A look at the sports trend of bring in veterans to shepherd young players, as told through three Los Angeles teams. Look for Part 2 on Friday.
It's a tale as old as time. Luke Skywalker is just out harvesting space wheat, trying to fix some droids, when Obi Wan Kenobi comes on the scene costs him a hand, introduces him to a princess who turns out to be his sister, and then dies on him.
Harry Potter was just making pancakes for his abusive aunt and uncle, when Dumbledore decides to show up, ruin Harry's chances at an education, challenges a pre-teen to face the world's most dangerous wizard, and then dies on him.
Throughout literature there are examples of young heroes getting the call to adventure from an old wise man. And throughout sport there are examples of young talented players having to play second fiddle as an older veteran is brought in to sell tickets and teach the young talent the ways of the force. I mean, the way to harness their talent. It's what Crash Davis did for "Nuke" LaLoosh, and it's happened three times in recent memory to three different Los Angeles teams.
A team goes out of their way to bring in this stranger, and all you hope is let’s make things interesting again. And they are for awhile, but something keeps the team from going all the way. That man’s legs fall out from under him, and everyone’s wondering if he’ll ever be back.
Occasionally that man is Manny Ramirez. Andre Ethier and Matt Kemp in 2008 were a young hard hitting duo. Not Bash Brothers level, I mean there are chemical implications there, but enough that people started to notice. Rounding out that outfield was the ever amazing Juan Pierre. So in August, the Dodgers brought in Manny, hoping the erstwhile malcontent would benefit from a change of scenery and hit the snot out of the ball. All he did was hit .396/.489/.743 (via: Baseball-Reference.com) for the rest of the season, all of those career numbers for Manny if one ignores the small sample size of 53 games and it was enough to get him fourth place in the MVP voting.
It also launched a sprawling merchandising and media campaign, with dreadlock wigs in the team store, Manny jerseys selling like hotcakes, and the hotcakes were moving fast too. The left field level seats became Mannywood, and his face was on billboard through out the city.
In some ways it was like a weight was lifted off young Andre and Matt. The following year with Manny leading the sales pitch, Matt had a 125 OPS+, finished 10th in the MVP voting and won a Silver Slugger and a Gold Glove. Andre had a 132 OPS+, finished 6th in MVP voting and won a Silver Slugger. And Manny, despite serving a 50 game suspension for using some of those above mentioned chemical implications, appeared in 104 games and had an OPS+ of 155. Manny didn't receive any awards though, and his suspension was the beginning of the media turning on him, with some detractors at the LA Times more vocal than others, but the club stuck with him as their marketing tool.
What does all this mean? It means Manny was worth a couple wins to the Dodgers, re-energized a fan base, and made his mates in the outfield look better by association. Andre had 11 walk off hits from 2008 til the beginning of 2010, earning him the nickname Captain Clutch in some circles, and with a WAR in 2009 of 3.5, he appeared to be cracking into a new level, an All-Star level, an honor which he received in 2010. But when that umbrella of Manny was taken away, as Manny went down with injury after injury, Andre stalled. He became frustrated and angry, and while this season hasn't been a regression, it certainly is a stall. It's one thing for young talent to believe they can carry a team, it's another entirely for it to be demanded. Andre may still get there, but for now the Dodgers gave Manny away for cash without ever seeing a world series. Obi Wan is dead, and unfortunately, he won't be whispering in Luke's ear this time.