REMADE IN TAIWAN: Manny Ramirez’s Season Abroad

Two years after he retired from baseball in disgrace, one of the greatest sluggers of his generation wound up playing on the other side of the world, the unlikely savior of a league whose reputation is as complicated as his own. And with a major league comeback possibly imminent, a half a season in Taiwan may have saved Manny Ramirez, too.

Sam Graham-Felsen


I.

The first thing you notice walking into Taiwanese baseball stadiums is the smell. It’s assaultive. And it’s in the air — like, you can actually see spattered oil globules suspended in the sopping, 95-degree humidity. You are being soaked in stinky tofu.

At Xinzhuang Field in Taipei, the nation’s capital, you’ll also find garlic-infused chicken feet, “fresh squid delicious,” “sausage and rice tube,” corn-and-broccoli-stuffed octopus balls, and something called “chicken leg roll.” But the only thing you’ll smell is stinky tofu. The stench of this popular Taiwanese snack — heavily, heavily fermented tofu, often topped with pickled cabbage — is nauseating. Stinky tofu is one of the few things that even Andrew Zimmern — the Travel Channel guy who roams the world eating “bizarre” foods — can’t handle.

The stadium is packed — a sold-out crowd of 12,000 for the E-DA Rhinos’ first home game in Taipei. In the Chinese Professional Baseball League, Taiwan’s top league, there are only four teams, and while each hails from a different city with its own ballpark, teams alternate hosting duties no matter where they play. So, even though the Rhinos are based in Kaohsiung, a port city on the opposite end of the island, they will be batting in the bottom of the inning tonight.

There is a dueling-pep-rally atmosphere. Brother Elephants fans sit on the left (away) side of the stadium; on the right (home), Rhinos supporters. (Brother is the name of the hotel company that sponsors the Elephants.) Both sides have their own cheerleaders, hoarse-throated hype men, bongo drummers, and brass bands. Virtually every fan has color-coded thunder sticks, which are bashed together continuously. Everybody chants — and not just the Mandarin equivalent of “Let’s Go Rhinos.” There are a variety of cheers, and some sound quite complex. Everybody chants, at the top of their lungs, for all nine innings, even when their team is getting smoked. It’s amazing.

Drummer and hype man for the Brother Elephants. Sam Graham-Felsen



It wasn’t always like this. Last year, average attendance was in the 2,500 range and the nearly 24-year-old league was on the verge of collapse. One player changed everything overnight — the only player both sides root for, Manny Ramirez.

The Brother Elephants take a quick 2–0 lead before Manny — referring to him as Ramirez feels alien, because for all the things he’s lost, first-name ubiquity is not among them — has his first at-bat in the bottom of the second. (He’s hitting cleanup.) It’s like a strange, midsummer night’s dream to see one of the gods of American baseball walk to the on-deck circle in a purple uniform with Chinese lettering. There are plastic diamonds embedded in his long dreadlocks, and at 41 years old, he’s showing specks of gray. He’s still strong, but in a barrel-like old-man kind of way. There’s a slight creakiness in his movements, except for his swing, which appears to be as swift, vicious, and immaculate as ever.

The young Taiwanese TV producer sitting next to me in the press box seems surprised by my presence. We discuss Manny as I very slowly eat the stinky tofu she’s bought me as a welcome gift. (It’s not as bad as it smells, but it’s sour, spongy, and deeply unpleasant.) I try to explain to her that I’ve come all this way not simply as a reporter, but as a longtime, fascinated observer and admirer of Manny’s, hoping to find some new and essential insight about one of the most befuddling and elusive superstars in sports history. But with the language barrier, all I get across is, “I hope he hits a home run.”

And then he does. The stadium explodes as Manny rounds the bases at his notorious slow trot. People jump and hug each other, horns blast, thundersticks crack, and one man holds up a huge sign that, inexplicably, features a Dallas Cowboys helmet with Manny’s number on it. My Taiwanese friend and I high-five repeatedly.

