With a minor league system loaded with impressionable prospects like Javier Baez whose development dictates every organizational decision, the Cubs hired a Triple-A player-coach Sunday who symbolizes cheating in baseball.
Either Cubs President Theo Epstein believes he owes Ramirez a debt of gratitude for the two World Series they won together with the Red Sox or Epstein lost a bet. He insisted neither but understood and accepted the skepticism.
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"I don't feel indebted to him,'' Epstein said Sunday. "I think Manny deserves a second chance because humans deserve second chances. I believe in redemption. It's a human trait to make mistakes and we should judge people by how they respond. The Cubs giving Manny a second chance will benefit our young hitters and player development.''
Specifically, the Cubs want Ramirez to help Baez become more selective at the plate. Ramirez's positives better outweigh the negatives or Epstein risks letting an inconsequential minor league staff position put a major dent in his credibility, slowly crumbling around Chicago. Sunday's news created a surprise big enough to wonder if the calendar said April 1.
Don't the Cubs have enough to worry about organizationally without adding Ramirez, one of the most high-maintenance prima donnas of his generation who retired in 2011 rather than face his second drug suspension? What's next for the Cubs, the Double-A Tennessee Smokies adding Alex Rodriguez as bench coach?
Isn't Ramirez the same career troublemaker who got into an altercation with a Red Sox employee over tickets and who once was arrested for allegedly slapping his wife — charges that were later dropped?
"Manny is at a much different place in his life right now,'' Epstein said. "In the past he would always blame somebody else for his behavior. Now he takes full accountability.''
Sensing last winter Ramirez had matured and begun admitting his mistakes, Epstein invited the 41-year-old to be a Cubs spring-training instructor. Ramirez initially declined, hoping to latch on in the majors or Japan. While Ramirez chased one last chance, Epstein investigated the player he got to know over five memorable years in Boston. He sought opinions from trusted colleagues and players such as Cubs third baseman Mike Olt, Ramirez's Triple-A teammate with the Rangers.
"It took a lot of research and vetting to get to this point, but if Manny Ramirez makes one hitter smarter in the box and know how to approach the right-handed breaking ball better or helps one hitter from going down the PED path, then this move will be worth it,'' Epstein said. "If he was in the same place and frame of mind as before, we wouldn't have done it.''
In a statement, Ramirez sounded like the reformed man Epstein described instead of the flighty distraction many of us remember. He will report to the Cubs' spring-training facility in Arizona to prepare himself for the part of the job — part-time player — that most makes this seem like a favor to a crony.
"I know I am nearing the end of my playing days, but I have a lot of knowledge to pass on to the next generation — both what to do and what not to do,'' Ramirez said in a statement.
Asked by Fox Sports during spring training what he would tell young players about performance-enhancing drugs, Ramirez answered with words more impressive than past actions.
"I use myself as an example to my son who is in college, playing baseball: 'Look what daddy went through because daddy didn't do things right,' '' Ramirez said. "When you do things right, you don't have to look back. You always look forward.''
Looking at this fairly, commending Epstein the person for offering a friend an opportunity for a fresh start is easier than complimenting Epstein the baseball executive for letting his heart overrule his head. Loyalty forces a tricky balance. Yes, the Dodgers and Cardinals both hired Mark McGwire as hitting coach, but both veteran teams had won enough to absorb any stain or distraction. Under Epstein, the Cubs Way involves selling hope — and apparently buying the benefit of the doubt.
"Baseball is such a competitive landscape, you have to be comfortable embracing outside-the-box ideas and be comfortable doing things that might otherwise make you uncomfortable,'' Epstein said. "As far as downside, yeah, Manny's going to be around some of our better prospects and if he doesn't approach this the right way, it'll be over quickly. But the upside is more significant.''
He sounded more confident than Ramirez's past suggests anybody should.