Manny Ramirez retired on Friday after being notified of his second suspension for violating baseball’s drug policy. When a player of Ramirez’s caliber retires, it’s a common practice to look over his career and debate whether he merits induction to the Hall of Fame. With Manny, the debate will go a little deeper than homers and RBI.
In his 1994 book “Whatever Happened to the Hall of Fame?” (a must-read for baseball fans), Bill James developed the Black Ink and Gray Ink tests to compare Hall of Fame candidates to players already in the Hall based on how many times they led their league (Black Ink) or placed in the top ten (Gray Ink) in certain offensive categories. The average Hall of Famer scores 144 on the Gray Ink test, which is designed to compare players across different eras. Of course, no test developed in 1994 could comprehensively evaluate Manny, then a 22-year-old Indians outfielder who would go on to play and live baseball like no one before him. Manny needs his own math.
I won’t take you through the entire Gray Ink test, but on hitting skills alone, Manny scores 154, ten points ahead of the average Hall of Famer and 80th of all time. He led his league in batting average in 2002, home runs in 2004, on-base percentage and slugging percentage three times each, and most famously in RBI with 165 in 1999. He looks like a Hall of Fame lock so far, but those numbers don’t cover his career. Let’s consider a few other categories:
Defense: minus 12 points
Hall of Fame voters tend to focus on offense, where they can recognize and interpret the basic stats. It’s more common for great defense to earn a player bonus points (see Ozzie Smith, Bill Mazeroski) than for poor defense to hurt a player’s case (Ralph Kiner comes to mind). Manny had a good arm, but was so bad at everything else an outfielder has to do defensively (he was worth negative 155.7 runs in his career, according to fangraphs), that he essentially needed to hit like Derek Jeter just to be a replacement-level player.
New score: 142
Being Manny: plus 7 points
A purist may disagree, but stories about Manny taking a bathroom break behind the Green Monster holding up signs on TV declaring his upcoming trade for Brett Favre always made baseball a little more fun when Manny was being Manny. Throw in the hair, the handshakes, and the promise that you would never see Manny kissing himself in a mirror or holding a baby goat in a cologne ad, and he’s back up to:
Not Being Derek Jeter: minus 8 points
Unfortunately, Manny gives back all his goofy points and then some for those instances when his goofiness was detrimental to his teams. How many Hall of Famers demanded trades not once, but twice? Who else publicly stated during a playoff game that it didn’t matter to him if his team won? Before the Red Sox finally gave him the trade he yelled, whined, and joked about in 2008, he made no secret about giving up on the team, often leaving the bat on his shoulder for games at a time rather than contributing anything to a win. Back down to:
Postseason Performance: plus 37 points
Manny’s teams were winners. Nearly every team he ever played on finished over .500. Manny played in eleven Division Series, eight League Championship Series, and four World Series, winning two titles, including perhaps the most famous one in World Series history (2004, when he was Series MVP). Manny hit .285 with a .394 on-base percentage in the postseason, and hit more postseason home runs (29) than any player in baseball history. If John Smoltz and Andy Pettitte can ride their postseason exploits into the Hall, why shouldn’t Manny? We’re back up to:
Sanctimonious Voters Applying their Own Interpretations of the Hall’s Character Clause: minus 24 points
Here’s where things start to look ugly for Manny. Recent election results (Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro, etc.) suggest that at least 25 percent of Hall voters consider themselves the foremost authorities regarding (1) who took steroids and who didn’t, (2) what effect steroids had on these players’ numbers, and (3) how Major League Baseball and the Hall of Fame think these players should be treated when it comes to Hall induction. Without the consent of those 25 percent, no one proven, or even suspected, of steroid use will be elected to the Hall of Fame by the writers in the foreseeable future.
So why didn’t Manny’s 50-game steroid suspension in 2009 cost him more than 26 points in my hypothetical Manny Gray Ink Test? Because numbers stand the test of time better than anecdotes. Ty Cobb had no problem getting elected to the Hall decades after his retirement despite being roundly despised by players, fans, and writers during his career. Ted Williams was a writer’s nightmare and often described as a poor teammate, but by the time he reached the Hall ballot, his .406 season and 521 home runs spoke louder than his off-field issues. By the time Manny is off the writers’ ballot and his fate is in the hands of the Veterans Committee, he may be remembered more for his 555 homers and otherworldly .996 OPS than for his extracurriculars.
We’re back to our original 154 points, with one category to go.
Getting Caught Using Steroids Twice: minus 153 points
I’ve made my case about steroids in this space before. They can certainly be considered cheating, but so can spitballs, corked bats, amphetamine use, and sign stealing, crimes of which many if not most Hall of Famers, were guilty at some point. We choose to look the other way regarding most of these issues, but steroids helped Barry Bonds break records we didn’t want broken. Steroids (and smaller ballparks, batting armor, expansion-era pitching, and smaller strike zones) led to home run numbers we had never seen before and weren’t comfortable with, so we choose to pretend that they magically turned league-average hitters into Babe Ruth and had no effect on the pitchers these hitters victimized (unless we don’t like those pitchers), so we write off these hitters’ offensive numbers as if they played all their games at Coors Field against 8-year-olds.
But seriously, Manny, twice? He got caught using steroids twice after the league developed a stringent testing procedure and implemented suspensions for positive tests. For a decade, baseball looked the other way and effectively endorsed steroid use, often putting players in difficult situations where their careers depended on performance enhancing drugs. By 2005 or so, baseball changed its course, working hard to rid the game of steroids. Manny’s use is not a symptom of a league-wide epidemic. This is not a brief lapse in judgment by a 23-year-old whose fame, fortune, and livelihood may depend on the advantage he can potentially gain from a needle. This is an idiot risking his legacy and his team’s success for the off-chance that he recovers faster from injuries and hits like a 36-year-old at 39. This is a man who never really cared what anyone thought about his drive, his work ethic, or his personality. This is a player who hit a baseball better than all but a handful of players in major league history, but who will never join his peers on a plaque in Cooperstown.
Final Gray Ink score: 1 point. Just ahead of me.