“He did it for you!” she screams. “He did it for you!”

II.

Manny poses with the head of E-United Group, Lin Yi-shou, after signing a contract to play on the EDA Rhinos in Kaohsiung, Taiwan. Wally Santana / AP


It was March 7 of this year when Manny Ramirez, one of the greatest right-handed hitters of the last half-century, announced that he had signed with a team in Taiwan. Manny spent three months in Taiwan’s CPBL, where he ranked in the top three in batting average, RBI, and home runs, and last Wednesday, the Texas Rangers signed him to a minor-league contract. He’s 3 for 10 in his first three games, with one home run, and it’s entirely within the realm of possibility that he could get another shot at the majors. But the Rangers said they hadn’t even scouted him in Taiwan. And it would have been an odd place to go if his sole intention had been to showcase himself, as Taiwan’s league isn’t even the best (Japan) or second-best (Korea) in Asia. Observed from afar, his Taiwanese interlude remains a mystifying three months. Yet here we are.

One thing that’s not mystifying is why Manny might have felt like leaving the United States. His fall from stardom was one of the most sudden and spectacular in the history of professional sports. It started in 2008, one season after he helped carry the Red Sox to their second World Series title in four years, seemingly poised for the stretch run of a career that would rank as one of the ten or even five greatest ever by a slugger. But his most salient strength — the equanimity that helped him thrive even in 0–2 counts — had given way to violent volatility. He slapped a teammate during a game, and later assaulted the Red Sox’s 64-year-old traveling secretary. Boston shipped him to the Los Angeles Dodgers — where for a while he played some of the best baseball of his life, hitting .396 with 17 home runs and 53 RBI in August and September 2008. But during the 2009 season, Manny failed a Performance Enhancing Drug test. (The doctor who prescribed the drug — a female fertility treatment often used to mask steroid use — to Manny was Pedro Bosch. His son, Anthony, is the owner of the “anti-aging” clinic Biogenesis, which is in the news for reportedly supplying PEDs to over 20 major league players, including Alex Rodriguez and Ryan Braun.) When Manny returned from his 50-game suspension, he suffered a string of injuries, struggled to regain form at the plate, and was unloaded to the White Sox, where he hit a single homer in 24 games. After landing in Tampa Bay at the beginning of the 2011 season, a seemingly desperate Manny failed another PED test and rather than face a 100-game suspension, he walked away from the game.

A few months into his retirement, Manny was arrested for allegedly striking his wife in their Florida home. The charges were dropped, but his mug shot was everywhere; Manny said he had become committed to devout Christianity and reconciled with his wife, who encouraged him to try to make a comeback in the minor leagues with the A’s. The MLB lowered his suspension to 50 games, which he served in 2011. But Oakland never called him up to the bigs, and no other major league team would touch him. By that point, according to his son, Manny Jr., “He said that just about everybody he was friends with bailed on him.”

And so, Manny did what is perhaps inevitable for someone with so much baggage: He skipped town.

But why Taiwan, of all places? He certainly hadn’t gone for the salary, $25,000 a month, roughly the same amount he made per at-bat in Boston. Did he just want to be worshipped again? Or did he see Taiwan as a stepping-stone to Japan, and ultimately, a face-saving fairy-tale comeback to the major leagues? Or was he here for the money? Had he come to Asia — as a number of fading NBA stars including Stephon Marbury had — to tap into a vast new commercial audience and make a fortune off of the Manny brand? Why did Manny, at the end of his rope, go to Taiwan? And what did he find there?

Sam Graham-Felsen


III.

Manny’s agent, Barry Praver, says his client won’t be interested in talking. The CPBL’s international media liaison, Richard Wang, promises access to the locker room and other players, but warns that Manny has not granted any interviews to the foreign press, and recently rejected a request from Sports Illustrated. “Just hang around,” said Wang. “If he feels like talking to you, he will. You never know with Manny.”

