis compared to under situation-normal periods, you are valuable.  In a historical context, Manny Ramirez was the best right-handed hitter, possibly ever, that the Red Sox ever had.  Certainly the best since Jim Rice.  Numbers-wise, he was even better than Yaz.  By a lot.  But more importantly he hit great in the clutch.  Interestingly, I thought his performance in 2-strike counts was a lot better than it was.  But everyone got the feeling that whatever the count, he was a dangerous, dependable hitter.  In innings 7-9 in games, he hit .290 with 136 HR and 417 RBI.  With 2 outs and runners in scoring position, he was .310/72/505.  Interestingly in games that were late and close (7th inning or latter, team either tied, up 1 or tying run on base), he was .275/55/211.  The latter are very good numbers when you realize that by that time, you are facing relievers that are brought in to face you or you’re being intentionally walked a lot.

I think Ramirez’s personality allowed him to be successful in crisis.  But it was a different kind of crisis personality.  Most of the guys we think of as “clutch” give the impression that their focus changes to something superhuman.  Ramirez seemed the opposite.  He seemed not to avoid feeling pressure, but simply perceived there was no pressure in the first place.  He’d try to hit the ball, but either way it wasn’t the end of the world, and he’d get paid either way, and he’d get ’em next time.  Not exactly a leader, but it seemed to help him focus and succeed in crisis.

In business, we know lots of people who can perform when it’s situation normal.  But who is able to close the tough deal?  Who is able to complete a crash project without a lot of preparation and warning?  Who is able to save the client relationship when something goes wrong?  Who is able to make the leap to formulate a reasonable solution to a problem with an incomplete fact pattern?  Maybe you don’t succeed all the time because if you’re on a razor’s edge every day, some days even the best come down on the wrong side.

Lesson #3 – Being loved and being successful are not synonymous. Boston is a baseball town.  We live and die with the sport every day.  The Patriots are #2 as long as they win, with the Celtics and Bruins at 3 and 4.  As a baseball town, Fenway Park sells out night after night.  Each game is an event – a memory waiting to be made.  To make matters tougher, Boston fans feel an entitlement to get the same love back as they cast at their players.  Ted Williams was tolerated, as was Bill Russell. All either one cared about was success on the field and the fans were an afterthought, if not an outright nuisance.  But, they came to forgive Bill Buckner as he finished his career in Boston (although he did ultimately move to Idaho).  The fans are right on top of you.  Some are drunk before they enter the stadium.  Almost all of them paid over $100 per ticket to be in the stadium.  Sports talk radio is king and is as much therapy for the fans as it is some sort of discourse.  Not every talented player can handle that crucible.  Edgar Renteria is a great example of someone who couldn’t.  Ramirez could handle the burden of the Curse because he could have an out-of-body experience as a baseball player.  He could just show up and hit.  And like Ted Williams, the fans tolerated him because he could hit but he was never beloved.  If Manny Ramirez even appreciated the existence of the Curse, it’s clear he cared about as much about the curse as he might care about a potential government shutdown.   He’d smile when we thought he should be breaking a bat over his knee.  He’d have dinner with Yankee players.  He talked about playing for the Yankees someday.  But, he could show up and hit, so most of us overlooked all of it.  Because he didn’t care about the Curse, we couldn’t love him for breaking it, but we could be grateful that he succeeded in helping to do so.  Nobody shed a tear when he was traded.  We hated losing guys like Freddy Lynn, Carlton Fisk, Mo Vaughn, Roger Clemens, Nomar Garciaparra, and Johnny Damon to trades or free agency.  With Ramirez, we couldn’t help him pack fast enough, even though he was still a potentially productive player.  We didn’t love him and when he began to refuse to produce, there was no reason to put up with the crap anymore.  Ramirez was successful, but not loved.

We can think of people in business circles that are successful but not loved.  It’s tough to be loved while not successful because if you’re not successful, you won’t be respected, nor will you last all that long.  In a broader sense, this boils down to reputation.  You can be successful without having all that great a reputation, even in the small Atlanta startup community.  I could name several people that clearly fall into that category.  I’m not inviting a discussion of who belongs on which list and I won’t allow any comments to be posted to that effect on the blog.  I do wonder for those people if it is even all that important to them that they are loved or even liked in the community.  But I do think it is helpful introspection to think about which category you fall into.  I know I do and it helps me maintain focus and certainty of purpose.

