Monday, January 18, 2021

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Manny Ramirez, 48, Brings His Bat to the Sydney Blue Sox

The Sydney Blue Sox were stunned that Manny Ramirez, 48, wanted to join the Australian Baseball League. They’re counting on the former superstar to raise baseball’s profile in the country.

Adam Dobb thought he was being punked.

The email in his inbox had to be a joke. A 48-year-old Major League Baseball legend wanting to play professionally in a country he had never been to? It had to be a prank being pulled on Dobb, a lifelong Boston Red Sox fan and owner of the Sydney Blue Sox of the Australian Baseball League.

It wasn’t: Manny Ramirez really did want to play Down Under. The 12-time All-Star had been working with high schoolers and liked the look of his swing, so when Ramirez’s agent called to ask if he wanted to play on the other side of the world, he simply responded, “Yeah, why not?”

It wasn’t long after Dobb received the initial email over the summer that Sydney had Ramirez’s signature on a one-year deal — with a club option that Ramirez’s agent insisted upon. Ramirez did have another request: that Sydney not be allowed to trade him to other A.B.L. teams. The Blue Sox happily obliged.

“Hmm, let me think about that,” Dobb said with a laugh during a Zoom interview, recalling his thoughts at the time. “All right, I won’t trade Manny.”

Dobb would not disclose the pact’s financials — other than to say Ramirez will earn far less than he did in M.L.B., where he amassed more than $200 million in paychecks. The Blue Sox, however, will be paying Ramirez, a two-time World Series champion with the Red Sox, for much more than his on-field production. The presence of a former international superstar with an uncanny ability to draw the spotlight is an opportunity not only for the Blue Sox, but for Australian baseball in general. (And for Ramirez, who briefly played for the Chicago White Sox toward the end of his major league career, it completes a Dr. Seuss-like run through teams named for the color of their socks.)

Ramirez is seen being photographed inside of the Sydney Blue Sox club house.
Isabella Moore for The New York Times

“The money we pay him isn’t about playing salary,” said Dobb, who envisions hitting clinics, documentaries, jersey giveaways, corporate dinners, golf outings and other Ramirez-centric plans.

“We moved heaven and earth where we needed to. We looked after him more than we would any other import,” Dobb said. “We’ve now got ourselves an ambassador of our game like this country’s never had.”

Ramirez didn’t arrive in Australia until mid-November — and didn’t join his new team until Dec. 1 because of a 14-day quarantine — but the Blue Sox had already felt the seismic wave of attention that often followed Ramirez during his 19-year career in the major leagues, which lasted until 2011.

After the news of Ramirez’s commitment to Sydney emerged in a report from Jon Heyman of MLB Network, the Blue Sox were mentioned on ESPN, CBS Sports and numerous M.L.B. game broadcasts in the U.S.

The move also generated headlines in Australia, where baseball is far from the nation’s pastime, paling in popularity to Aussie Rules Football, rugby, cricket, tennis, soccer and basketball, among other sports. (Though it is telling that there have been at least two documented incidents of people in Australia wearing Red Sox hats failing to recognize Ramirez.)

“Baseball is a tier-three sport in this country,” Dobb explained. “We don’t get the back page of the paper. We don’t get the headline news on TV.” The interest from global and local outlets prompted the owner to explore streaming games online not just for Australians, but American fans, too.

Isabella Moore for The New York Times

“There has been a lot of excitement with not only the players in the Blue Sox organization, but also around the entire baseball community,” Sydney outfielder Alex Howe, 29, who watched Ramirez on ESPN when he was younger, said via email. “I think there are a lot of people around Australia that are extremely excited to potentially see Manny.”

Beyond Ramirez’s ambassadorial duties and the buzz he’s created, Sydney has plans for him to be a mentor and an unofficial hitting coach to his teammates. So far, so good: When rain limited the Blue Sox to indoor batting cage work during Ramirez’s first practice, he was quick to offer advice and discuss the mental aspects of hitting while awaiting his turn to swing.

