Son Of Sammy Which hitter is most capable of replicating Sammy Sosa's stunning 1998 power surge? That's a no-brainer: It's the Indians' Manny Ramirez

April 04, 1999

A year ago, if you had kissed your finger and pointed to a
stranger, you probably would have found yourself swapping
punches at the next stoplight. Back then the name Sammy still
brought to mind a one-eyed crooner who was a renowned Rat Packer
or a two-faced mob hit man who was a renowned rat. Around the
major leagues, when you heard Sammy Sosa's name, it was usually
atop a list of baseball's most overpaid or underachieving players.

For three years running Sosa had hit between 36 and 40 homers
and had driven in 100 or more runs, but with his new $10
million-a-year contract the then 29-year-old Chicago Cubs
rightfielder was still viewed as 210 pounds of overpriced
potential. He was too undisciplined at the plate--a .251 hitter
with 174 strikeouts, 45 walks and a .300 on-base percentage in
1997--for anyone to suspect that he would join Mark McGwire in
his mystical quest of Roger Maris's home run record.

But once in a while a baseball deity dips his toes in before he
walks on water. He needs a few seasons to figure it all out, to
understand the mental and emotional grind of 162 games, and to
make the bold leap toward Cooperstown. (Not until Hank Aaron's
fourth full season did he hit more than 27 home runs.)

Then all of a sudden the ball looks bigger, the body feels
better, a warm breeze blows out all summer, the stars line up
right and everything just kind of comes into focus. A hot streak
becomes a historic season, and the next Roger Maris astounds the
experts much as the first Roger Maris did. Two generations ago
Maris went from 16 home runs in 1959 to 39 the next year to 61
in '61. In one year Sosa went from 36 home runs and 119 RBIs to
66 and 158, a stunning jump in production and, along with his
.308 batting average, one of the greatest offensive seasons in
the post-World War II era. He blew kisses to the crowds and
bowed reverently to McGwire and pumped new life into a sport
that surely needed some. Sammy was no longer a bull or a rat--he
was a Cub.

As the ballparks get smaller and the hitters get bigger, we
probably won't have to wait so long for the next shooting star
to follow Sosa across the summer sky. McGwire will no doubt find
one or all of the usual suspects--Albert Belle, Juan Gonzalez,
Ken Griffey Jr.--alongside him as he tears through the game's
rice-pudding pitching. Sosa probably will be in there, too (box,
page 66). But they almost certainly will have company. Someone
will crash the party of five and at least make a bid to become
...the Next Sammy.

What will it take? Only everything: no injuries, a lot of
protection in the lineup, a hitter's ballpark, bad pitching,
good luck, warm weather and the ability to just get crazy-hot at
the plate for extended periods. For Sosa all of the above fell
into place in 1998: He stayed healthy enough to play in 159
games and drove in more runs than any major leaguer in 49 years,
a tribute to the top of the Cubs' lineup. Cleanup hitter Mark
Grace provided the necessary--if not exactly
Mantle-like--protection behind him. Playing half your games at
Wrigley, of course, never hurts.

Most of all, Sosa displayed an uncanny knack for getting hotter
than the cast of Silk Stalkings. He pitched a tent in the
proverbial zone for all of June, setting a major league record
for homers in a month, with 20. For the year, he had 11
multihomer games, best in the majors and one more than McGwire
had.

So who could do what Sosa did? Well, many baseball people
believe Montreal Expos outfielder Vladimir Guerrero, a 6'3",
205-pound, five-tool phenom who, like Sosa, is from the
Dominican Republic, will eventually play the lead in Sammy, the
Sequel. Last season, at 22, Guerrero hit 38 home runs, including
19 in spacious Olympic Stadium. Guerrero shares Sosa's passion
for the game. "A huge talent," says St. Louis Cardinals manager
Tony La Russa. "Sammy had a lot of talent, but he was a little
wild [at 23]. Guerrero is very advanced for a young player." But
for now Guerrero faces two obstacles: He plays for the Expos and
in Montreal.

In the meantime there are others who might fill the bill (chart,
page 65), among them Colorado Rockies third baseman Vinny
Castilla, who's in the right lineup and the right ballpark;
towering Detroit Tigers first baseman Tony Clark, who adds to
his homer total each year (27, 32, 34); and Seattle Mariners
shortstop Alex Rodriguez, who, while still only 23, has already
won a batting title and had a 40-40 season. Says Cleveland
Indians manager Mike Hargrove, "I don't think people really
understand the feat accomplished last year by McGwire and Sosa.
A tremendous combination of things have to fall just right."