From most profiles of Manny — including a Sports Illustrated cover story and a 6,500-word treatment in The New Yorker — it is evident that Manny gives reporters very little time. Even his authorized biography, Becoming Manny, features only a handful of original quotes. Manny has never been a verbal person, and it seems possible that a major attraction of Taiwan is the language barrier, an easy excuse to avoid conversation with fans, coaches, teammates — and the press.

But when I arrive in Taipei, several hours before the first of a three-game series against the Brother Elephants, it becomes clear that Manny has, in fact, very few barriers around him: no entourage, no coterie of cousins, no personal security team. His wife and kids stayed in America. It’s remarkable how unremarkable the relationship between Manny and his team is. In several days of observing the team in the clubhouse, in the dugout, and on the field during batting practice, he never seems like more or less than another player. It’s only during the games and in front of the fans that his status is highlighted.

The first stadium I visit, Taipei’s Xinzhuang Field, is a 30-minute drive from Taipei’s downtown area. It’s a residential area, so the teams’ hype men are only allowed to bellow into megaphones until 10 p.m. The stadium is clean and relatively modern, but there’s far less advertising than you’d expect, and there’s a single, small souvenir area (it’s just a table, not a built-in store), with just a couple Manny-specific items. The same is true at the Rhinos’ home, Cheng Ching Lake Baseball Field in Kaohsiung, situated next to an amusement park owned by E-DA on the outskirts of town. At both stadiums, the quality of the turf is poor: There are sporadic splotches of different grass and random undulations in the outfield. And when it rains, as it does when I’m in Kaohsiung, puddles the size of small ponds emerge, and stadium staffers rush out and scoop the water into buckets with their bare hands.

Manny’s sole traveling companion is a retired nurse from their old New York neighborhood of Washington Heights named Carlos “Macaco” Ferreira. A slight man with a Buddha-like combination of belly, soft smile, and shiny head, Macaco was Manny’s Little League coach and has been a presence in his life ever since. Everyone in the Rhinos organization calls him “Manny’s uncle.” During warm-ups, Macaco plays catch with Manny’s teammates on the field and tosses practice balls to kids in the stands. But once the game starts, Macaco is not in the dugout, or in the air-conditioned VIP section; he’s in the concessions line to buy a $2 Taiwan Beer before heading to the stands to sit by himself. Macaco is reticent about discussing Manny, and it’s understandable: He’s one of the only people in the world Manny trusts.

Rhinos staffer Ray Shieh serves as Manny’s translator and general fixer. “He came here because of God,” says Shieh who identifies himself as a fellow Christian. “He’s very religious and believes he’s meant to be here.” When Manny arrived, the team set him up in a private villa on the water, but Manny wasn’t thrilled about all of the mosquitos, so they moved him to a suite in a hotel near the stadium. Everyone else on the team stays in a dormitory. Other than that, he has no apparent perks: no separate locker space or workout area, no personal trainer, no special food requests (Shieh says Manny likes Taiwanese tea).

The Rhinos celebrate Manny’s birthday on May 30 in style. Courtesy of the EDA Rhinos / Via Facebook: EDARhinosbaseball

He participates in the bonding silliness common to all sports teams. For Manny’s birthday in May, his teammates — all of whom are clean-shaven and short-haired — donned fake dreadlocks. On the day I arrived, the Rhinos’ impish outfield coach, Lee “Jimmy” Chu-Ming, and several of the Rhinos players are wearing T-shirts with the phrase “Jimmy Being Jimmy” emblazoned across the chest. Apparently, to get Jimmy back for bringing up “Manny Being Manny,” the phrase that fans, writers, and even teammates in the States used any time he did something unusual or inscrutable, which was often, Manny printed a bunch of the shirts and distributed them on Jimmy’s birthday. And on Rookie Day — Manny being both Manny and, technically, a Taiwan-league rookie — he apparently took a team train trip while wearing an Incredible Hulk costume.

