This is the weird story of how Hanley Ramirez, late of the Boston Red Sox, went from unemployed former star to supposed drug kingpin back to unemployed – and unjustly tarnished – former star all in one weekend.
And it’s also a warning about not to jump to conclusions, especially about legal matters.
Once upon a time, Hanley Ramirez was a dynamic shortstop for the then-Florida Marlins. He had power, speed, and youth. Later, he reinvented himself as a middle-of-the-order force for the Dodgers. His tenure with the Red Sox after signing a four-year, $88 million deal was less successful, including a disastrous experiment in left field and culminating in his release earlier this year. Still, he hit 88 homers in a BoSox uniform and remained useful against left-handed pitching. We all expected he would land somewhere in relatively short order, with the Orioles emerging as a frontrunner.
Then all fell silent for a while. At least, until this past weekend.
As with so many things, it all started with a tweet.
McPhee, a reporter for ABC news, later elaborated in this story:
[T]here has been some reports about a FaceTime phone call that was made between a man during a car stop. After that car stop, police recovered a significant amount of drugs. And during that car stop, the suspect claimed that one of the items found in the vehicle belonged to Hanley Ramirez and then FaceTimed [Ramirez] in front of police. And that car stop coordinated with the timing of his release from the Red Sox.
Initially, McPhee didn’t do anything particularly wrong. She reported accurately that, during a traffic stop, the driver (a) said that certain unidentified items in the car belonged to Hanley, and (b) then proceeded to FaceTime Hanley. (As to why the driver chose Hanley, we’ll address that in a minute.) None of that actually implicates Hanley, really, except that he maybe ought to exercise greater caution about giving out his FaceTime number. But McPhee then added the qualification that the stop corresponded with when Hanley was released from the Red Sox.
— 12up (@12upSport) June 22, 2018
Pretty quickly, the Red Sox said that Ramirez’s release was solely for baseball reasons.
Red Sox VP of media relations Kevin Gregg says that the Red Sox are unaware of any investigation involving Hanley Ramirez. Another ML source familiar with the team's thinking seconded that, and reiterated that the decision to release him was "a baseball decision."
— Alex Speier (@alexspeier) June 22, 2018
That’s not so hard to believe. Ramirez was hitting only .254/.313/.395 at the time of his release, good for just a 91 wRC+ and -0.1 WAR. Over his last 177 games and 748 plate appearances, Hanley was worth -0.5 WAR and posted negative marks in offense, defense, and baserunning. A $20-plus million player who can’t hit, can’t run, and has no defensive value anywhere is a bad player, so the Red Sox’ certainly had cause for cutting ties. ESPN’s David Schenfield described Boston’s thinking this way:
The Boston Red Sox decided to designate Hanley Ramirez for assignment, and the reason why can be summed up succinctly: He’s expensive and not that good.
And that fit the timeline better than McPhee suggested. As MLBTradeRumors explained at the time,
[i]t’s important to note, too, that it’s still not clear whether the dates really do line up in the manner hinted at. While Ramirez was technically released on June 1st, release waivers were requested on May 30th. And he was designated for assignment — the truly consequential roster move — on May 25th. A press release indicates that the arrest of the suspect occurred on June 6th; if the car stop occurred at a prior time, the date is unreported at this point.
Major League Baseball had no comment. And his agent released this statement:
Hanley Ramirez’s agent, Adam Katz: “Hanley has no knowledge of any of the allegations contained in this media report and he is not aware of any investigation.” https://t.co/RaKBJdRlK9
— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) June 22, 2018
But all of that was drowned out by the gravity of the allegations and what came out next. The drugs in the car included “435 grams of fentanyl as well as a large amount of crack cocaine,” according to multiple media reports. Fentanyl and cocaine are Schedule II drugs, meaning possession and distribution (without a valid prescription) are felonies. And that’s not all: Heavy’s Tom Cleary reported that the man pulled over during the traffic stop was part of a massive drug ring operating in and around Lawrence, Massachusetts. In case you’re wondering, that’s this case.