Many of those things have already fallen right for Hargrove's
own rightfielder, Manny Ramirez, SI's choice as The Man Who
Would Be Sammy. At 6 feet and 205 pounds, he is almost the same
size as Sosa, plays the same position, comes from the same
country, has similar power to all fields and had a similar rap
against him (lacks focus) as a young player. They both seem to
handle the media attention well, though in very different ways:
Sosa embraces it, even enjoys it; Ramirez pretends it's not
there, often walking away from interviews in the middle of
questions.

The best reason for choosing Manny as the next Sammy: He's
almost there already. At 26 he's just coming into his prime.
Last year, his fifth full season in the majors, Ramirez hit 45
home runs and drove in 145 runs. He belted another four homers
in the playoffs, giving him 13 for his postseason career and
leaving him fourth on the alltime list behind Mickey Mantle and
Reggie Jackson (18 apiece) and Babe Ruth (15).

"I don't know how much better he can get," says teammate Travis
Fryman, when asked if Ramirez could be the next Sosa. "Last year
he hit the ball as good as anyone can hit it. He and Juan
Gonzalez are the two most dangerous righthanded hitters in the
league."

Ramirez is also fast emerging as one of the best clutch power
hitters in the game. In addition to his postseason fireworks, he
has already hit eight career grand slams, and last September he
tied a major league record with eight homers in five games. "His
potential is unlimited," says Tribe hitting coach Charlie
Manuel. "Manny has tremendous weight shift, which makes his
hands quick to the ball. He's always had tremendous mechanics."

"He's a magnificent hitter," says Anaheim Angels scout Joe
McDonald. "He's got great bat control. I don't know how to pitch
to the guy. He always has quality at bats. The talent has always
been there, even in high school. It was just a question of
experience."

If Ramirez remains underrated, it's only because he doesn't draw
attention to himself. He rarely gives interviews, and when he
does, they can take a turn for the bizarre. Here's a sample from
an interview at the Tribe's camp in Winter Haven, Fla., last week:

SI: So how old are you?

RAMIREZ: I'm 25.
[He will turn 27 on May 30.]

SI: How old were you when you moved from the Dominican Republic?

RAMIREZ: I was 17.
[He was 13 when he moved to Washington Heights in New York City.]

SI: What did you do differently that allowed you to jump to 45
homers and 145 RBIs last year?

RAMIREZ: Just got lucky, I guess.

Says Ramirez's former coach at George Washington High, Steve
Mandl, "That's the way Manny is. It's hard to tell whether he's
not listening to your questions or just messing with you."

Mandl says he tried to get Ramirez into special-education
classes when Manny struggled with his studies. But, Mandl says,
he was rebuffed by the school's administration, which thought
the coach was just trying to make it easy for his star player to
stay academically eligible. Mandl now believes Ramirez suffers
from attention deficit disorder. "People used to say Manny's
crazy or they'd take for granted that he was slow," says Mandl,
"but he just had trouble concentrating."

When he first came up to the big leagues, Ramirez quickly gained
a reputation for his boneheaded baserunning and occasional
mental lapses in the field. In Game 6 of last year's American
League Championship Series, he turned his back on a long fly and
made an awkward running leap near the fence for the ball, which
dropped at his feet. At the plate, of course, his seemingly
oblivious approach probably helped his development. You can't
think and hit at the same time, as Yogi said, and Ramirez could
always hit. (He's a .302 lifetime hitter in the majors.) Even if
he has 60 homers in September, the pressure will weigh on him
about as much as the Asian economic crisis. His hair won't fall
out like Maris's did, though he may dye it orange, as he did
earlier this spring.

"I got very agitated last year when one of the preseason reports
said he was one of the 10 dumbest players in the game," says
Cleveland general manager John Hart. "I was mad, I really was.
People misunderstood his quiet work ethic and the fact that he
wasn't a polished baserunner when he came up. I had a
conversation with Manny after that report, and I told him how
mad I was. He didn't blink. It was like water off his back. He
has a unique ability not to pay attention to positive or
negative things."

The Indians made Ramirez the 13th pick in the 1991 draft, and he
left George Washington without graduating. (He later picked up
his GED.) Although he says he recently moved to Miami, Ramirez
returns often to his New York neighborhood, where Mandl's team
still is unable to take batting practice because it can't afford
to lose any balls. "Manny promised to get new uniforms for the
team--he promised," says Mandl. "We're waiting. Hopefully, he
remembers."

