There is but one thing Manny Ramirez can do in life better than virtually anyone who ever lived and that is hit a baseball. Because of this singularly exceptional skill Ramirez has garnered over US$200 million in career earnings. His defence has been at times comical, his throwing often wayward, his base running confusing and his judgment and behaviour on and off the field borderline abhorrent. But put a baseball bat in his hand and it doesn't matter who is pitching or how fast they are throwing, everything that was wrong suddenly becomes right.
Of course the reasons behind Ramirez's status as a transcendent slugger are now a source of great conjecture and derision. Ramirez was suspended in 2009 and 2011 for testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs and is reported to have also tested positive in 2003. Three strikes and you're out in baseball and at 40 years of age Ramirez finds himself outside looking in at the major leagues with a lengthy suspension awaiting him should he make an unlikely return. But there is more than one ballgame being played on this global sandlot.
In a week when the World Baseball Classic finally generated some much needed buzz thanks to a frighteningly violent brawl between Mexico and Canada that went viral as well as a US team who now seem fully engaged in the significance of this event internationally, there was some surprising baseball news coming out of Taiwan. The man who put up Hall of Fame numbers playing for the Cleveland Indians, Boston Red Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers is now an EDA Rhino. The Rhinos unveiled their prized signing, Ramirez, at a ridiculously over-the-top press conference this past week and if you thought Dennis Rodman in North Korea was a stroke of symbiotic magic, you ain't seen nothing yet. The marriage of Ramirez and Taiwan's Chinese Professional Baseball League (CPBL) redefines the genre. Disgraced slugger meets disgraced league, it's an absolutely perfect match.
There are few sporting leagues anywhere in the world more blatantly corrupt than the CPBL. Start with the notion that the Taiwanese are absolutely silly for baseball and have been for years. Baseball is the one sport that the Taiwanese excel at internationally and the country has produced a number of good if not serviceable major leaguers over the years. Along with Japan and South Korea they form an Oriental axis that lags behind only North America and Latin America in baseball proficiency. Because of this, many liberties have been taken and laws broken in the name of keeping the game great in the country.
Founded in 1989, the CPBL has been riddled with sordid tales of corruption that have often soured Taiwanese on their national game. If any movie director was to properly tell the story of the CPBL it would more than likely be Martin Scorsese because of the heavy mob influence that has often seen episodes such as one where abducted players were pistol whipped and had guns stuck in their mouths because they were suspected of being paid off by a rival gang.
Despite continuous government efforts to clean the game up it inevitably descends back into a lawless romp. After all, these hoods have a friend or two in high places as well. A few years ago a lengthy investigation into a gambling and prostitution scandal involving the league was scrapped when the lead prosecutor was arrested for his role in bribing players.
With 555 career home runs, Ramirez is by far the most accomplished and famous major leaguer to ever play in the CPBL. But you don't get a player like that in Taiwan unless he is completely out of options. Three years ago with the Dodgers, Ramirez made US$24 million despite being suspended for 50 games for failing a drugs test. That worked out to about US$56,000 per at bat, more than double the US$25,000 monthly salary he will get with the Rhinos.
I don't pretend to understand the allure of true genius. For a guy with Ramirez's chequered past - he has also been arrested for domestic abuse - perhaps the only thing in his life that excites him still is indulging his uncanny gift for hitting a baseball. You just wonder if the carefree, self-centered and perpetually oblivious Ramirez really knows what he is getting into. The Wise Guys in Taiwan won't care that he won two World Series with the Red Sox if he somehow messes up their action on the Rhinos. Mr Scorsese, best keep a couple of screenwriters on speed dial. The fun has just begun.