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He's the Manny In the battle for the last playoff spot, the Indians rely on Manny Ramirez, who talks softly but carries a big bat

Oct. 02, 2000
Oct. 02, 2000

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Oct. 2, 2000

Olympics 2000

He's the Manny In the battle for the last playoff spot, the Indians rely on Manny Ramirez, who talks softly but carries a big bat

This is a travelogue, an account of a place as mysterious as
Machu Picchu, only less traveled to. It's a place without any
signs of worry or tension, with a feeling of weightlessness.
It's a world Kodachrome-rich with laughter, gullibility, hair by
Crayola, a swing straight from the baseball gods on their best
day, and the occasional $40,000 in greenbacks left lying in the
glove compartment of a car as casually as a road map. It's the
world of Cleveland Indians rightfielder Manny Ramirez.

This is an article from the Oct. 2, 2000 issue Original Layout

El Muchacho (the Boy) is what Boston Red Sox ace Pedro Martinez
calls his fellow Dominican. "Manny is a little kid," says
Martinez, who, at 28, is all of seven months older than Ramirez.
"He's off in his own little world. He's in la-la-land."

Says Indians catcher Sandy Alomar, "Manny never gets upset. The
rest of us grind and fight ourselves. Manny never worries. If he
doesn't get a hit, he thinks, No problem--next at bat I'll get
one. It's the perfect attitude, but you can only have it when
you're as good as he is."

Ramirez is the greatest RBI machine since Jimmie Foxx and, based
on a career slugging percentage of .589 through Sunday, the most
prolific slugger today this side of Mark McGwire. He's also the
biggest reason that Cleveland, a monument of mediocrity while
Ramirez spent six weeks in the first half of the season on the
disabled list, had ridden a second-half resurgence to be one game
behind the Oakland A's in the wild-card race with a week left in
the season. Ramirez was leading the American League in slugging
percentage (.683) for a second straight year, was ranked third in
on-base percentage (.462), had reached base in 49 consecutive
games until the streak was snapped in a 9-0 loss on Sunday to the
Kansas City Royals and, despite his lengthy absence, had the
Triple Crown category numbers of an MVP candidate (.351,33
homers and 112 RBIs).

Having in late July rejected a five-year, $75 million offer to
stay in Cleveland, Ramirez appears bound for free agency after
this season. Tougher to read than Sanskrit, Ramirez has his
teammates and the Indians' front office baffled about what he
might do. "He doesn't say much to us, so I don't know what he's
thinking about it," shortstop Omar Vizquel says.

Chaplin and Marceau have left a larger recorded oral history than
Ramirez. Our journey won't be easy. "You want to talk to Manny?
Ha!" Alomar says with a laugh. "Good luck!"

The best place to begin is the 24 square feet of rectangular
space owned and operated by Manuel Aristides Ramirez. It's more
commonly known as the batter's box. Ramirez is the picture of
relaxation here. His pants, having no elastic in the legs, slouch
to his shoe tops, making him look as if he's a kid wearing his
big brother's pajamas. Sometimes the lining of his back pocket
flaps inside out from his pants, as if a slingshot, a bullfrog
and a few bottle caps have just tumbled out. His shirt is
unbuttoned at the top, cut open on the inside seam of the sleeves
and usually partly untucked. His most recent hair color
approximates that of goldenrod.

Ramirez holds the bat with his hands split apart by about half an
inch. He has a natural opposite-field stroke with which he hits
the ball to rightfield like a lefthanded pull hitter: with
tremendous loft and carry. He glides into pitches with a
rhythmic, almost balletic shift of his weight from his back leg
to his front. His exceedingly quick bat has made him the best in
baseball at turning on inside fastballs.

"What's amazing is that Manny looks exactly the same [hitting] as
when I saw him in high school," says J.P. Ricciardi, director of
player personnel for the A's. Ricciardi watched Ramirez, who had
emigrated with his family to New York City from Santo Domingo in
the Dominican Republic when he was 13 years old, at Manhattan's
George Washington High in 1991. Says Colorado Rockies executive
vice president Dan O'Dowd, formerly vice president of baseball
operations and assistant general manager of the Indians, "He's
one of the most gifted hitters I've ever seen. He hits the ball
to right center so well, and he kills the fastball middle in. His
offensive abilities are Hall of Fame caliber."