Manny being coach-y with teammate Kao Kuo-Hui. Sam Graham-Felsen

But teammates talk about Manny more as a guru than a goof, and view him as an expert on the game’s psychological side. “He shows young kids how to be patient hitters,” says team captain Hu Chin-Lung. “These guys used to swing at the first pitch, but he’s teaching them how to wait for the pitch they want to hit, how to watch pitchers and anticipate what they’ll throw in the next at bat.” Right fielder Kao Kuo-Hui says Manny helps him with “mental stuff.” When Kuo-Hui was in a slump, he says, Manny told him to “be happy when you’re playing,” and recommended a Bible verse.

Zach Hammes is a towering 29-year-old relief pitcher from Iowa who played Triple-A ball in the Dodgers organization before signing with the Rhinos; in a comic reversal of the way their interaction would’ve gone in the movie version of this story, it was the star in exile who tried to teach the career minor leaguer a lesson about stopping to smell the roses. “He told me, ‘Many people would love to be where we’re at, playing baseball in Taiwan,” Hammes says. “‘And we can’t do it forever.’”

And the counseling goes both ways — Manny asks both teammates and opposing players for advice during batting practice. “He’s just like a child, I swear,” says Hu Chin-Lung. “I mean, this guy hit 555 homers in the major leagues, and he’s coming here trying to learn from kids about how they swing. I’m like, what? Are you fucking kidding me? Five hundred fifty-five home runs and asking me how to hit?”

Sam Graham-Felsen


IV.

Manny has signed only a three-month contract, which is nearly up. “I give a 70% chance that he’ll stay,” says Hsu “September” Chan Yuan, the Rhinos’ TV announcer, whose euphoric calls of Manny’s home runs, during which he breaks into English in the midst of otherwise all-Mandarin broadcasts, have made him a YouTube star in his own right (“This ball is long gone…just like the ex-girlfriend who will never return!”)

A lot is riding on his decision. This isn’t just Manny’s shot at redemption; it’s the CPBL’s too. Baseball was brought to Taiwan by Japanese imperialists in 1895 (the Japanese learned the sport in the mid-1800s, when it was introduced by an American professor at what is now the University of Tokyo). It is considered the country’s national pastime and is by far its most popular sport. Eight Taiwanese have played major league baseball, most notably former Yankee ace Chien-Ming Wang. But the Chinese Professional Baseball League hasn’t made it easy for fans to remain faithful. Few professional sports leagues, anywhere, have a more sordid history.

Since its inception in 1989, the CPBL has had half a dozen major corruption scandals. In 1997, all but two of the China Times Eagles were caught throwing games for gamblers. The players were banned from the league and the team folded; the Taiwanese press labeled them the “Black Eagles” after the Chicago Black Sox affair. The year before, a group of gangsters had kidnapped five players from the Brother Elephants, holding them in a hotel room; one player was pistol-whipped and another had a gun barrel inserted in his mouth. Evidently, the players had infuriated the gangsters, who lost $125,000 on the game and believed that the Elephants players threw the game for a rival gang. Efforts were made to clean up the league, but in 2009, more than 40 players were caught colluding with mob bosses, elected officials, and a notorious bookie dubbed “The Windshield Wiper” for his ability to emerge clean from the muck. This scandal was particularly damaging to the league because several of its biggest stars — including former Colorado Rockies pitcher Tsao Chin-hui, the first CPBL player to have ever made the MLB — were implicated.

Salaries are low in the CPBL, and due to a very restrictive free-agency policy and lack of a players union, management has disproportionate power. It’s no wonder, then, that so many players succumb to the lucrative lure of mobsters. It’s also unsurprising that law enforcement hasn’t been completely effective; organized crime has been part of Taiwanese life since the country’s beginnings in 1949. Taiwan’s leader Chang Kai-Shek worked with gangsters to solidify his rule, and his party, the KMT — which has been in power for almost all of Taiwan’s history — had ties with the so-called “Bamboo Union” gang throughout the ’70s and ’80s. By some accounts, during this period, Taiwan became Asia’s hub for heroin shipments to the U.S., and in 1984, the KMT allegedly sent Bamboo Union hit men to California, where they murdered, in his own home, Henry Liu, a Taiwanese-American journalist who had written a critical book about the party. The Bamboo Union is still thriving in Taiwan — and was recently listed by Foreign Policy magazine as one of the top 10 most dangerous gangs in the world. Government-mob ties persist. In 2010, 20,000 people, including Taiwan’s parliamentary speaker and several city mayors, attended the funeral of mafia leader Lee Choa-hsiung.

