An interesting and occasionally somewhat heated conversation broke out a few days ago on the post about Manny Ramirez retiring. Partly it was a debate as to whether Manny’s (non-debatable) hitting skills outweighed his sometimes lousy behavior on and/or off the field, and partly it was about whether Manny’s race had played a role in the way people viewed both his game and his personality. And although I hesitate to open that can of worms back up, it’s an interesting issue and certainly, I think, worth thinking about.
As if race weren’t complicated enough to discuss, the conversation is especially twisty here, since:
-At least some of Manny’s critics (in the media and in the stands – I’m not referring to anyone on this site) seemed to be influenced by his race, or at the very least wrote and talked about him, intentionally or not, with somewhat racially-charged language;
-And yet: there are COMPLETELY legitimate reasons to dislike aspects of Manny Ramirez’s game and public persona, which have nothing to do with his race.
-Then, too, sometimes race can color our view of things without us even realizing that it’s happening.
I feel confident that very few people have ever thought to themselves, “I really dislike that Manny Ramirez fellow because he’s Dominican.” That’s not really the question here. I’m referring more to things like, the narrative among some fans and media that portrays Manny as a naturally gifted hitter, almost a savant, who didn’t work hard at his craft or hone it, out of laziness or indifference, but was simply physically gifted in this one respect. Is that true? I don’t really know, but I will say that many of Ramirez’s teammates have repeatedly told reporters that the guy actually works very hard at hitting, and is, in that regard, quite disciplined.
Besides that, the view of non-white athletes as unintelligent savants is very old and not a little harmful. And yet! He didn’t look to me like a guy who worked hard on his fielding; and he made plays that a person who was paying attention to the game would just not make. Is that accurate? Or is my view of his being subconsciously influenced by that older and uglier narrative? Honestly, I don’t know, but I do think it’s worth asking the question.
That’s what I mean when I say it’s complicated. Note that just because some of Ramirez’s critics may have been influenced on some level by his race, that doesn’t mean that a whole grab-bag of criticisms of Ramirez have no validity. Like I said, there are many reasons to dislike the guy – the steroids, the unreliability, the being on the Red Sox. The leading one, from my point of view, is that he apparently shoved an elderly man to the ground in a debate about reserved tickets. I don’t really see how that happens without him being a dick.
That said, I think it gets trickier with the criticism of his playing style. If I describe Ramirez’s fielding as lackadaisical — which I’m pretty sure I have, probably on this very blog–well, I just want to be sure that I know where that’s coming from. No one sane can argue that he wasn’t a great hitter, and I think most of us will agree that the man’s not much of a fielder; the statistics, beautiful numbers that they are, will back us up on both counts. The reasons we assign for that, though, are murkier.
Something worth keeping an eye on, whatever conclusions you ultimately draw.