Ramirez went out of the lineup on May 30 with a strained left
hamstring. The Indians were 19-20 without him. He came back on
July 13, shortly after team owner Larry Dolan wondered aloud when
he might see his rightfielder play again. (Ramirez said the
proximity of his return to Dolan's comment was coincidental.)
Cleveland, even with Ramirez sidelined again briefly in August,
has been the second-best team in the American League ever since,
having gone 40-28 through Sunday. Ramirez hit .375 with 20 home
runs and 65 RBIs during that span.

The man must have an RBI chromosome, so natural is his knack for
knocking runners home. Nobody in baseball drives in runs like
Ramirez. Last year he had 165 RBIs in 147 games, marking the most
runs batted in and the best rate of RBIs per game (1.12) since
Foxx's 175 and 1.17 in 1938. His career .83 RBIs per game trails
only the rates of five Hall of Famers: 19th-century stud Sam
Thompson, Lou Gehrig, Hank Greenberg, Joe DiMaggio and Babe Ruth.

"He and [Seattle Mariners designated hitter] Edgar Martinez are
the most dangerous hitters in our league," says Pedro Martinez.
"The breaking ball, Manny hits. The fastball, he hits. The high
pitch, he hits. The low pitch, he hits. If you make one mistake,
he's all over you. So I just try to keep it simple and hope that
he hits it at someone."

Perhaps one reason Ramirez succeeds in clutch situations is that
he's impervious to the stress of such occasions--or of any others.
His naivete is so evident that people in the Cleveland
organization tell Ramirez stories as if they were knock-knock
jokes: One begets another and another. There was the time in 1993
when his teammates asked him on his first flight to Texas if he
had packed his passport, which, they told him, was required for
entry. A worried Ramirez fretted he would be turned away upon
arrival. Another time early in his career he spent three days in
Detroit without the contents of his luggage. He didn't know he
was supposed to claim his bags in the hotel lobby, where players'
luggage routinely is brought on trips, and was too shy to ask
anyone about it. He received a phone call from a concerned person
in the Indians' accounting office because records showed he
hadn't cashed five consecutive paychecks. Ramirez said he simply
hadn't gotten around to it. There was the time he was worried
about teammate Chad Ogea upon hearing a news bulletin that Los
Angeles police were pursuing O.J. Another time he told a
clubhouse attendant to wash his car, alerting the youth that
there was "some money" in the glove compartment. That turned out
to be the $40,000 in cash.

"Part of what makes him so good is that he is unaffected by
extraneous factors that get to most players," says Cleveland
assistant general manager Mark Shapiro. "He has an uncanny
ability to block everything out." Like others, Shapiro is amazed
at how a player who makes as much money as Ramirez does ($4.25
million in this, the final season of a five-year, $14.6 million
deal) is such a modest spender. "Have you seen his car?" Shapiro
asks. "It's an Impala. I've known Manny since he was 18, and I
still feel as if I really don't know him. I do know his teammates
have always had tremendous respect for him, they get along with
him and consider him a positive influence. That speaks volumes
about a player."

"He usually doesn't say anything," says Indians coach Ted
Uhlaender, "but when he does say something, he's funny." On July
2 Cleveland manager Charlie Manuel announced that he was taking
away the clubhouse Ping-Pong table and banning card games as
punishment for the players' slump. "Uh-oh," Ramirez said. "If we
don't start winning, he's going to take away the George Foreman
grill next."

Ramirez prefers not to speak to the media, mostly because of his
shyness but also because of his uncertainty when speaking
English, though his command of the language continues to improve.
He did agree to speak to SI last week when the Indians were in
Boston, smiling boyishly when answering questions about...

--Why he hits with his hands apart: "I don't know I do that. It
just is natural, I think."

--Why he hits so well with runners on base: "I am just lucky, I
guess. I don't know how I do it. Nothing special. All you can do
is try. Sometimes you hit the ball, and sometimes you don't. All
I want to do is have a good at bat. I know if I don't do it, we
have many other good hitters who can do it."

--How he avoids tension and frustration: "Hitting is hard. It
comes and it goes. You can't tell which way it is going to go for
you. So you just have to go with it. I'm not going to go crazy
worrying about it. It just comes and goes. Nothing you can do
about it."

"Wow, you really spoke to Manny?" Alomar said, laughing.
"Congratulations!"