While many big leaguers are able to block out distractions and
reside in their own little worlds, Ramirez takes the practice to
a new extreme. Former teammate Shawon Dunston says Ramirez
doesn't always grab his own bat when he heads to the plate
during games. "He'll go to the bat rack, grab anyone's bat and
get a hit," says Dunston, now with the St. Louis Cardinals.
"That's how nuts he is."

At the top of the growing list of legendary Manny moments is the
time he hit a home run with a broken bat. No big deal, you say.
Happens all the time. Not like this: As Ramirez explained after
the homer, his bat was cracked before he hit the ball out of the
park. So why didn't he get a new bat? He just liked the old one,
he said.

Ramirez once sent a clubhouse attendant to get his car washed
and told the guy there was money in the glove compartment to pay
for it. There was money, all right: about $10,000 in cash.
During one road trip to Texas, Ramirez left behind a pair of
boots, with his paycheck in one of them. (The Rangers mailed the
check and the boots back to him.) Five years ago, while his
teammates were gripped by live coverage on the clubhouse TV of
L.A. police chasing a white Bronco, Ramirez asked aloud, "What
did Chad do?" He thought the cops were after teammate Chad Ogea
(pronounced O.J.).

"Manny is the single most unpretentious, unassuming guy I've
ever met in baseball," says Ray Negron, the media liaison for
the team's Latin players. "If he didn't have an agent, he
probably wouldn't know how much he made--and wouldn't care."
Ramirez has two years left on his four-year, $10.15 million
deal. The Indians offered him a reported seven-year, $56 million
deal in the off-season; Ramirez and his agent, Eric Goldschmidt,
turned it down after Bernie Williams got $87.5 million out of
the New York Yankees. It's safe to say that Manny would at least
like Sammy money now.

"I remember the first time I signed a contract, I was scared,"
says Ramirez. "I wondered, What if I don't make it? But I took
my chances, and I just went out and tried my best. I'm still
trying to figure it out, how I can be one of the best in the
league."

Ramirez says he loves Cleveland but would like to someday return
to New York to finish his career. Maybe he should make good on
the high school uniforms first. Sammy would.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY CHUCK SOLOMON COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY CHUCK SOLOMON Master mechanic A .302 hitter lifetime, Ramirez wins plaudits for his bat control and fast hands.

Second Coming of Sammy Sosa

Throw out Albert Belle, Juan Gonzalez and Ken Griffey
Jr.--they're in the running to be the next Mark McGwire. The
next Sammy Sosa has to be a guy who has shown he can go yard 35
to 40 times a season but would still shock fans by making the
quantum leap to 60. It also wouldn't hurt if, like Sosa, he was
a barrel-chested free swinger who stayed healthy and found a
groove in the prime of his career.

PLAYER, TEAM HT. WT. AGE* RECENT HOMER RUN SKINNY

The Standard
Sammy Sosa, 6'0" 210 30 33-25-36-40- Whoda thunk it
Cubs 36-66

Best Bet
Manny Ramirez, 6'0" 205 26 17-31-33-26-45 Sosa's body
Indians double: He's our
man

10 Who Could Pull It Off

Jeff Bagwell, 6'0" 195 30 39-21-31-43-34 If only he could
Astros stay injury free

Vinny Castilla, 6'1" 205 31 32-40-40-46 Right man in the
Rockies right park?

Tony Clark, 6'7" 245 26 27-32-34 Last crack at
Tigers Tiger Stadium's
short porch

Carlos Delgado, 6'3" 225 26 25-30-38 More at bats mean
Blue Jays more dingers

Vladimir Guerrero, 6'3" 205 23 11-38 All eyes are on
Expos this youngster

Andruw Jones, 6'1" 185 21 18-31 A lot of growing
Braves up to do first

Alex Rodriguez, 6'3" 209 23 36-23-42 Bids to be the
Mariners greatest power-
hitting shortstop

Scott Rolen, 6'4" 225 24 21-31 The next Mike
Phillies Schmidt?

Jim Thome, 6'4" 225 28 20-25-38-40-30 Has had 500 at
Indians bats just once

Mo Vaughn, 6'1" 245 31 29-26-39-44- Better protection
Angels 35-40 in new lineup

*As of April 1.

Ramirez is the same size as Sosa, has similar power to all fields
and had the same rap against him (lacks focus).

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)