Lesson #4 – Your bank account is defined by what you do.  Your legacy is defined by how you did it. In total, we’re looking at a career line of .312/555/1831.  He averaged 100 RBI per season.  But he did goofy things that made you feel like he never really drank the Kool-Aid of respecting the game.  Never made you feel like he loved playing in a Red Sox uniform or for the City of Boston (or Cleveland or LA).  So it was hard to love him, and his legacy in Boston will be hollow.  Years from now, Red Sox fans will bring the names up of Johnny Damon, Kevin Millar, David Ortiz, David Roberts and Curt Schilling long before people talk about Manny Ramirez.

All this greatness is washed away in The Juice.  Not only did he test positive twice under the official MLB drug testing program, but he was named as a user in the Mitchell Report also.  How do you separate the chemistry from the talent?  I can’t.  In terms of the Hall of Fame, here’s where I come down.  If I’m a voter, I can’t vote you in if you hurt the game.  Corking a bat doesn’t hurt the game.  Stealing signs doesn’t hurt the game.  Steroid use hurts the game and so does gambling on baseball.  If you hurt the game, you can’t possibly be enshrined in a hall dedicated to the greatest contributors to that game.  Steroids allows people to question the viability of those, long-awaited World Series and the response is weak, “we pretty much know half the league was doing steroids anyhow”.  Ugh.

I’ll bring out a local example in contrast.  I don’t know Sig Mosley all that well and I’ve never met John Imlay.  I haven’t been in Atlanta all that long relative to lots of folks here.  They are being honored tonight at the TiE VISTA/Gala as sort of a lifetime achievement community thank you award.  I have no clue how much money they made by angel investing or if their returns were at all commensurate with the risks they took.  But I don’t think (and I really hope I’m right on this one) that they are being honored just because they wrote a lot of checks to a lot of companies.  But Sig has been the Elton John of the Atlanta startup community.  By that, I mean he’s one of the hardest working guys out there (EJ still tours and plays well over 150 gigs a year at age 64).  Sig spends many hours educating entrepreneurs of companies in which he’ll never invest.  He helps educate and mentor the next generation of angel investors.  He’s the smart money and sits on all these boards, sharing his wisdom and experience and vast rolodex with, it seems, just about anyone who asks nicely.  He got behind StartupLounge early and Imlay remains our only sponsor from the financing side.  I understand that John has had similar involvement in the community.   As importantly, they were very good at not making an entrepreneur feel second-rate even if their deal wasn’t particularly attractive (or even comprehensible). Now, they made their money at Management Science America, and, in stark contrast to the historical, well-documented norm in Atlanta, where successful entrepreneurs take their money off the table and live whatever lives they have created for themselves, they created Imlay Investments, and the rest is history.  They were, of course, successful in two phases of their careers.  But it was the way in which they treated their success that built the legacy they have justly earned.  The great news is that there are others in the community right now that I think are well on their way to building a similar legacy, but again, I won’t name names.  This is a blog, not a suck-up site.

So, here’s the deal with Manny Ramirez.  It’s very easy just to wash our hands of the guy and vilify him on the way out, and only think about him when the Hall of Fame votes come around each year, starting in 2016 (I do not think he will get in and I think in fact he will struggle to stay on the ballot).  But, if we do that, we are missing an opportunity to learn from the positives and negatives of an important career.  Some of those aspects reflect our society and some of those aspects may ring true with us individually.  It’s worth a few minutes’ reflection.

3 Comments

  1. Great post Mike, and a relief to see that posts like this really prove that blogging still has value and purpose. With so many blogs I follow, and many more that I avoid, acting as reposts of stuff they just read on techcrunch, stuff they just bought, or just being banal thoughts I lose my faith in blogs as a medium at times.

    A Sox fan, a tech business man, and a Manny follower pivoting on those three points to make a set of salient points is the true niche/niche/niche thing that only comes from blogs. Well written, and as a Cleveland Indians fan I will say I will always have mixed feelings about Manny, but on balance he was a great player, who after a while I will mostly remember for the enjoyment of watching him play in his prime.

  2. Brian Falony says:

    Very thoughtful. Good lessons for us all.

  3. Mark says:

    Manny Ramirez has proven enough skills in all his games but it was suddenly forgotten due to the steroids issue. I think Brian is right that this is a good lesson for all of us…

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