Snacks, cheerleaders, and a legendary home run call at the Rhinos game. Sam Graham-Felsen


But baseball, despite its underworld connections, is linked with Taiwan’s identity. It is a point of patriotic pride and a marker of the country’s cultural independence from China, which continues to view Taiwan as merely a province in revolt, and effectively denies its existence. (Baseball never caught on in mainland China; Chairman Mao saw it as a Western evil and promoted the virtuous team sport of basketball.) Taiwan’s leaders are invested in keeping the national pastime alive. “Baseball is a means of personal and national confidence-boosting,” says Jason “Giambi” Pan, a journalist for the Taipei Times who has covered the CPBL for years. (“The negative side of all this is that baseball has been used as a tool of propaganda,” he adds.) In 2012, when the sponsors of the Sinon Bulls, one of the league’s four remaining teams (at the CPBL’s height, there were seven) pulled out after another year of poor attendance, the government scrambled to find a corporate backer to fill the gap and save the league from near-certain collapse. The E-DA Corporation, a steel conglomerate, stepped in, essentially to do the government a solid. They took over the Bulls team and rebranded them as the Rhinos.

The Rhinos quickly made a splash by recruiting two former major league players, including the aforementioned Hu Chin-Lung, a former Dodger and Taiwan native (the only MLB player ever to actually have the name “Hu” — though he plays second base, not first). And then in March, the Rhinos shocked the nation with the signing of the biggest name, by far, to play in Asia: Manny.

Thanks to his presence, there is not only a renewed enthusiasm from fans — attendance at Rhinos games has quadrupled since last year, and given the league’s checkered past, it’s not surprising that a little alleged steroid abuse wasn’t a barrier to popularity for Manny — but also far greater scrutiny from team and league officials. The Rhinos have a curfew, both at home and on the road, to prevent players from coming into contact with mobsters. Nobody wants to screw this up. And the Rhinos’ manager is known as a notorious stickler with no tolerance for off-field shenanigans. In fact, in 1999, potentially because he refused to cooperate with mobsters (we’ll never know because he never pressed charges), he was stabbed four times after dropping his daughter off at kindergarten.

“The league is so much more professional, the players are so much more focused, and the fans are really showing up,” says “Giambi” Pan. “The government is noticing, and as a result, legislators are working to pass tougher anti-gambling laws.” And if the CPBL can sustain the big crowds and subsequent revenue from ticket and merchandise sales, it’s conceivable that salaries will eventually rise and deter players from leaving the island.

Sam Graham-Felsen


V.

When Hu complimented Manny’s childlike excitement for talking about hitting, he was inadvertently joining a debate with a long history. “Child” was one of the most common epithets used to describe Manny during his time in the majors. And yet, what so few appreciated about Manny was that his childishness was cultivated and deliberate; that, beneath the sheen of adolescence was in fact a rare maturity. The flip side of Manny’s unwillingness to “grow up” was a transcendent ability to crowd out distractions, slow down the world around him, and think only about hitting.

That meant he’d also make absentminded blunders in the field, on the base path, and in the locker room. But it’s also what produced near perfection at the plate. Manny was never a great baseball player — but he was among the greatest hitters the game has ever seen. The physical act of hitting a round baseball with a round bat is often called the most difficult fundamental task in all of sports. But the physics are only part of it. No other sport is as slow-paced and focused on the individual, and nothing is more anxiety-inducing than hitting. Think about the bundle of nerves that is the average baseball player: the nonstop chewing of tobacco, the crazy pre-swing voodoo, the ridiculous codes of silence during streaks, the desperate impotence during slumps, the bats snapped on knees, the constant loss of cool.

