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Books | Sports

August 3, 2009

Manny's Many Mentors

Shawn Boburg puts Manny Ramirez on the couch to find out what and who makes the mercurial Dodgers star tick.

Justin Adler

OK, so you may know that a few things have changed in Manny Ramirez's life since the book Becoming Manny: Inside the Life of Baseball's Most Enigmatic Slugger came out in early March 2009: the performance-enhancing drug allegations and the 50-game suspension that ensued.

But just because Ramirez is now plagued with the "when did he start using? and how much did it affect his game?" questions that cloud the careers of several baseball greats, it does not make the book any less intriguing or relevant.

Authors Jean Rhodes and Shawn Boburg analyze Ramirez's roots in the New York City neighborhood of Washington Heights and his upbringing in the Dominican Republic. They also focus on his powerful relationships with various mentors who have shaped Ramirez on and off the field—including, notably, Carlos "Macaco" Ferreira, who has been Ramirez's close friend and mentor since Macaco coached Ramirez's little-league team.

Shawn Boburg with Carlos 'Macaco' Ferreira (left). Photo by Justin Adler.
"Manny is someone who is very sparing with his trust, but when he does trust somebody, he trusts them completely."

Shawn Boburg with Carlos 'Macaco' Ferreira (left). Photo by Justin Adler.

Before the World Series MVP and the nine-figure contracts, Ramirez was stacking up absurd numbers (.650 with 14 home runs in 21 games during his senior year) for George Washington High School. All the while, Ramirez kept his baseball prowess completely hidden from his family—so much so that his relatives had no clue he was named New York City Public High School Player of the Year in 1991 and never even made it to one of his games until he played minor-league ball.

In the authorized biography, Boburg, a staff writer for The Record in Bergen County, New Jersey, and Rhodes, a psychology professor at the University of Massachusetts, chronicle Ramirez's life from his impoverished days in Santo Domingo to the larger-than-life Mannywood, including many Manny moments in between.

Gelf Magazine met up with Boburg in Ramirez's old neighborhood of Washington Heights, where Boburg talked about his odd interaction with Ramirez, building his own relationships with Ramirez's mentors, and the steroids suspension. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Gelf Magazine: How did you get involved in the book and how did the idea come about?

Shawn Boburg: Originally Jean Rhodes had this idea that the book would be strictly about mentoring. She contacted me because she had read an article I wrote from the Dominican Republic and she wanted a Spanish-speaking writer. I then got in touch with Macaco and got to know him. I told him about the book idea and he introduced me to Manny during spring training of 2005.
Rhodes's vision initially was that it was more about people. It was centered on mentoring initially. Then Macaco and Manny opened the door to his family, and that changed the whole game plan. Also we learned that Manny goes through mentors like they are chewing gum. He is a serial mentee. It could not just be about Macaco and encompass everything Jean wanted to say about mentoring.
We also realized there was an opportunity to explain Manny's personality. He's very intriguing and he's full of contradictions. The idea then expanded and it became more marketable to publishing companies.

Gelf Magazine: Were you a huge baseball fan before writing this book?

Shawn Boburg: I was not that into baseball at the time. I was a Red Sox fan at that point, but the transformation was just beginning. I grew up in Oklahoma playing soccer. I did not know much about baseball—I didn't grow up watching or playing baseball. Neither Jean nor I was a baseball person, which I think in some ways helped us and in other ways hurt us.

Gelf Magazine: How much direct access did you get to Manny?

Shawn Boburg: Macaco and I went down to spring training and I was waiting for Manny at the Red Sox facility. He came out and Macaco brought Manny over. I remember I was wearing a sports jacket and the only thing Manny said to me was, "Hey, nice to meet you. It's too hot for a coat." And then he walked off. That whole weekend, that was all I got from Manny. That was an example of what it was like for the next two years. He is resistant to the idea of someone burrowing into his personal life.

Gelf Magazine: In the book, you allude to Manny not being the most scholarly man on the planet and Macaco even jokes that Manny might not read this book. Do you think Manny actually read Becoming Manny?

Shawn Boburg: He authorized it, so I know he looked at some of it. I think his wife did a lot of the reading. My guess is that she looked at it and gave him a synopsis.

