04/02/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Mystery of Manny

The great and enigmatic Manny Ramirez has rejected yet another offer by the Dodgers, this one for $25 million, with an optional second year for $20 million. The Dodgers, in turn, have cut off talks.

Only Los Angeles has shown much interest in Ramirez, a reflection, reports ESPN's Buster Olney, not of the regard for his considerable skills but of his sometimes maddening state of mind.
Ramirez has been pegged a clubhouse liability, a whiner and a slacker who cannot be counted upon to display much hustle when the spirit does not move him.

There is no questioning his gifts with a bat. In his 16 big league seasons he has hit for an average of .314 with 41 home runs and 133 runs batted in -- Hall of Fame numbers. He helped the Red Sox win two World Series. But Ramirez was never at ease in Boston, and time and again asked to be traded away. By last season the Red Sox had wearied of him -- he had carped too often about management and had asked out of games, citing injuries of a dubious nature.

The Red Sox shipped to Southern California, where almost upon his arrival he went on a tear, hitting an extraordinary .396 with 17 home runs and 53 runs batted in in 53 games with the Dodgers. He all but carried to the playoffs and seemed the most contented of men.

Manny Ramirez will be soon be 37, and familiarity has not lessened his mystery. The sense of Ramirez is that he is not a bad fellow --- though shoving a team official because he was upset about the number of free tickets he was allotted was brutish. Rather, the refrain most often heard as explanation for his sometimes puzzling behavior is "Manny Being Manny" as if nothing more need be said.

We are left to assume that Ramirez, talented as he is, remains a child -- a moody, eccentric, if overgrown child.

It was not always so.

Ramirez first attracted attention in 1991, when Sara Rimer of the New York Times wrote about him in a series on a season spent following his team at George Washington High School in the northern Manhattan neighborhood of Washington Heights.

The portrait that emerged was of a quiet young man of seemingly endless promise whose admiring neighbors spoke of seeing him at dawn, doing his roadwork before school. He seemed the humble young man, considering how important he had become in a largely Dominican neighborhood where baseball was king.

But beyond the shyness and refusal to seek the glory for himself, something more was at play, as would become ever more apparent in the years that followed: this was not a fellow at ease with the world, or rather the world he encountered the day he left Washington Heights.

Several years ago, I got to know a young Dominican-born writer, Josidalgo Martinez, who had grown up in Washington Heights at the same time as Manny Ramirez.

He remembered Manny well, and understood, as few others could, the particular burden they shared: the fate that awaits those who comes to America as teenagers -- too old to learn English easily, and too young not to have it matter.

"At some point," Martinez wrote to me other day, "he realizes there exists a hierarchy that places him at the bottom as someone who cannot speak English. English-speaking kids call him a 'hick," a pariguoiago, someone who girls would reject.

"They remind him of this with jokes about his clothes -- they laugh at his flip-flops on the basketball court. He can either isolate himself according to the established order or try to jump the ladder using a special skill, preferably baseball. Either way, a part of him begins to feel dumb and rejected."

Josidalgo Martinez became a teacher and a novelist.

Manny, alas, became Manny.

Or perhaps, always was.