As it so often does, the world of sport is presenting us with a clear ethical conflict tomorrow night—one of those times when we have to prioritize ethical values, and decide which is more important in our culture, because if we meet one, we violate another.
Manny Ramirez will be returning to Boston’s Fenway Park in a Dodger uniform, as Boston hosts Los Angeles in an inter-league contest. Ramirez played left field for the Red Sox for a decade, and was probably the best right-handed slugger in the team’s history. The Red Sox won two World Series championships with Manny in the middle of the line-up; he was the MVP of the first one, in 2004, when the team ended an excruciating 86 year World Series draught. Boston fans have long memories and a keen appreciation of team history. Former players, even those who left under a cloud, usually get a fan salute when they return to Fenway. When former Sox icon Nomar Garciaparra came to the plate as a member of the Oakland A’s last season, for his first time back in the city since his 2004 trade, he received a standing ovation that moved him to tears. Carlton Fisk…Dwight Evans…Fred Lynn….Pedro Martinez…Jim Lonborg…and many others who had important roles in Red Sox lore have received similar gracious treatment from the fans upon their return, as well as lesser lights, like my personal favorite, “Steady Eddie” Bressoud. Based on his undeniable contributions to the team’s success and his spectacular batting exploits during his decade in Boston, Manny Ramirez would seem to have earned the Nomar reception, and and maybe more.
Manny, however, is a special, perplexing and complicated case. Alternately referred to as a man-child, a mental defective, a buffoon and a cartoon character by his critics, Ramirez never showed any particular affection or loyalty for the team or the city, demanding to be traded every other year, and openly talking of playing for the hated Yankees some day. Worse than that, he was a repeat malingerer who could not be counted on the play hard every day, only when the spirit moved him. The two flaws combined explosively in mid-2008, when Ramirez became convinced that he could make more money if the Red Sox released him from the team’s options for 2009 and 2010. He fought with a teammate in the dugout, pushed the team’s road secretary to the ground, and faked a leg injury to avoid games while the Red Sox were in a tight pennant race. After he was threatened with a suspension, he played, but barely. His already sub-par fielding became lackadaisical. He loafed to first base on ground balls, allowing easy double plays. In one infamous incident, many observers (including me) believed that he intentionally struck out in a crucial at bat in a game against the New York Yankees. This was the equivalent of throwing a game, a cardinal sin. It is the ultimate betrayal of team, teammates and fans. When the Red Sox were forced to trade Ramirez to salvage their season, few were sorry to see him go.
That wasn’t all. Last season, Ramirez was suspended for 50 games when he tested positive for a banned substance, a drug typically used by steroid abusers. That provoked some commentators, writers and Yankee fans to argue that the Red Sox championships in 2004 and 2007 were tainted, the product of cheating. Even in Los Angeles, Ramirez had brought shame to Boston.
The question being asked in Boston and elsewhere is “Will the Red Sox fans boo Manny?” That’s an easy one: of course they will. The jeers will drive out the cheers. The proof is Johnny Damon, another Boston hero in 2004 who, unlike Ramirez, played his heart out every time he stepped on the field. His sin, however, was false loyalty: after stating publicly that he would never play for the hated Yankees, Damon eagerly signed with them as a free agent because New York offered him more years and money. Ever since, he has been booed mercilessly in Boston—not for signing with New York, but for lying about his values. Damon’s “crime” pales next to what Manny Ramirez did. If the fans boo Johnny Damon, they will rage at Ramirez.
For a long time, I felt that raging was what Manny deserved. I enjoyed watching Manny bat, and I certainly enjoyed the results. I never respected him, however. He is the ultimate example of that bane of all organizations, the star performer who exploits his special talents to force employers to tolerate conduct they forbid from everyone else. This ruptures organizational integrity, destroys staff morale, and makes discipline and management difficult, if not impossible. Manny Ramirez is an anti-professional, with no respect for his craft, his team, or anyone, really, besides himself. He is habitually dishonest, doesn’t care about his commitments, and cannot be trusted, even to make his best effort when he is being paid 20 million dollars a year. It seemed to me that to cheer Manny Ramirez was to validate his despicable conduct, and to send the message to him and other players, including Little Leaguers, that behaving like Manny is acceptable. It isn’t acceptable. It’s wrong.
Yet ingratitude is also wrong. I think fans can cheer Manny for the good he did in Boston, the championships he helped win, the thrills and laughs he provided, without endorsing his dark side and unprofessional actions. It is all symbolic anyway, because Manny won’t care one way or the other. He may be a sociopath, or he may be an idiot, but one thing is certain: nothing bothers Manny except not being paid. Boos won’t faze him; cheers won’t encourage him. Whether to boo or cheer,then, is really a statement of cultural values. Do we opt for loyalty, sportsmanship, diligence and respect, and boo Manny because he has always rejected all of these virtues? Or do we choose gratitude, and recognize the huge contribution this incredibly flawed—but undeniably great–athlete made to the city of Boston?
Professional sports are about winning and character—but winning is the bottom line. The fair, kind and ethical way for fans to welcome Manny Ramirez back to Boston is to cheer him for what he achieved. It won’t mean they like him, respect him or even forgive him. In the final analysis, it is just time to say “thank you.”
Update: Manny Ramirez came to bat to lead off the second inning. The Boston fan reaction seemed evenly divided among those fans who stood and cheered, those who booed, and those who did nothing at all. For those who maintain Manny was genuine in his past statements of fondness for Boston fans, I only would note that he made no gesture of appreciation or recognition at all, at least that I saw. Johnny Damon, in contrast, who was booed by almost everyone in attendance upon his return (as a Yankee) in 2006, nonetheless raised his cap high in what appeared to be a genuinely graceful salute.