Before the meltdown that ended his MLB career, Manny never lost his cool. “If he had a good game or a bad game, he was always the same. I used to get mad, I used to slam helmets or tear my batting gloves,” Manny’s former teammate Omar Ramirez (no relation) recalled in Becoming Manny. “I think that’s one reason for Manny’s success. He approaches baseball, and life, differently than everybody else. He’s happy to be alive, and that’s it.”

What makes Manny’s calm all the more remarkable is that it did not come naturally. According the authors of Becoming Manny — one of whom is a professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts — Manny was an anxious child. Growing up in the Dominican Republic, he was so scared of the dark that he used to pay older boys to walk him home at night. And his parents did not attend a single one of his baseball games until he made it into the major leagues. Now, even the least engaged Little Leaguer in the world would be hurt — and perhaps, permanently damaged — if his parents never showed up to his baseball games. But Manny was arguably the greatest hitter to ever come out of New York City. In his senior year, Manny hit .650 with 14 home runs in 21 games. He was selected 13th overall in the amateur draft and was all over the news before his parents even found out how good he was. “We knew he loved to play baseball,” his older sister Evelyn said, “but we had no idea.”

Such parental obliviousness seems like the classic recipe for a future hot-blooded head case who needs love and affirmation at all turns. Yet Manny never appeared to be bothered by it. Instead — as he’d do throughout his career — he downplayed the significance of the one thing he’d dedicated his life to. Steve Mandl, Manny’s high school coach, recalled that reporters would ask Manny where his parents were. “And he’d say, ‘Why would they come? What are they gonna see?’”

Fast-forward to the 2007 ALCS, when reporters asked Manny if he was worried about the Red Sox being down 1–3 to the Cleveland Indians. “Why should we panic?” he responded. “We’ve got a great team. If it doesn’t happen, good… We’re just going to play the game, like I’ve said, and move on. If it doesn’t happen, so who cares? There’s always next year. It’s not like the end of the world or something.”

He got killed for saying it. Everybody saw Manny’s self-centeredness; few saw his centeredness .

Sam Graham-Felsen


VI.

Especially in Boston.

Some of us loved Manny for his weird and wonderful refusal to follow baseball’s silly norms, for the way he toyed with the self-important Boston press, for his innumerable, inexplicable “Manny being Manny” moments. But much of Boston reacted differently to Manny’s antics.

This Boston did not take well to the sui generis oddball in baggy pants. I spent the first 22 years of my life in Boston and worked as a vendor (“Hey, peaaa-nits, hee-yahhh!”) at Fenway throughout high school and college. Some might think of Boston, the so-called “Athens of America,” as a hub of Emersonian freethinking, but to me it was still the rule-bound city of Puritan ghosts. The predominant ethos of the city and its metro area was one of blue-collar resentment — even among residents who were comfortably middle class. “Long-suffering” was the descriptor most commonly affixed to Red Sox fans before 2004 — but it wasn’t just “the curse.” To be Bostonian was and still is to know bitterness: the aftertaste of the busing years, which racially divided the city, the winters, the grating fact of living in New York City’s long shadow.

Fenway Park, towards the end of the Manny era. Jim Rogash / Getty Images


The long-suffering Bostonians enjoyed Manny’s home runs, but spent more time grumbling about their $160 million man’s reluctance to hustle on the base path. Despite Manny’s consistently great, even historic, numbers, these fans saw comments like “Who cares?” as evidence of arrogance and apathy, not equability. The press jumped on every one of Manny’s missteps, and his own teammates turned on him again and again. Fenway favorite Trot Nixon — christened “Dirt Dog” by fans for his un-Mannylike willingness to dive in the dirt for balls — derided Manny for showing up late to spring training, and, in a casually racist remark that drew zero fire from the press, accused him of “pimping around.” (It’s worth noting that Trot enjoyed this proletarian reputation despite the fact that his father was a wealthy physician.) This Boston was overjoyed when Manny was finally shipped out of town, and viewed his PED scandals and subsequent downfall as evidence of what they believed all along: that Manny was a fraud.

