Bob Harkins

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Manny aims to ‘be a role model,’ rehab image

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Manny Ramirez left Major League Baseball in disgrace early last season after violating the league’s performance-enhancing drug policy for the second time.

Rather than face the mandated 100-game suspension, and the negative attention that would come with it, Ramirez opted to retire after just five games – and one measly single in 17 plate appearances – with the Tampa Bay Rays. As if his image couldn’t fall any further, he was arrested in September and charged with battery in a domestic dispute with his wife.

Now he wants a chance to not only write a happier ending to a career that once looked like a slam dunk for Cooperstown, but also to rehabilitate his image. He pulled out all the stops in an earnest and at times emotional interview with ESPN’s Pedro Gomez. (Watch the video)

“I want to show people that Manny can change, that he can do the right thing,” Ramirez told ESPN’s Pedro Gomez in an interview. “And to show people that I still can play. I don’t want to leave the game like I did. I also want to show my kids that if you make a mistake, don’t quit. Just go back and fix it. And if you’re going to leave, leave the right way.”

Asked why a team should give him a chance, Ramirez made two points:

1. “I still can play.”

2. “I’m gonna be a role model.”

I’ll give the more cynical readers a chance to stop laughing before I continue … OK, ready?

I have to admit I had a good chuckle over Manny’s two-pronged argument, but in watching the video, you can’t help but get the feeling that he actually believes what he’s saying, and if he believes it, who knows? Maybe Ramirez does have the pride and the drive to re-write his own ending.

The real question, of course, is whether anyone will give him a chance. Ramirez does have 555 career home runs and a .312/.411/.585 line to go with it, but it’s difficult to imagine any team offering more than a minor-league deal with an invitation to spring training at this point, and you have to wonder if a guy who has made more than $200 million over the course of his career will be willing to swallow his pride and take such an offer. That could be the real test to see just how serious Ramirez is.

And as earnest as Ramirez seems in his interview with Gomez, there are a couple of red flags that crop up in the video.

  • One is that Gomez says Manny “forgot how to pick up a bat during his time away,” and that he is working to retool his swing in the batting cages. That’s not a good sign given how he slid after his first failed drug test.
  • Another warning sign is his cutting edge workout regimen, complete with shower cap. Just look and see for yourself.

On the bright side, Ramirez’s suspension has been reduced to 50 games (he would begin serving it on opening day should he sign). So he’s got that going for him, which is nice.

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Will anti-McGwire stance among Hall voters soften over time?

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The announcement of the Hall of Fame vote will come in at 3 p.m. ET on Monday, and it will be interesting to see who is elected to Cooperstown.

Will it be Barry Larkin and no one elsePerhaps. Some even suggest that no one will be elected, which would be bad news for those who have been waiting awhile, what with a monster class coming in 2013 that will include Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Mike Piazza, Sammy Sosa, Craig Biggio and Curt Schilling.

One thing is for certain: Mark McGwire isn’t going to get in – not this year anyway. The man with 583 career home runs, a .394 on-base percentage and .982 OPS doesn’t have a prayer. Not with the steroid stain on his resume. Some people thought McGwire would get a boost among voters after he came clean about his PED use, but his vote totals dropped to 19.8 percent last year, down from 23.7 percent in 2010. The stance of writers on PEDs seems to be mostly hardening over time, not softening.

But the 15-year window for induction into Cooperstown is a long one, and perception can change over time.

Look at Bert Blyleven. Over the 14 years he was on the ballot, voters began to realize that the stats being cited to keep him out of Cooperstown (chiefly winning percentage and home runs allowed) were not as important as ERA and WHIP and WAR, not to mention his impressive longevity.

Of course arguing statistics is not the same as taking on the issue of steroid cheats, and it seems unlikely in the current climate that opinions will change enough to ever earn McGwire a nod to Cooperstown, but you never know. Case in point:

In the wake of the St. Louis Cardinals’ stunning and surprising run to the World Series, the New York Times’ esteemed George Vecsey wrote a brief and interesting blog post titled “Rethinking McGwire.”

