We all live for a while in the land of might. We might go anywhere. We might become anything. When do you realize you’ve been cast out of this land? When does your what if congeal into what is? That moment seems to be happening in this 1979 card, as a melancholy Rick Manning in extreme close-up seems unable to look straight at the viewer, as if in fear that the viewer will start grilling him about why he hasn’t become the next Tris Speaker, or at the very least a less hilarious version of Mickey Rivers.
A few years earlier, in his rookie season of 1975, Rick Manning hit .285, which along with his spectacular fielding in centerfield would have earned him the rookie of the year award in most seasons. Unfortunately, he made his debut the same season as 1975 MVP Fred Lynn (not to mention Lynn’s teammate Jim Rice). The following season, Manning won a Gold Glove, upped his average to .292, and doubled his home run output from 3 to 6. Visions of even better seasons, spangled with a .300 average, 40-50 steals, and double-digit home runs, seemed not only possible but likely. “He’s the most exciting ballplayer the Indians have had in many years,” his manager Frank Robinson said in 1976, in the June issue of Baseball Digest. “I think his potential is unlimited.”
Manning stumbled in 1977, hitting just .227. At the end of that season the Indians traded away his teammate Dennis Eckersley, apparently fearing clubhouse dissension over the fact that Manning had been having an affair with Eckersley’s wife. It stands to reason that before the trade the Indians evaluated both players on what lay ahead for them, and decided that despite his disappointing 1977 campaign 22-year-old Rick Manning still owned more acreage than 22-year-old Dennis Eckersley in the land of might.
In 1978, while Eckersley was winning 20 games for his new team, the Red Sox, Rick Manning edged his average back up to .263, but in 1979, the year this card came out, he slid back a little, to .259, which turned out to be the most accurate portrait of his talents he’d ever produce in a single season, considering the .257 lifetime average he ultimately finished with after 13 quiet seasons at or near the basement of the American League East.
As Rick Manning’s career was drawing to a close, Dennis Eckersley also seemed to be just about through playing professional baseball. In 1987, Manning’s final season, Eckersley was traded with someone named Dan Rohn to the A’s for three minor leaguers. It wasn’t the kind of deal that had any might in it. Just bodies replacing other bodies. But as most baseball fans know, in Oakland Eckersley was moved to the bullpen, and he proceeded to have a promising season, his first in years. The A’s must have thought, correctly as it turned out, “Hey, we just might have something here.” This is the haunting thing about the land of might. Even after we’ve been cast out we’re never sure when to stop hoping we might be able to return.
(These thoughts on Rick Manning began when I noticed him on the cover of the aforementioned June 1976 Baseball Digest while perusing the complete Baseball Digest archives. Thanks to John Rosenfelder at earbender for giving me a heads-up about this amazing new online baseball time machine.)