Why is this man smiling? Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports
When he was 43 years old, Steve Carlton believed that he could still get major league hitters out. There were reasons for him to believe this and it was by no means the most implausible thing that Steve Carlton believed. But while we can assume that Carlton still probably believes that the United Nations and a secret cabal of Jewish financiers control the world's weather or whatever, Major League hitters made it impossible for Carlton to persist in his belief that he could still get the world's best baseball players out even as he entered his early-middle forties. He faced 54 hitters that year and 26 of them reached base; 19 of them scored. And that was it, until it was time to be inducted to the Hall of Fame.
Manny Ramirez will join Carlton and a diverse assortment of other driven weirdo baseball geniuses in Cooperstown as soon as the Baseball Writers Association of America decides he's been sufficiently humbled. This is Ramirez's first year on the ballot; his last Major League at-bat came during a brief and Carlton-ishly dreary stint in Tampa, during which Ramirez went 1-for-17, then retired rather than serving the 100-game suspension he'd received for a positive PED test during spring training. On Monday, the Kochi Fighting Dogs of Japan's independent Shikoku Island League Plus announced on their official website that they had reached an agreement with "Mr. Manny Ramirez (Manuel Aristides Ramirez) who was active in Boston Red Sox etc." If Ramirez does indeed join the Fighting Dogs, he will play most of next season at the age of 45.
There are various reasons to expect that Manny Ramirez will hit very well in the Shikoku Island League Plus, starting with the fact that he is Manny Ramirez and that the Shikoku Island League Plus is the Shikoku Island League Plus. There are four teams in the league, which is as haphazard and weird and backhandedly polyglot as any other independent minor league. Ramirez will be teammates with Sanfo Lassina, the only professional baseball player from Burkina Faso. It is something more than an understatement to say that Manny is the most high-profile player the league has ever seen; the only player on the Kochi roster with any American professional experience is infielder Zak Colby, who spent part of a season in the independent Can-Am League. Ramirez lit up the Dominican Winter League as recently as 2014, which is probably less relevant than the fact that he was one of the very best hitters of his generation. The question isn't whether Ramirez will outclass the competition in this league, really. Or, anyway, it's not the most interesting question.
The most interesting question, in this case and wherever Manny Ramirez is concerned, is why. After a few years as a coach and roving hitting consultant in the Chicago Cubs organization, Ramirez's second career in the game seemed secure and fairly easy to project; by all accounts, Ramirez was happy in his life as a roving goofball/Homer Yoda for minor leaguers in need. But his wife told TMZ just before Christmas that Ramirez was dedicated to getting back on to the field. "He is training extremely hard," Juliana Ramirez told the ellipsis and gossip site. "Batting, CrossFit, Orange Theory. He never stops."
There is no reason in the world why Manny Ramirez should uproot himself and go play for this team in this league, which is the thing that makes the most sense about him doing it. Manny's career numbers are what they are, and place him among the best hitters in the game's history, but his legend always had more to do with his impulsive, kid-like Manny-ness—the fully-clothed kamikaze naps in other players' hotel beds and in-game fan high-fives and unprompted doses of Viagra administered in secret to teammates.
Ramirez's great Red Sox teams branded themselves around their jocky hijinkery, but Ramirez always seemed to be playing a different and stranger game than the goateed pranklords who were his ostensible peers. The way Ramirez inhabited his deep and unstinting weirdness was either an anti-performance of Andy Kaufman proportions or something at once simpler and stranger—an athlete whose genius crowded out the other things that make people act a certain way, or who understood that genius as a license to ignore all that bullshit. This doesn't excuse anything, really, but it explains just about everything.
So this fits, or fits as well as every other thing Manny Ramirez ever did. Of course he would be unable to stop, and of course a ramshackle four-team minor league on the least populous of Japan's four major islands would be where he'd go to pick it all up again. Because he was so great when he was great, it will be a surprise whenever Manny Ramirez's physical skills finally abandon him; because he's human, they surely will. But Manny can choose the hour and place of its choosing, and it shouldn't be a surprise that he's picked answers that don't quite scan to the rest of us. Nothing else would make as much sense as one last weird feat of the inexplicable.