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There are few issues more pressing, at this crucial moment in our nation’s history, than whether Manny Ramirez will cut his hair.

The future Hall of Fame slugger was traded from the Boston Red Sox to the Los Angeles Dodgers two weeks ago. Thus far, he has failed to make good on a promise to his new manager, Joe Torre, to trim the dreadlocks hanging halfway down his back—unless you count last week’s trim.

Ramirez, born and bred in Washington Heights, is nearly as renown for his eccentricities—the behavior dubbed “Manny Being Manny” in Boston—as he is for being the best right-handed hitter of his generation. He once cut off a throw from center fielder Johnny Damon, which is never something you want your left fielder doing. He’s been known to retreat into the scoreboard during pitching changes, high-five fans in the middle of plays, and mises games with dubious injuries. After a hugely productive, intermittently tumultuous eight years with the Red Sox, Manny essentially forced a trade by making himself a huge distraction.

Sports are a fascinating site of American social history, the battlefield of race and class made literal. Often, they presage or parallel political movements.

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Seven years before Brown vs. the Board of Education outlawed school segregation, Jackie Robinson re-integrated baseball. That’s right, re-integrated. During Reconstruction—a period which also saw the election of more black senators than the entire 20th century—blacks and whites played together in the International League, which became the National League. Moses “Fleet” Walker was both the first and last black player to take the field.

From Jack Johnson to Muhammad Ali, Hank Greenberg to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, athletes have been lightning rods for society’s feelings about equality and change. Their impact is not necessarily because they were politically outspoken, either; in a world of limited opportunity, being visible was often enough. William Rhoden (Forty Million Dollar Slaves) and Dave Zirin (What’s My Name, Fool) are among those who have written brilliantly on the subject.

As sports go, so goes society. Today, franchises are billion-dollar enterprises, and top athletes enjoy (or don’t) visibility and salaries on a par with movie stars. Only sixty years ago, Ted Williams (another great Red Sox leftfielder) was the only player on the team who could afford not to take a job in the off-season. Sixty years before that, ballplayers were considered ruffians, unwelcome at the better hotels. (The Glory of Their Times, a collection of interviews with players from the 1870s-1930s, is a must-read about the game’s early days).

The corporatization of baseball has given us cookie-cutter players, their individuality leached away by an industry that grooms them from early adolescence, pays them exorbitant salaries, and expects complete obedience in return.

On many teams, this extends all the way to personal grooming. When the Red Sox traded the aforementioned Damon to the hated Yankees in 2005, the pain of seeing a favorite player go was muted considerably because the guy we loved—bearded, longhaired, looking like he’d recently discovered fire—was soon no more. After a forced shave-and-haircut, Damon became almost indistinguishable from teammates like Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter.

All of this is why Ramirez’s hair matters—especially the one dread dyed Rastafarian red-gold-and-green. This is a question of identity. Not Manny’s, but America’s. Are we going to be a melting pot, or a mixing bowl? Must we sacrifice our individuality for the sake of the team, the country, or will we celebrate what makes each one of us unique?

Baseball was once a social experiment, every team a wild mix of ‘rubes’ straight off their families’ farms and inner city kids, hard-drinking lifers and gullible rookies, all of them traveling the country together and eking out a living for the love of the game.

Many old-time Hall of Famers would never even be invited to spring training today. Modern teams would never accept the eccentricities of a pitcher like Rube Waddell, who won 300-plus games despite a love of fire engines so extreme that he sometimes left the mound to chase them down—and remained AWOL for days. They’d have an equally tough time with the, shall we say, performance-diminishing beverages that fueled Hack Wilson, who still holds the single-season record for RBIs and who once described his hitting technique as “aiming for the middle ball.”

It’s not that the game is any less diverse today—if anything, it is more so, full of Latin stars and Japanese imports. And yet ballplayers seem more the same than ever. They must be colorless, in every sense of the word, to survive the game’s corporate culture.

Ramirez is one of the few players left who refuses to conform, who doesn’t seem to be contemplating his stock portfolio or endorsement deals (or, to be fair, anything whatsoever) when he stands in the outfield. And while a man salaried at million a year might seem like a dubious populist hero, baseball is still a mirror of America. Manny Being Manny symbolizes our last best hope of being free.

Adam Mansbach’s novels include The End of the Jews and Angry Black White Boy.

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