Keep in mind that, at this point, Ramirez hadn’t been charged with any crimes, and hadn’t even been interviewed by authorities. He also wasn’t mentioned in the criminal complaint. So, at this point, all we could say for certain is that Hanley Ramirez received a FaceTime call from a suspect in a major drug case while that suspect was being arrested for transportation of Schedule II controlled substances. That’s weird. It is not, however, illegal.
But that didn’t stop the rumor mill from spinning out of control.
— Yahoo Sports MLB (@MLByahoosports) June 22, 2018
Report: Cops looking into Hanley Ramirez's possible connection to fentanyl trafficking ring https://t.co/KJAAfTwx5v
— Deadspin (@Deadspin) June 23, 2018
Even a former federal prosecutor joined in:
Identifying subjects is often a challenge in narcotics trafficking cases, but if your associate FaceTimes you in front of police and the drugs are in a car owned by you, that's a big problem. If true, Hanley Ramirez needs a good criminal defense attorney. https://t.co/OOosDXavCQ
— Renato Mariotti (@renato_mariotti) June 22, 2018
And then it went farther still:
Hanley Ramirez was DFA due to a state and federal investigation linking him to a Lawrence based Fentanyl drug ring.
— Savage Boston Sports ??? (@SavageBoston) June 22, 2018
The involvement of a major-league player in a drug ring actually isn’t unprecedented. Most famously, Esteban Loaiza, who banked more than $40 million in his career, was charged with trafficking 44 pounds of cocaine in a Nissan minivan.
And yet, despite all of this, it turned out that Hanley Ramirez, titan of the underworld, never really existed at all. As Shelley Murphy and Evan Allen of the Boston Globe explained:
A friend of former Red Sox first baseman Hanley Ramirez dropped his name in an effort to avoid arrest while transporting fentanyl from New York to Massachusetts in April, then immediately admitted the player had no connection to the drugs, according to documents filed in US District Court in Boston.
Ramirez is not under federal investigation and has not been linked to any drug ring, according to several people with direct knowledge of the case. The 34-year-old has been a free agent since the Red Sox released him on June 1.
An attorney, who represents the man arrested with the drugs and spoke on the condition that his client not be named because of concerns about his safety, said his client grew up in the Dominican Republic with Ramirez and used his name “to get the cops off his back, which didn’t work.”
Ultimately, this story is about a suspect attempting to use whatever cachet he could to avoid arrest. One could make the case that Ramirez, whose recent work wasn’t likely to have gained him any support in New England, might not have been ideal choice. Whatever his shortcomings on the field, though, Ramirez’s greatest error in this case was simply answering a FaceTime call. Hanley, it turns out, after all that, was nothing but a victim of circumstance.
And that matters, because “Hanley Ramirez, drug kingpin” was a story which gained traction. And not nearly as many news outlets as published the original story made its correction as top of a priority. Adam Katz, Ramirez’s agent, responded thusly:
Adam Katz, Hanley Ramirez’s agent: The reporting on Hanley’s involvement in this matter was reckless and irresponsible. It’s unfortunate that one careless, inaccurate story can generate such widespread negative and damaging coverage. (More)
— Bob Nightengale (@BNightengale) June 24, 2018
Adam Katz: Hanley is pleased to be absolved from wrongdoing and having any involvement in this matter.
— Bob Nightengale (@BNightengale) June 24, 2018
Hanley Ramirez has banked more than $159 million in his career, so he was set for life before this happened and he’ll be set for life afterward. But this story may well have done lasting damage to his reputation. Even now, vestiges of the story remain:
We’re all guilty of wanting news right away. Reporters have a really hard job, but reporting on legal matters is doubly hard. There’s specialized jargon and unfamiliar terms, and while the speed of the news cycle puts Billy Hamilton to shame, the legal system more closely approximates late-career Adam Dunn in lack of alacrity. And while the justice system isn’t remotely close to perfect, it moves slowly because speed can lead to things like this. Every news story about a legal matter is about real people with real lives that can be one tweet away from being changed forever. For one weekend in June, “Fake News” nearly claimed a victim in Major League Baseball.
Sheryl Ring is a litigation attorney and General Counsel at Open Communities, a non-profit legal aid agency in the Chicago suburbs. You can reach her on twitter at @Ring_Sheryl. The opinions expressed here are solely the author's. This post is intended for informational purposes only and is not intended as legal advice.