Peter over at Cleveland Frowns has a passionate post about Manny Ramirez and the Hall of Fame, and it made me think about Lyndon Johnson. This, I suspect, gives you a pretty good idea about how my ridiculous mind works and why I didn’t get many dates as a young man.
In truth, I’m reading Robert Caro’s amazing and mesmerizing “Master of the Senate” about Johnson … and so just about EVERYTHING I hear at the moment makes me think about Lyndon Johnson, which makes it hard to read children’s books to the kids.*
*”And then the guy who wouldn’t eat Green Eggs and Ham, um, arranged for a filibuster by promising to vote with the pork states and then raised trumped up charges of Sam I Am being a communist.”
There’s a great baseball story in the book, by the way … Johnson, as you probably know, was frighteningly ambitious. I mean FRIGHTENINGLY ambitious. When he won his seat on the Senate (blatantly stealing votes to get there) he had every intention of skipping ahead, beating the seniority rules that defined the Senate, taking over the joint. But how? Well, one of his main objectives was to win over Georgia Senator Richard Russell — Johnson had figured out early that it was Russell who wielded more power in the Senate than any other.
Russell, it seems, was a huge baseball fan. He loved the Washington Senators (of course). According to Caro, Russell had the Senators up-to-the-minute batting averages in his mind every day.
Well, as you probably guessed already, before too long Lyndon Johnson would be seen out at Senators baseball games with Richard Russell often. In fact, it happened so often that when Russell was asked about it, he explained that he liked Johnson quite a lot. “We’re both baseball fans,” Russell said.
The punchline? At one point, future Texas Governor and Secretary of the Navy John Connally, then a Johnson aide, said in a teasing way: “I see you’ve become a baseball fan.” Connally knew that Johnson had never liked baseball or any other sport — his only connection to baseball was, as a kid, owning the only good baseball in his hometown, which he would take home whenever they did not let him pitch.
Johnson smiled and said to Connally: “You know I’ve always loved baseball.”
In any case, it seems to me that one of the overriding themes of Lyndon Johnson’s life — all his life, really, but especially his time in the Senate — was that he bullied his ambitions through. He destroyed people. He flattered people. Sometimes he flattered AND destroyed the same people. He was outsized … there was, best I can tell, no gray area with Lyndon Johnson and no tact with Lyndon Johnson and no subtlety with Lyndon Johnson. He wanted something, he went after it with almost cartoon-like fury. That to me is one of the real revelations of the book … and of power. In sports, we talk about one team wanting something more than another. It’s a cliche in sports and I think it’s only occasionally true. But in politics, I think it tends to be true pretty often. Lyndon Johnson always wanted things more than his opponents. He was always willing to go a little bit deeper, a little bit meaner, a little bit edgier. And he won.
Manny Ramirez is one of the greatest hitters in baseball history. I wrote a quick column on him when he retired, and made note of the fact that Manny Ramirez is the only player in baseball history to hit .310 or better with 525 homers and 525 doubles. You can always have fun with numbers … like so:
Only player to slug .650 or better: Babe Ruth.
Only player to have .480 or higher OBP: Ted Williams.
Only player to hit 140 triples and 500 home runs: Willie Mays.
Only player to score 2,000 runs, drive in 2,000 runs and get 3,000 hits: Hank Aaron.
Only player to hit 400 homers and steal 400 bases: Barry Bonds.*
*He’s the only member of 500/500 club too.
Only player to hit 700 doubles, 150 triples and 400 home runs: Stan Musial.
Only player to hit one homer with 300 runs and 250 RBIs: Next Poscast guest Duane Kuiper.
And so on. Every player is unique in some way. Still, the 525 homer, 525 double club is pretty exclusive — there are only five members (Aaron, Bonds, Palmeiro, Frank Robinson and MannyBManny). Raise the career average to .300 and there are only two — MannyBManny and Hank Aaron. Raise the average to .310 and Manny stands alone.