In it, Vecsey admitted that despite his issues with McGwire’s use of performance-enhancing drugs as a player, he enjoyed watching the ex-slugger in uniform, coaching the Cardinals hitters on the way to a championship. The whole thing gave Vecsey, as he put it, “a positive vibration.”

That didn’t mean Vecsey would change his mind about McGwire – “or some other bulked-up sluggers of the past generation” – being worthy of the Hall of Fame, but he admitted that his perception has changed – if only slightly.

“Maybe I’m getting soft-hearted or soft-headed, but I found myself glad to see him in uniform.”

George Vecsey, a strong voice against putting steroid users in Cooperstown, has softened a bit. It’s a small thing, perhaps, but interesting and surprising nonetheless. It makes you wonder if perceptions could eventually change enough to earn McGwire that trip to Cooperstown. If a championship won quietly and humbly as a one-of-the-guys hitting coach can help McGwire soften the heart of one baseball writer, what will the passage of time bring?

The steroid era is a murky one, made even more difficult by the fact that it is impossible to tell who juiced and who didn’t. Everyone assumes that Ken Griffey Jr. never took anything, while many seem to assume that Jeff Bagwell did – yet there has not been any evidence made public to support either theory. And there have been enough less-than-bulky players implicated (Ryan Franklin, Jason Grimsley, to name two) to destroy the notion that you can spot a juicer just by looking at him.

We simply don’t know.

It’s confusing as hell, and voters are left to fend for themselves. Do you let in the otherwise no-doubters who have been connected to PEDs – like Bonds and Clemens – and if so, where do you draw that line? Do you punish only those players who have failed tests or admitted drug use, or do you punish the whole era and elect no one? Do you rely on your own eye test – a horribly flawed method that some will undoubtedly employ – to pick and choose? Or do you just assume the playing field was level and elect the best players from the era?

There are no clear-cut answers to these questions, and methods for how voters handle them are going to spend a good many years evolving. As the voting field changes, as new information comes to light – not just as to who was using, but as to the actual impact of PEDs on on-field performance, as opinions change and new voices are heard, the process will evolve.

Will it evolve enough for Mark McGwire to get his wish? He has nine more years on the ballot, and then there is always the Veterans Committee after that. It seems unlikely now, but hardly impossible.

Only time will tell.

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Ichiro opens up, says he ‘felt desperate’ in worst season

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Ichiro Suzuki, 38, had the worst season of his MLB career in 2011, notching career lows in average (.272), hits (184), on-base (.310) and slugging (.335) as his Seattle Mariners struggled to a 67-95 record and second straight last-place finish in the AL West.

Ichiro talked about his disappointing year with the Nikkan Sports newspaper, and Reuters picked up the story.

As is usually the case with Ichiro, the story out of Japan is far more illuminating than just about anything that ever appears in the US press. Just a matter of being comfortable in your environment, I suppose.

Among the highlights in the story:

  • Ichiro didn’t feel right for much of the season, even in April while racking up an AL-best 39 hits. But he couldn’t figure out what was wrong, and the uncertainty kind of drove him nuts. “I felt desperate last season. That doesn’t happen to me very often. Mental stress is a lot worse than physical stress.”
  • He doesn’t take too kindly to those that suggest his drop-off is simply a natural part of the aging process. “Sometimes I feel I’m getting older, or more sensitive to what they say on TV,” he said. Can you hear the crankiness in his voice? He is getting older! Next thing you know he’ll be telling us all to get off his lawn. Ichiro did follow up the comment with this gem, however:

“Yes my skin gets dry but it’s a lame conclusion to blame everything on age. People are quick to point to age. Those kinds of people don’t interest me. But if you’re going to call yourself a professional, you need to put up results.”

  • Another nugget glossed over in the Reuters story is this: Ichiro has been linked to the general manager’s job at his former Japanese club Orix.

Very interesting. Ichiro’s contract is up after the 2012 season, so I suppose he could be looking for front office gigs back in Japan. But the scuttlebutt is that he’ll be looking for an extension from the Mariners as he chases the 3,000-hit milestone. With 2,428 career MLB hits, he would need to average 190 over the next three seasons to get to 3,000. Unless Ichiro continues to decline, an idea that surely makes him bristle, I’d bet on something getting done, possibly before the end of the 2012 season.

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