Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Manny Being ... Something

The cat has long been out of the bag on the sort of baseball front office thinking that turned a semi-forgotten sports book into an Oscar-nominated film this summer. These days the principles espoused in "Moneyball" go under the heading of "business as usual." OPS and WHIP and the like are now the tools, not the tricks, of the trade of assembling a major league roster. Sabermetrics, though still in common usage, is an outmoded term, eclipsed and outstripped by what advanced analysis has now become. We need a new vernacular beyond "moneyball" and "saber-whatever" to accurately capture the dense complexity and indispensablity of what stats are to the fabric of today's game. I know it's a question of aesthetics, but "advanced metrics" just seems kind of lame. We can do better than that, can't we? That being said, since this is about the Oakland A's and they are the ostensible (heavily disputed depending on who you talk to) progenitors of this whole metrics thing, we can stick with "Moneyball" just for the moment. Because Billy Beane may have just made the ultimate Moneyball signing. The Oakland A's reached into the nebulous free-agency ether, and pulled Manny Ramirez back from oblivion.

According to ESPN, the deal is for roughly $500,000 and contains one pertinent stipulation: Ramirez needs to make the big league roster to get paid (he'd start his tenure in the minors). There is also the fact that Ramirez is obligated to serve a 50-game suspension due to that rather bizarre violation of MLB's drug policy possibly involving fertility drugs or other odd substances. Barring rain delays, the first game Manny could potentially play would coincide with his 40th birthday on May 30 against the Twins.

It's a given that 40-year-old power hitters generally retain very little of that power or even much in the way of hitting at all. No matter how diligently one maintains a training regimen and keeps in shape, reflexes and bat speed just don't survive that many years. And of course, Manny has never been known for his stalwart dedication to training. History would typically suggest that this will be a futile exercise. But then, Manny's never been a typical player. If anyone could somehow pull a few more dingers out of the shabby and faded hat of his latter-day career, it's him. He's one of the greatest pure hitters of all time by any measure, and he seems genuinely determined to give the game one more shot. At least, as determined as a guy with Manny's very finite attention span can be.

This may very well turn out to be a waste of Oakland's time and dime, but what if there's a smidgeon of a drop left in Manny's tank; just a faint glimmer of what made him a holy terror to pitchers around the league for so many years? Half a million bucks is pocket change in baseball, even for a fiscally beleaguered franchise like the A's. Put it like this: if Manny were in the NBA, he'd essentially be signing for the veteran's minimum, and Oakland would be taking the same sort of low-risk flyer that the Hawks took on T-Mac or the Mavs took on Vince Carter this season. If he doesn't pan out, that's that and no harm done, but if he can put together some at bats, and launch a few baseballs into the seats, this could be great for the A's.

Yes, Oakland desperately needs a bat in the middle of their lineup and even a fraction of Manny's heyday production would be a welcome addition. That's the baseball side of things, but let's be honest here, the A's aint winning the AL West. Not with the defending AL Champion Rangers and the suddenly stacked Angels to contend with. If Manny's bat pulls a Rip Van Winkle from its long slumber, his impact on the A's slender playoff chances won't be where his value lies.

First, if Manny starts hitting again, the A's can flip him for assets at some point before the trade deadline. Maybe modest acquisitions, but Billy Beane is still a shrewd, masterful negotiator, and it's not inconceivable to picture him talking some playoff-contending team who needs one more hitter for the stretch drive into giving up something worthwhile and possibly something worth somewhat more than Manny's bat.

Second, and a far more enticing thought from a certain perspective: if Manny starts hitting again, that instantly becomes one of the biggest stories in baseball. Picture the last chapter of a spectacular and at times spectacularly baffling career being rewritten as a tale of redemption and dignity somehow found amongst the ruins. Especially for a figure as grandly entertaining and thoroughly polarizing as Ramirez, this would be an arresting and wonderful thing to witness. That kind of story might not be enough to stir the A's notoriously disinterested fanbase into a frenzy single-handed, but it would definitely draw national attention and put some more butts in the stands. Frankly, the A's could use any positive press or attendance boost they can get. It would also make Oakland appointment viewing for every baseball fan, regardless of their sentiments regarding Ramirez. They'll tune in to root him on or root for him to fail or just out of interest and love of the game, but if Manny gets hot with the lumber, you can bet TV ratings for A's games are rising like the blasts he used to send into orbit. And don't think for a second that Ramirez A's jerseys won't be flying off the shelves. If this happens, it won't rock the world, but it will be something compelling; a sort of Tebowmania or Linsanity writ small. However, unlike those phenomena, it will come with the added emotional potency and subtext of seeing this crazy, harried figure we've known for 20 years somehow make good in the end.

And that will be worth it, no matter how the A's do this season.

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