Anyone living in New England in the early 2000s probably knows the phrase. Anyone who paid attention to Major League Baseball in the early 21st century probably knows the phrase: “Manny being Manny.” Manny Ramirez, the Boston Red Sox slugger, wasn’t just a consummate hit man. He was a nutjob. Goofy, wacky, even mercurial at times, Ramirez seemed incapable of playing anything straight, except when he stood at the plate and stared down a ball coming at him at 90 mph.
Crazy Manny moments are legion. He liked to slip through a door in the Green Monster wall at Fenway Park with a bad-boy grin, only to reappear seconds before the next pitch. My favorite Manny incident is when he made a running catch in center field, high-fived a fan in the stands, then turned around and threw a bomb to help pick off a runner in a double play.
Ramirez wasn’t always easy to like, even for us diehard Red Sox fans. Just when you thought he’d lost his batting groove or done one reckless thing too many, he came roaring back to the adulation of his faithful minions, who never really stopped loving or believing in him, though a bit embarrassed by his behavior at times.
While Ramirez may have been beloved in Boston for his hitting talent (he was our flaky slugger after all), his antics kept him from being the most admired player on the field. Enormously talented, yes. Fun-loving, yes. Mysterious at times, uh-huh. But revered? Esteemed? Not exactly. Those sentiments were reserved for his teammates, players like catcher Jason Veritek or pitcher Tim Wakefield; men whose stature came from a combination of talent and character on the field. Veritek and Wakefield honored the rules of the game and appeared to appreciate their teammates as much as their own stats. These men took the team’s losses in stride and showed signs of wanting to learn from them, vowing to be better next game. Manny, by comparison, seemed immature and unreliable in every way except the one that mattered: the score.
I’ve been reflecting on Ramirez recently after reading a commentator shrug off the president's controversial tweets and public statements with a familiar sounding line: “It’s just Trump being Trump.” This small phrase flipped a switch for me. Is this how Trump supporters feel? The way Red Sox Nation felt about Manny?
Ramirez and Trump have some interesting traits in common. They both have unconventional personas that they refuse to give up. They talk and act differently than the normal players in their fields. They both swing for the fences, then sit back and bask in their successes. Manny was known for lingering at the plate as he watched his home run balls loft up and over the fences. He’d run with an easy gait around the bases, strutting his power. Trump is known for holding campaign-style rallies that delight his base with bold talk of fake news, the wall, and his singular ability to make America great again. Trump soaks in the applause.
Then there is the flag waving. Trump’s recent visit to Texas in the wake of Hurricane Harvey showed him waving a Texas state flag as a symbol of optimism in the face of natural disaster. Ramirez, born in the Dominican Republic, became an American citizen in 2004. (He missed a Red Sox game to do so.) He ran onto the field at Fenway Park during his very next game carrying a fluttering American flag in his hand. The crowd went wild.
There are human failings these men share too. Ramirez abused drug policy and was suspended for 50 games, calling into question his natural abilities. Trump filed for bankruptcy six times, casting doubt on his much touted business prowess. And it must be said that both men rock a unique look for their locks. Trump’s orange-yellow flop and Ramirez’s signature dreadlocks have become visual shorthand for their brand: iconic and, yes, a little in-your-face weird that says, “I am who I am. Deal with it.”
This unlikely comparison of Ramirez to Trump is instructive only in helping those of us who need a path to understanding the unwavering devotion that Trump supporters feel toward the president. Is it some sort of Republican team allegiance, akin to a Red Sox fan's loyalty to Ramirez? And what exactly is the core talent that Trump has in the eyes of his fans? Why is he worth their affection?
The president's essential skill seems to be his unorthodox style, which he uses to break norms and disrupt our modern political system. After seven months on the job, hopes have vanished that Trump’s campaign-style persona will turn more presidential with on-the-job experience. His approach is still centered on brashness, bullying, and disinterest in policy details. His supporters seem to be betting that this is precisely the talent that will result in big wins for them.
But Trump’s lack of decorum is troubling even among some Republicans who wonder whether their agenda is at risk, which brings us back to Ramirez. Because despite Ramirez’s outrageous behavior at times, his raw and indisputable talent for baseball allowed him to stay in the game at the highest levels. The man had chops with 21 grand slams and 29 postseason home runs. His native hitting power combined with a quirky, laissez-faire vibe was part of his charm. He was a different kind of ball player and Red Sox fans just got used to it. Comic relief and the main attraction rolled into one, Ramirez was an unlikely hero for a team that desperately needed a win. There's no denying that “Manny being Manny” was an essential linchpin for the Red Sox winning two World Series rings in 2004 and 2007. There's also no doubt that he delivered.
Can “Trump being Trump” translate into a winning strategy and what can he deliver? The president has made a calculation that he can treat politics like a game whose rules he controls, virtually ignoring the other branches of government and decades of convention when he chooses. No one knows yet if this will result in a losing or winning season overall. If Trump turns his remarkable talent for disruption into a triumphant Republican strategy for healthcare, tax reform, or the border wall, he could be viewed as successful by the history books. So far, his stats aren't all that impressive. But it's the final score that counts in baseball and presidential politics—ultimately defining a year, a team, or an era.
It remains to be seen what the boys of October will deliver this time on the field or on Capitol Hill. But Trump and the Republicans who are enabling him better deliver something substantial if their antics are to be overlooked. Just ask Manny.