This is the question Ramirez won't answer: Where will he be
playing next season? That's the most mysterious part of his
world. The Cleveland front office was chagrined that its opening
offer, meant as a start to negotiations, brought no counteroffer
from Jeff Moorad, Ramirez's agent. Moorad hinted that Ramirez
wants to see how Seattle shortstop Alex Rodriguez, who also can
be a free agent after this season, redefines the superstar salary
scale. "You may not get that on the free-agent market," Hart said
he told Moorad of the $75 million offer, "and if you do, it could
be for [only] a few dollars more. We'll see."

One source familiar with Ramirez's thinking says that the Indians
passed on a chance to lock him up two years ago at about $10
million a year, long term, and that now Ramirez "will sign with
the team offering him the most money." According to one general
manager, the likely suitors for Ramirez, depending on movement of
other top sluggers, include (besides Cleveland) the Mariners,
Rockies, Baltimore Orioles, Detroit Tigers, New York Mets, New
York Yankees and Texas Rangers.

"Manny is a premier offensive talent," the general manager says.
"He's made himself into an average defensive player--he still
takes poor routes to balls--and an average base runner. Problem
is, he spaces out, just shuts the game down for periods of time
during the season, and even the postseason. [He's a .223 hitter
in 188 postseason at bats.] You have to know that's part of the
package. He's a special offensive player, but you're not getting
a team leader or someone vocal in your community. For those kinds
of dollars, that might bother some teams."

The Indians don't need Ramirez to be a spokesman who can sell
tickets. Jacobs Field hasn't had an unsold seat since 1995.
Ramirez has a comfortable environment in Cleveland. He hits in
what is probably the most ideal lineup spot in baseball, with
speedy table setters Kenny Lofton, Vizquel and Roberto Alomar in
front of him and a lefthanded slugger, Jim Thome, behind him.
Last year, for instance, a runner was on second base, third base
or both 37.8% of the time when Ramirez stepped into the batter's
box, the highest such rate in baseball. This season, through
Sunday, he had made 37.3% of his plate appearances with runners
in scoring position.

"I'd love to keep him," Hart says, "but it's not as if we'd fall
apart without him. In 1997 we lost Albert [Belle] to free agency,
and I traded Kenny Lofton and Carlos Baerga, and we went to the
World Series. I hope he's here. I don't know what our chances
are...Ken Griffey [who went from Seattle to his hometown
Cincinnati Reds] knew what he wanted. Mark McGwire [who elected
to remain with the St. Louis Cardinals for below-market value]
knew what he wanted. I don't know what this guy wants. Nobody
does."

Ramirez jokes with his teammates about his future. When the
Indians played the Devil Rays in Tampa Bay, he told them he would
sign there and buy a big house on a beach. When they played in
Oakland, he said he would sign there and live in San Francisco.
This goes on in every city. So what will it be?

"After the season let's see what happens," Ramirez says. "All I'm
trying to do right now is play hard. I am not worried about
that."

Of course not. Worry doesn't exist in the world of el Muchacho.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN IACONOB/W PHOTO: CORBISCOLOR PHOTO: TOM DIPACE GREAT CIRCLE ROUTE Though improved on the field, Ramirez can still turn a routine fly into an adventure.

Real RBI Machines

With 112 RBIs in 110 regular-season games through Sunday, Manny
Ramirez was on course to become the seventh player (including Lou
Gehrig, above) since 1900--and first since 1940--to drive in more
than one run a game in consecutive seasons (minimum 100 games a
season). --David Sabino

PLAYER SEASONS GAMES RBIS RBIS
EACH SEASON PER GAME
Lou Gehrig, Yankees 1930, '31 309 358 (174, 184) 1.16
Hack Wilson, Cubs 1929, '30 305 350 (159, 191) 1.15
Al Simmons, A's 1929, '30 281 322 (157, 165) 1.15
Babe Ruth, Yankees 1929, '30 280 307 (154, 153) 1.10
Jimmie Foxx, A's 1932, '33 303 332 (169, 163) 1.10
Babe Ruth, Yankees 1930, '31 290 316 (153, 163) 1.09
Babe Ruth, Yankees 1931, '32 278 300 (163, 137) 1.08
Manny Ramirez, Indians 1999, 2000 257 277 (165, 112) 1.08
Joe DiMaggio, Yankees 1939, '40 252 259 (126, 133) 1.03