Because I’ve built another vision of Manny in my mind over many years — a vision which, granted, is a bit reflexively oppositional to the way most Bostonians saw and treated him — I brace myself for the possibility of finding out that they were right about him. I’m prepared to see a surly, spoiled, disgraced superstar, clinging to the fading remnants of his celebrity in a strange, depressing land, the only one that will have him.

What I see — especially once I get to meet him — is something else. It’s my second day at the stadium, and I’ve already made peace with the idea that I won’t get a word out of Manny the entire time. My translator and I are cooling off in the dugout shade in between interviews with his teammates. I should explain here that Chris — who lived in Shanghai for seven years and is fluent in Mandarin — is an old friend, a fellow former Fenway vendor, and probably the world’s most maniacal Manny fan. When even I felt I’d had enough of Manny after the second PED scandal, Chris, the most stubborn and iconoclastic person I know, was still vigilantly defending him against the haters. We’re trying — and failing — not to stare at Manny from the dugout when he ambles right up to us. Looking amused, he asks, “So, what are you guys doing all the way out here?”

Stunned, we both fumble out something like “You… Uh, Taiwan…”

Manny mercifully interrupts us: “I’m gonna go work out in the cages. You wanna come with me?”

We walk through the tunnel behind the dugout toward the cages. Manny loops a resistance band around his legs and takes cuts with a pink, sawed-off, weighted practice bat. I jump a little after feeling the wind from his first swing; but I figure if there’s anyone I can trust swinging a few inches from my face — who can intuit the exact dimensions of a bat — it’s probably Manny.

I ask him, “Are you happy here?”

He looks me in the eye — I’ve worked for years in journalism and politics, and consider myself to have a decent bullshit vs. sincerity meter — and says, “Yes.”

“I love it here,” he continues. “The fans here, they go for four hours straight. Psshh, it’s unbelievable! And I love the culture. And the food is great, especially the seafood.”

Has he tried the stinky tofu?

“Nah,” he says, smiling.

He goes on. “There’s so much positivity here, much less negativity and jealousy than in America. And respect too. Like, if you see a 70-year-old man here, people listen to his wisdom.”

Why had he come here?

“I came here to learn. I’m learning so much here. They take the mechanics of hitting so seriously. Even warming up, playing catch, they have so much control. This league is gonna be huge in 10 years. I’m telling you, guys in the majors have so much to learn from these guys.”

Via Sam Graham-Felsen


I ask Manny if he plans to stay in Taiwan, and he answers unequivocally, “Yes, I want to stay.” In a few days, his wife and young children are going to visit, and he sounds excited to show them around. We talk briefly about his 17-year-old son from a previous relationship, Manny Jr., who had just been featured in the Boston Globe discussing his dreams of being drafted by a major league team. Manny Sr. said he hoped he’d get drafted in the first round, and told him if he didn’t, he “should use it as a motivation.” I ask him a bit more about his experience in Taiwan, and I’m hoping to move on and get his thoughts on the CBPL’s corrupt past, on his feelings about how Boston treated him, perhaps even get into PEDs (although, given that he’s apologized publicly and repeatedly spoken about his renewed Christian faith, I was less interested in this, figuring I’d hear more of the same).

But then, without warning, Manny turns, softly says, “All right, see you guys,” and walks back toward the dugout. Standing in the cages by ourselves, at first I worry that I’ve somehow alienated him — but after going over the conversation with Chris, we agree that this is just Manny’s mercurial way.

Manny doesn’t have his best game that night, but he goes 1–4 and extends his hitting streak to eight games. He’s 41 years old and playing in a third-tier league, but he’s hitting, proving to himself that he can still play in this nation of Taoists and Buddhists, about as far from the cold, critical glare of Boston as one can get.

