On a humid, rainy evening in early April, Taiwanese baseball afficianados packed Xinzhuang Stadium in Taipei for an early-season tilt between the EDA Rhinos and the hometown Elephant Brothers. This weather almost certainly would have deterred North American baseball fans from heading to the ballpark, but there was a buzz in the air that night: one of the most famous ballplayers in the world was making his China Professional Baseball League debut. Manny Ramirez was here.
The future Hall of Famer had been seeking Major League employment since he was unceremoniously let go by the Oakland’s triple-A affiliate in Sacramento last season. No one else was interested in a 40-year-old slugger who got suspended for testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs in 2011. So Manny is in Taiwan, playing for the un-MLB sum of $25,000 a month, a far cry from the $20 million he made during his final year with the Dodgers in 2010.
His PED-charge-aided metamorphosis from eccentric superstar to has-been took only two pathetic years, which is practically unprecedented for a player of his caliber—normally, aging sluggers fade out gracefully, but Manny, who never did anything normally, was a terrific hitter until all of a sudden he was nothing at all. Unsurprisingly, the announcement of his signing was met with little to any fanfare in the States. Yet in Taiwan, the transaction is perceived as a huge score for the Rhinos—Manny is the most famous player to ever play in the league. At his introductory press conference in Kaohsiung, Manny told excited onlookers that he wasn’t playing for the money and was in it for the right reasons, a vague explanation that seemed to satisfy Rhinos fans.
Even as a declining, disgraced hitter who’s both a shadow of himself and heavier than ever, he was a big-league attraction by Taipei standards. Fenway this wasn't: fans forked over between $150-$300 Taiwanese (approximately five to ten bucks American) to fill the 7,200-person stadium. The outfield walls and both teams' uniforms were plastered with ads.
A 45-minute rain delay only helped stoke the fans’ sense of anticipation. While we waited, it was explained to me that “the Foreigner” was viewed with great honor and prestige and, more importantly, provided a shot in the arm for the obscure, struggling league, which has been plagued by bribery and game-fixing scandals in recent years.
Taiwanese fans couldn’t care less that Manny’s last stint in the bigs with Tampa Bay in 2011 saw him go a pathetic 1-for-17 before being slapped with that 100-game ban for using PEDs, or that his final seasons Stateside saw him play out the string as a journeyman. As he came to the plate with a runner on third with two outs in the first inning, the atmosphere was electric. Fans screamed and chanted his name (“MANN-EEEEE”) while banging on unnecessarily loud cone-shaped noisemakers. Despite stranding the runner with a slow grounder to second, he got a standing ovation.
The two other Americans in my section looked at the Taiwanese reaction with stunned disbelief. After all, this the same guy who decided in between pitches to take a piss in the Green Monster, shoved the Red Sox’s 64-year-old traveling secretary to the ground, and used a female fertility drug to mask the steroids in his system. The only precedent for his antics, his rapid descent, and his reemergence on another continent is fiction—more specifically, Eastbound & Down.
During the HBO show’s second season, the protagonist, disgraced closer Kenny Powers, signed with a Mexican league team and became the a star south of the border thanks to his showmanship, eventually earning the nickname La Flama Blanca. Like Powers, at this point in his career Manny is more of a sideshow than an on-field contributor. But unlike Powers, whose performance in the season finale managed to convince a big league scout to give him a final chance at glory, in his two at bats that night Manny could barely push the ball out of the infield against inferior competition.
The game was called in the sixth inning due to rain, and the Rhinos got a 1-0 victory over the Elephant Brothers. It was a forgettable contest in a league most people haven’t heard of, but it was the last place in the world where Manny could still be Manny. And it turns out people will still pay to see him do exactly that.
Even though he's a music and sports muser who lives in Los Angeles, it would be impossible not to hear Daniel Kohn screaming at his TV wondering why his beloved New York Mets can't seem to get out of their own way. Follow him on Twitter here.