Gelf Magazine: How much of a relationship did you form with Macaco? It sounds like he almost took you under his wing as well.

Shawn Boburg: Over time, Macaco and I became close. He's a very warm, welcoming individual. He still lives in a subsidized housing unit in Washington Heights with his mother. He works nights at the local hospital from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. as an emergency-room technician. He sleeps a couple of hours when he gets home from work, and then he is over at Peligro Sports all day, like an employee.
Everyone in the neighborhood knows you bring your broken glove to Macaco and he fixes it for free. He helps the neighborhood players choose jerseys, gloves, and shoes. But he does not get paid. This is a concept I had trouble grasping. He just loves baseball and loves being around people in the neighborhood. Sometimes they'll crack beers and watch games and they often will stream Dominican-league games from the internet. All of Manny's high-school friends still go there—it's their hangout.
With part of his royalties from the book, Macaco bought gloves and shoes for kids in his old neighborhood in Santiago.

Gelf Magazine: How easy was it to find people within the neighborhood who had a good story about Manny?

Shawn Boburg: When I was researching the book and talking to people, I was very careful about verifying who actually knew him, because a lot of the connections are very tenuous. There are not that many degrees of separation in this neighborhood because everyone is Dominican and a lot of them came from the same towns in the Dominican Republic. Everyone has a story about Manny and they are all very nonchalant about it. When I spoke with the woman who currently rents the apartment Manny grew up in, her reaction was, "Yeah. What's the big deal?" I am sure if I walked down the streets and asked blindly, everyone would have a story. Macaco was my guide to the neighborhood. He told me who was the closest to Manny.

Gelf Magazine: Was it tough to get access to anyone who you felt would have been crucial to Manny's story?

Shawn Boburg: I really wanted to develop a section of the book that looked more at where some of his high-school teammates ended up. But there was a real problem tracking a lot of them down. Several of them are still in the neighborhood, but a lot of times their numbers are not listed. There are about eight of them who work at an Entenmann's Bakery. They all work from 3 a.m. to 11 a.m. I had an idea, which did not work out, of riding along with them one night in their bakery truck, because the ones I did talk to said that is what Manny would be doing if he were not playing baseball.
All of them had high hopes of making it in baseball. The academic offerings at George Washington High School weren't quite up to par. [Manny's high-school teammate] Carlos Puello is an example. He got to junior college through baseball and he fell flat academically—he did not know how to study. For a lot of the kids in the neighborhood, English is a second language. They have to work heavy hours and there are several other social ills of the neighborhood.

Gelf Magazine: Less than two months after your book came out, Manny was suspended for his alleged use of performance-enhancing drugs. What was your reaction when that news came out?

Shawn Boburg: Absolute surprise. Macaco was also surprised, and I think everyone here in the neighborhood was surprised. Needless to say, I did not come across anything that would hint at that while I talked to people he grew up with and people he played with in the minor and major leagues.
Part of his reputation as an incredible hitter was because until recently, he was able to avoid the steroids association. I think it will damage his reputation and call into question what he has done in terms of statistics. But it can't erase what he has accomplished. Because clearly what he accomplished in high school and the minors and just the mechanics of his swing are so pure. But in terms of statistics, there will always be that question of when did he do it, if he did it, and how much did it impact his numbers.
There was never a huge spike in his numbers. If you look at his high-school years, granted it's high school, but he was hitting .600. Is it conceivable that since he was 15 he was on steroids? Probably not. Maybe somebody would argue with that, but I would say no. I don't know the answers about how much and when he used or if he has even used performance-enhancing drugs, but there is ample evidence that the guy is naturally tremendously talented.

Gelf Magazine: Do you think one of his many mentors might have led him astray and convinced him to use steroids?

Shawn Boburg: It's an interesting question of the how and why. It's occurred to me that Manny is someone who is very sparing with his trust, but when he does trust somebody, he trusts them completely. In some ways he is like a teenage boy in that sense; he is very impressionable. I can't speculate or guess what happened, but I am also assuming that if he did make a decision like that, it would be with some reinforcement from someone he trusts. Manny is a guy who takes a lot of advice from very few people. Traditionally they have been one of his coaches, his mother, and, later in life, his wife.