So maybe there is no master plan after all. Maybe he just wanted to get away from the expectations of American celebrity, to be back in the luxury of his own skin, with his old Little League coach, playing the game he’s always loved, wide open to experience, like a child.

It occurs to me that the very phrase that was employed to deride him is actually the highest praise a human being could hope for. Manny being Manny.

VII.

A couple days after I get back from Taiwan, I receive an email from Richard Wang.

Subject: Manny is leaving Taiwan
Hello All,

It has been confirmed by the press release from EDA Rhinos, that Manny Ramirez will leave Taiwan on the 21st of June and has been removed from active roster as of today.

Manny’s stats at CPBL is as followed:

Games 49
PA 206
AB 182
RBI 43
Hits 64
Doubles 13
HRs 8
BB 23
SO 21
OBP 0.422
SLG 0.555
BA 0.352

Best Wishes,
Richard.

It turned out that Manny opted out of his contract in hopes of playing in America again. And, at least for now, the Rhinos, and the CPBL, seem to be doing fine. The Rhinos went on to win five of their next six, averaging seven runs per game, and clinching a playoff spot. Over those games, average attendance was 6,000, still more than double last year’s average. (Although, as Brandon DuBreuil, the astute blogger behind MannyDoesTaiwan.com, pointed out, this could very well be due to the fact that so many fans bought tickets before they found out about Manny’s departure.)

Jason “Giambi” Pan, the writer, still seems optimistic about the league’s future in the wake of Manny’s exit. “The CPBL, the clubs, and the fans, now realize that baseball can become a big business,” he writes in an email. “With Manny boosting the box office and media coverage, and bringing in much commercial and merchandising benefits, the CPBL will be more willing to sign big names. A lot of people will have fond memories of the three months that he played baseball in our ballparks. People will definitely say, ‘I saw Manny hit that home run at so-and-so park, I was there!’”

Pan goes on to say that talks to bring over pitcher Dontrelle Willis broke down over money, but that other ex-big leaguers such as Roger Clemens, Pudge Rodriguez, Johnny Damon, Hideki Matsui, Bobby Abreu, Sammy Sosa and even Jason Giambi have all been mentioned as possibilities.

To me, the news that Manny was leaving the Rhinos came as a total shock. Perhaps I should have been paying closer attention. Manny seemed to be at peace in Taiwan, but there was a level of determination in his workouts that might have tipped me off to his higher ambitions. While all of his teammates were hanging out in the clubhouse and jamming to Macklemore as the opposing team took the field for batting practice, Manny isolated himself in the weight room, surrounded by mirrors, practicing his swing and reading the Bible on his iPad.

On our last day in Taiwan, Chris and I stop by the weight room and interrupt Manny to say good-bye. He seems eager to get back to his workout, but is gracious. I mention that the video of the homer I saw him hit had gone viral due to Hsu’s “ex-girlfriend” call, which seems to amuse him. I add that the first time I saw him play, in his debut game for the Sox at Fenway, I’d seen him take the very first pitch he got over the Green Monster. I don’t, however, mention that this is a highlight of my life, a permanent chapter in my personal folklore, and that the Taiwan home run felt divinely connected to this one. He politely demurs. “I got lucky.”

He gives us both a fist bump, and, assuming I still live in Boston, tells me to “Say hello to David [Ortiz].” He’d been following his old teammate’s brilliant season with enthusiasm, and there seems to be wistfulness in his expression when we discuss Ortiz’s recent walk-off three-run homer.

“One more question,” I say on my way out. “What do you think you’ll do when you’re done with baseball?”

“When that time comes,” he says, “I’ll know.”

Round Rock, Texas, July 2013 Brendan Maloney/USA TODAY Sports


CORRECTION: The Rhinos employee who acts as Manny’s translator is named Ray Shieh. An earlier version of this item misspelled his name. (7/14/13)



















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