“Manny fit in so well. He was just one of the boys,” Blue Sox Manager Shane Barclay said in an interview over Zoom. “Obviously, they’re in awe of him, but as far as one-on-one contact, they just treated him like one of the regulars.”

Shortly after his arrival, Ramirez accompanied a group of Blue Sox players and staffers on a trip to Centrepoint Tower, Sydney’s version of Seattle’s Space Needle. Invitations for a preseason team dinner at his new apartment were also extended.

“I see my role as trying to help the young players,” Ramirez said through a team spokesman. “Teaching them my experience that I got from M.L.B. I’m just happy to help anyway I can.”

Howe said Ramirez had been “extremely generous” with his time while getting to know his teammates. “He is such a nice and down to earth person,” he added.

Isabella Moore for The New York Times

Ramirez, of course, developed a reputation as one of baseball’s most mercurial players during his major league career, often drawing attention — and, at times, criticism — for his exploits. Cases of “Manny being Manny” ranged from playful to distracting to mischievous in a sport that has never been big on quirkiness, but there was never a shortage of drama and entertainment wherever he went, especially in Boston and Los Angeles.

His most serious transgressions — repeated performance-enhancing drug use — tarnished what would have otherwise been a surefire Hall of Fame career.

But even in Ramirez’s controversies, Dobb and Barclay see value. Ramirez’s unpredictability has always been part of his attraction, and the Blue Sox decision-makers believe there is an opportunity for Sydney’s younger players to learn from Ramirez’s mistakes, too.

“I’ve got no problems that he was no choir boy through all these years,” Dobb said. “That creates experience.”

For all the talk of how Ramirez will impact the Blue Sox off the field, there’s still the matter of in-game expectations for the 48-year-old.

Because of the pandemic, the Blue Sox did not get to play any true exhibition games before their opener on Thursday. Still, his new teammates and coaches have been impressed by the look of Ramirez’s body and swing. He was still hitting every day before he signed with Sydney, Dobb said, and he spent his quarantine working out virtually with the Yankees’ minor league hitting coach Rachel Balkovec, who is spending her off-season with the Blue Sox. He’s still working closely with her as he prepares to end a yearslong hiatus from professional play.

Isabella Moore for The New York Times

“I’m trying to get my timing back, see some live pitching and going from there,” Ramirez said. Asked for a scouting report on his current self, he admitted, “You don’t know what you’re going to get.”

The goal is for Ramirez to be Sydney’s everyday designated hitter, and he won’t be judged on a curve despite his age. Bring up that number and Dobb is quick to note another: .413, which was Ramirez’s average over 23 games with the Kochi Fighting Dogs, an independent-league team in Japan, in 2017.

“He’s only had a couple of cuts, but you wouldn’t think it was a 48-year-old body,” Barclay said after Ramirez first joined the team. “He’s fit, he’s focused. I know from speaking to him there’s no way — failure’s not an option here for him. He’s about as focused as you’d see an 18-year-old kid playing the game.”

As for what Ramirez gets out of all this, the answer is a place to play for an aging baseball junkie who declares that the sport “isn’t just a game, it’s life!” on his Twitter bio. Since his big-league career abruptly and effectively ended with a second positive test for performance-enhancing drugs in 2011, Ramirez has played in the minors, his native Dominican Republic, Taiwan and Japan.

“I could’ve gone to the Dominican Republic, where I’ve played, but I wanted to try something different,” said Ramirez. “It’s awesome. The city is beautiful. The city’s on the water. It’s unbelievable.”

Sydney, like those other stops, is a long ways away from the bright lights of the major league stadiums in Cleveland, Boston, Los Angeles, Chicago and Tampa Bay. The days of being stalked by the Green Monster, or idolized by residents of Mannywood, were no less than a decade ago.

And yet, Ramirez has found a way to carry on his baseball career in yet another new land, his latest team thrilled to help write the next chapter.

“We want to create Manny Down Under,” Dobb said. The Blue Sox seem to be well on their way.

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