The Baseball Desert

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

The New Yorker: Waiting for Manny

This week's issue of the New Yorker has a piece by Ben McGrath on Manny (Hat tip: Seth Mnookin).

The article proves once again that it's hard to get anywhere close to an understanding of the enigma that is Manny Ramirez, and the result is a real mixed bag. However, in amongst the things we knew already and the things we didn't but probably don't much care about - lots of detail on the now infamous Atlantic City car auction, for example - there are some genuine nuggets. For me, the most revealing paragraph - the one that gets closest to revealing something genuinely interesting - is this one:
Duquette had been following Ramirez’s career since high school, but he now concedes that he had no idea "exactly how unique" his new left fielder was. "When Manny first came to the Red Sox, he would stand in the batter’s box, and the umpire would call ball four, and he would get back in the batter’s box," Duquette, who is now the president of the fledgling Israel Baseball League, told me. "He did this in his first series at Fenway Park and again on his first road trip." After the third such incident, Duquette ventured down into the locker room. "I said, 'Manny, let me ask you something. I was just wondering why you get back in the batter’s box after ball four.' He said, 'I don’t keep track of the balls.' He said, 'I don’t keep track of the strikes, either, until I got two.' Then he said, 'Duke, I’m up there looking for a pitch I can hit. If I don’t get it, I wait for the umpire to tell me to go to first. Isn’t that what you’re paying me to do?' "
At first glance, this just seems to be another "Manny is a space cadet" anecdote: this guy is so out of touch with what's going on that he doesn't even know what the count is. But my take (and I should add that I'm a Manny apologist, so you may feel the need to dash to the kitchen for a pinch of salt) is that this is extreme focus, rather then lazy-mindedness. It's true that it's not that hard to keep count of balls and strikes - I mean, even Johnny Damon manages it on a daily basis - but personal experience has also shown me that you can sometimes be so focused on something that you lose track of what's going on around you.

I can't claim to have been in the kind of high-pressure situation that Manny is in every time he steps to the plate. However, one of my previous jobs was as a translator / interpreter, which often put me in business situations where it was absolutely crucial that I make a faithful, word-perfect translation of what was being said. The pressure in that situation is huge (and is the reason why interpreters in high-level organisations like the UN only work for 20 minutes at a time), and the concentration 100%.

That concentration meant - in my case, at least - total focus on the phrase at hand, to such an extent that I was often incapable of reconstructing the whole conversation later on. That didn't worry me, because my job wasn't to reconstruct or make sense of the conversation - my job was to translate the different sentences as precisely as possible and let them speak for themselves. And so it is with Manny - pushed to the extreme, his job is not to worry about the bigger picture, but to travel those ninety feet from the batter's box to first base (and beyond), and it's a job he does very well.

All the other stuff? Minor details...