On Manny, A-Rod, and mentors

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A few years ago, I immersed myself in a most unexpected project—an authorized biography of baseball slugger Manny Ramirez. Unlike most sports writers, I had only a passing interest in the game. What drew me to Manny’s story was mentoring.  The book was launched on the heels of his MVP World Series performance, and just before his career was felled by allegations of performance enhancing drugs. But to me, the most interesting stories about Manny were the ones that were popping up in newspapers and Fenway about the influential role of his former Little League coach. So I teamed up with Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, Shawn Boburg, and together we set forth on the sometimes-exhilarating, often frustrating journey of chasing Manny and his mentor, Carlos Ferreira. In his Washington Heights neighborhood, where Ferreira still lives, he is endearingly known as “Macaco” – Spanish for little monkey. A thoughtful, charismatic man who left a medical career in the Dominican Republic to immigrate to the U.S. in 1979, Ferreira, now in his sixties, has since coached several Little League teams in the baseball-crazed Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City. He was – and he remains – a de facto father to many aspiring Dominican players. The story of how Manny came to rely on this gentle, unassuming coach — from their first encounter in the basement of a Washington Heights housing project to their ongoing, daily conversations — is a window into the role of caring adults, especially coaches, in the lives of so many young, vulnerable youth.

The small man sitting behind a steel desk in the corner of that basement beckoned Manny and other young Little League hopefuls with a crescent smile. He introduced himself as Coach Carlos Ferreira to the few boys who did not already know him by his nickname, shouted on summer evenings by neighborhood kids who chased the fly balls he hit to them in High Bridge Park. Macaco, as he was known in the neighborhood, shook hands with each boy’s father, a practice that Ferreira made a prerequisite for playing in the league. It was a rule that rarely needed mentioning, for almost all the boys who entered the basement were accompanied by a parent–except Manny, who came alone to register for a baseball team. Macaco stood in for Manny’s parents and, through the years, Macaco kept watching, as Manny starred for the George Washington High School Trojans. It was this mindful watching that laid the foundation for Macaco’s role in Manny’s life. Macaco showed up, he watched, and, with time, he earned Manny’s trust. . Over the years, this batting-coach-to-pupil relationship became something more. Macaco became Manny’s mentor — a lifelong companion whose steady influence enabled Manny to avoid the mistakes during his teen years that derailed other talents.

Trust is perhaps a defining feature in Manny’s most important relationships. Manny’s riches have complicated his ties with high school friends; to Manny, those interactions feel tinged with opportunism. He doesn’t feel that way about his interactions with Macaco. His faith in the purity of Macaco’s intentions is what sets their relationship apart. Manny explained to us his conception of Macaco’s purity a few days before the trade to the Dodgers: “You can tell when people are real and want to be there for you.  You come across a thousand people who say ‘Put your money here’ or ‘Put your money there,’ but it’s not common to find a person you can really trust. There are two people in my life who I can really trust:  My mom and Macaco. [Macaco is] a person who is honest, who tells you how it is. He won’t say one thing to you and say something else to somebody else. There are a lot of people like that. It hurts me that the world is like that but it is, so you have to have someone you can trust. Someone who calms you and helps you move forward.”

“He’s like my father. When you’re young, you need to have someone next to you, someone who is going to push you. You need people who are positive by your side. I’m just blessed to have a coach who was always there to give me support… And, I call him every day. We talk about the game and when stuff is not going real good he always talks to me and says hey, just be patient. It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish.”  We ask Macaco how he benefits from his bond with Manny. He gazes past the windowsill and says: “It’s really made me whole. It’s given me a full life instead of just half. Still, my life is not perfect. I work very hard. But it makes me – it’s like when someone takes medicine for an illness. It’s like if you have a failure in your heart and you need medicine to make it regular. When I’m with him, I feel different. I feel more relaxed because of the way we can talk and the respect he has for me. Sometimes I ask myself, ‘Why is he asking me for help? I’m not a professional.’ The answer to that question I don’t know. But in my heart, Manny is my son.”

Macao refuses any financial support from Manny, and that may be the reason the relationship has endured, as he needs to feel that someone loves him apart from his fame and fortune. This litmus test explains why one of the most important people in his life, Macaco, still lives in a subsidized housing unit, supporting his mother, sister, and adopted son on paychecks earned through arduous night shifts in an operating room. “We try to send him some money,” Manny’s wife once explained, “I say, ‘Macaco, would you please take this gift,’ and he says, ‘I don’t need it. I have a lot.’ He works hard, and he should retire soon. If he wants to move in with us, I’d be happy. But he has his mother, and sister, and nephew who depend on his paycheck. He’s waiting for his pension. Money complicates things.”

Money complicated things for Yankees superstar Alex Rodriguez and his mentor, Eddie Rodriguez (no relation). Although he was only eight years old when he met Eddie, Alex had already moved three times and had recently been abandoned by his father. Forced to work two jobs, Alex’s mother enrolled her three young children in the Hank Kline Boys and Girls Club in Coconut Grove, Miami. Alex was primed for the sort of support and stern guidance that the Club’s baseball coach, Eddie, had to offer.

For the next eight years, Alex never missed a day at the Club, spending countless hours under Eddie’s supervision. A bond was forged. Like Macaco, Eddie has a passion for baseball. He grew up playing in Cuba and then spent eight years in the minors. There was a time when Eddie had a guest room in his protegé’s Florida manse and received phone calls from Alex each day.

Sitting in the family section at Yankee Stadium in 2004, Eddie sounded like an over-involved parent when he told a reporter, “The games are so hard for me. I don’t believe you can enjoy the game when you are watching someone you love. You can feel the joy when they do something great. But when they strike out, you die a little.” And, in a tribute to his mentor two years later, Alex credited Eddie with instilling in him the confidence and determination to achieve. “I don’t make a big decision without talking to Eddie. Baseball, business, life — I trust him completely. It’s a nice relationship to have after all these years. It’s very pure.”

Pure? Yes. Like Manny, Alex Rodriguez took comfort in knowing that at least one important relationship in his life was unspoiled by the seductive forces of his enormous paycheck. And in 2004, Rodriguez began to give back to the Boys and Girls Club, including a $1.8 million gift to establish a learning center.

But by 2007, Eddie and A-Rod suffered a painful falling out, apparently over what Alex perceived to be Eddie’s overreaching requests for charitable contributions to the center. Eddie doesn’t deny being persistent. “Alex Rodriguez?” he told us. “I don’t like to answer questions like that — he gave me a lot of money. I raised it for the kids. But, listen, I am my own man, and I’m never going to let famous rich people tell me what to do. I run the show. My way, or the highway. I don’t care how much money you have.”

It would be hard to imagine a scenario in which Macaco would banish anyone to the highway, but the unraveling of the A-Rod-Eddie relationship sheds light on the symbolic meaning of money for stars like Rodriguez and Manny. It also explains how Manny and Macaco have maintained their bond. As Manny’s former agent once told us,  “Macaco is probably the only person who has never asked Manny for anything.”

Today, irrespective of their mentors’ important role, both Manny and A-Rod’s careers and reputations have been forever tarnished by their decisions to use banned substances. But, unlike his fans, Macaco has never given up on the young boy who approached him the basement, looking for guidance and support.

Jean Rhodes