And, convoluted as the numbers may be (and as much as they say about the offensive era when he played), they numbers do say SOMETHING about how hard Ramirez hit baseballs for 17 or so years. He was a great hitter … one of the greatest right-handed hitters in baseball history. By OPS+ he is tied for 11th on that right-handed hitters list with Frank Robinson. By runs created, he’s eighth on the all-time list, just behind A-Rod. By WAR Runs, he’s seventh between Albert Pujols and Robinson. The guy could hit like few in baseball history.
Of course, nobody denies that. The question being asked a lot is what Manny Ramirez’s legacy should be … more specifically: Should he go into the Baseball Hall of Fame?
I’m not as interested in the question as I am in something else … the LJF … the “Lyndon Johnson Factor.” Because it seems to me there are two sides to the MannyBManny argument, but there’s really only side being argued passionately.
Side 1: Manny Ramirez was a great baseball player and, as such, should be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Side 2: Many Ramirez tested positive for PEDs twice and is an embarrassment and a sham and should definitely not be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Even as I express the basic viewpoints of each side, you probably noticed something … there’s a whole lot more passion on Side 2. There’s a clarity, a focus, a rage to the anti-Manny crowd that is simply not there on the pro-Manny crowd. Best I can tell even the people who think Manny absolutely belongs in the Hall of Fame tend to hem and haw a bit (which is why I like Peter’s piece because there’s no hemming … no hawing). Nobody, except maybe Steve Phillips, wants to come out as pro steroids in today’s world.
So the LJF here leans HEAVILY anti-Manny (and the other PED candidates). If you have two guys in a room, and one thinks Manny Ramirez belongs in the Hall and the other thinks he doesn’t, the second almost unquestionably will be louder, more forceful, more certain. The second almost unquestionably will go deeper, meaner, edgier. The second will hammer home that steroids are wrong, that cheaters do not belong in the Hall of Fame, that it would set a terrible example for kids, that it would be disgraceful …
You could counter these arguments, of course, counter perhaps that the “steroids are wrong” argument is fraught with contradictions and illogical turns, that there are plenty of cheaters prominently and proudly in the Hall of Fame (cheating has long been a celebrated part of baseball), that the bad-example-for-kids argument is lazy and is the one people tend to go to when they’ve mostly run out of ideas. But none of those counters has much punch — nuance doesn’t have much punch. When Lyndon Johnson was destroying Leland Olds in a confirmation hearing, he kept saying: “I want a simple yes or no answer.” Olds replied that the question was too complicated for a yes or no. Olds was technically right. But Lyndon Johnson won.
So … who will stand up for Manny? Who will stand up for Mark McGwire? Who will stand up for Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens and Rafael Palmeiro, not to mention the players who have never been accused of steroid use except through shadowy whispers? They all have different stories, different levels of likability, their Hall of Fame cases feature different shades of gray, but who will stand up for all of them?
Who will come out and say that baseball is a game, played by imperfect men who since the very beginning have pushed the boundaries and broken the rules to win? Who will shout passionately that the Baseball Hall of Fame should be a place where the very best baseball players are enshrined? Who in this Viagra commercial world, in this side-effects-include-death-and-dismemberment country, in this play-to-win-or-face-the-wrath culture, who will say that using steroids or HGH to become a better, healthier, wealthier, more powerful baseball player is cheating but also maybe not worthy of lifelong excommunication.
Who? Nobody. Not now. The passion is on the side of the accusers. The sense of purpose is on the side of the righteous. To the true believers go the spoils.
Manny Ramirez was a great hitter, and he was a notable figure, and he was one of the most colorful and talked about players of his time. He inspired as many thrills and shouts and laughs and barroom discussions as any baseball player of the last 20 years. He led the Cleveland Indians to a resurgence fans had waited 40 years to feel and Boston to a World Series that had passed by three generations of New England fans.
And there is talk, serious talk, that he might not even get the 5% necessary to stay on the Hall of Fame ballot (forget him actually getting INTO the Hall through the writers). The argument against Manny Ramirez is being made daily and furiously and with the sort of political conviction that eliminates opposition. Lyndon Johnson used to say, when faced with an important vote, “I don’t want to guess how it will turn out. I want to KNOW.” With MannyBManny, we know.
But … who will stand up for Manny?