Gelf Magazine: It is obvious Macaco has a deep love for the game and is a baseball purist. How do you think he felt in reaction to steroid allegations?

Shawn Boburg: He was disappointed. He basically told me he was surprised and that Manny had never mentioned anything about steroids to him. I think it definitely bothers Macaco.
After the allegations came out, I talked to several people I quoted in the book. The pretty common sentiment was disappointment, a lot of surprise, and a lot of unanswered questions.

Gelf Magazine: Manny said he "didn't kill nobody, didn't rape nobody." What do you think of that defense?

Shawn Boburg: I think what is typical is that when Manny is involved in controversies, it's difficult to get him to reflect and respond on it. I think it has been a key to his success in many ways. In Boston there were a lot of controversies he got himself into that could have been alleviated with a quick statement or explaining something that was not evident on the surface. But he has no interest in self-defense with the press. It's puzzling and also what makes him intriguing. You can never escape the idea that maybe there is just something that he is not saying, because he is never eager to defend himself publicly.

Gelf Magazine: Do you have a favorite Manny moment?

Shawn Boburg: My all-time favorite is where he jumps up the wall and gives the guy a high five and then turns around and throws somebody out at second. The reason it's my favorite is because you can sort of see his brain in super-concentration mode as he is locking on to this ball, and then the relief, happiness, and scattering of his thoughts as he high-fives the fan. Its a perfect microcosm where he loses complete focus, he is fun-loving Manny, and then, "Oh shit, I'm still playing a baseball game!" The cycle of that is hilarious.

Gelf Magazine: How about an off-the-field Manny moment? Any good stories from the process of writing the book?

Shawn Boburg: Before the book was authorized, we got a call from [Ramirez agent] Scott Boras's agency telling us we could not keep writing the book or think about publishing it. Our representative told him that we met with Manny a handful of times, to which Boras's representative responded that he had spoken with Manny and Manny had no idea about the book. By that point I had spent hours interviewing Manny, including several hours with Manny in his living room. But his representative claimed Manny had no knowledge the book was being written.
One time I called Manny during a game to arrange an interview later on. I decided not to leave a message and I got a call back in the seventh inning. Manny himself was calling me from the clubhouse. He told me he'd call me back after the game. Of course he never called me back.

Gelf Magazine: I think Manny comes off to many as a gifted athlete who dominates without trying, but the book talks a lot about the hard work he puts in behind the scenes. What else did you learn about Manny that contradicted the general perception of him?

Shawn Boburg: When I first walked into his house, he was in his library on a computer using a program that analyzes his swing. He was studying hardcore. It was an unexpected image: Manny on a computer using technology to study his swing. I asked him about it and he said, "Shh. Don't say anything about it. Don't write anything about it." He's very private about his baseball preparation, which comes from his competitive spirit. He's very ambitious, but he does not let it shine through.
He does not like to be in the spotlight. It's one of his many contradictions: He wants to be the best baseball player ever, but he does not like the byproducts, namely fame.
When you think about what he did for his training, it's pretty remarkable. He started at a very young age and his family had no idea how serious he was. They never pushed him at all because they had no idea how good he was.
An interesting thing about Manny is that he has always kept his private life and baseball completely separate. You can see it in the way he conducts himself professionally now. He doesn't want the press. He has his baseball realm and then everything else. Just as he does not let the people from the baseball world into his private life, a lot of times he keeps his private life separate from his baseball life.

Gelf Magazine: Where do you see Manny after his baseball career?

Shawn Boburg: I think Manny is very, very singularly focused on baseball, and after baseball it will be all family. I do believe in retirement he will be like that. He will just walk away from the game and you'll never hear about him again. I see him just disappearing into a gated community in Florida or the Dominican Republic and spending time with his family.

Front-page image of Manny Ramirez courtesy of pvsbond's Flickr via Creative Commons.

Justin Adler

Justin Adler is a graduate of the University of Arizona. He blogs here.

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- Sports
- posted on Aug 06, 09
Jamal Wallace

Solid interview, I just started reading the book today.

Article by Justin Adler

Justin Adler is a graduate of the University of Arizona. He blogs here.

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