Florida's shortstop is a maddening player, for pitchers who face him and teammates who suffer his lapses in maturity. How good might Hanley Ramirez be if he just grew up?
This is an article from the May 31, 2010 issue
Inadvertent though it might have been, on a muggy South Florida evening earlier this month, Hanley Ramirez held a science demonstration. If you'd ever questioned Newton's second law, that force really does equal mass times acceleration, you'd have walked away convinced after watching the Marlins' shortstop take batting practice at Sun Life Stadium. At 6'3", 230 pounds, most of it corded muscle—"He looks like a cornerback," another giant of the Miami sports scene, Bill Parcells, recently marveled—Ramirez crowded the plate. As the pitch arrived, he kicked his left leg, tightened his grip on the bat, flexed his massive forearms and swung with a fast and violent downward torque.
For the first round of pitches Ramirez drilled the ball, hard, harder and hardest. But he did it with enough control to distribute line drives around the field. In the next round Ramirez boosted ball after ball off or over the wall. One shot was still ascending when it doinked off the GOYA BEANS sign on the 33-foot-high leftfield fence. So impressive was the power show that the Giants, Florida's opponents that night, stopped stretching behind the cage to watch. It was San Francisco third baseman Pablo Sandoval—who's been known to uncork a few BP moonshots himself—who verbalized what everyone else was thinking: Damn! He pierced the humid air with a wolf whistle.
Finally done, Ramirez flashed a wide smile and sang a song in an indeterminate language. Chewing on his rubber mouth guard, he stopped to hug Sandoval. As Ramirez retreated to the Marlins' dugout he didn't hear (or simply ignored) hitting coach Jim Presley calling after him. Hanley had a more pressing concern: He wanted to resume the game of catch he'd started before he hit. "Where's Helms?" he asked forlornly. "I thought we were gonna keep playing." A team employee pointed to Wes Helms, Florida's veteran infielder. But Ramirez was looking for Wes Helms Jr., his teammate's son, a seven-year-old first-grader.
So it goes with Hanley Ramirez. He is one of the game's most gifted players, a middle infielder who can hit for both power and average and steal bases almost at will. "I'm telling you, this is the best player I've been around—and I saw Ken Griffey Jr. come up," says Presley, a former All-Star third baseman who played for three teams, including the Mariners when Griffey arrived, from 1984 through '91. "Hanley's as talented as anyone in the game." But Ramirez can also operate at an odd remove, with few in his orbit—not least, the men he plays with 162 times a year—able to make solid contact with him. Emotional maturity doesn't rank among his core strengths.
Last week both his prodigious talent and prodigious petulance were on full display. During the Marlins' 5--1 loss to Arizona on May 17, Ramirez booted a grounder at shortstop and then pursued the ball, which he had kicked toward the leftfield corner, with all the urgency of a teenager strolling at the mall. Galled by the perceived lack of effort, Marlins manager Fredi Gonzalez removed Ramirez from the game when the inning was over. Gonzalez had no choice. Leaving the shortstop in would have sent a message that the team's star was immune from basic workplace rules.
That should have been that, one of those lapses that happens in the course of a season. Ramirez, though, compounded matters the following day, defiantly claiming that he had no reason to say sorry. "We got a lot of people dogging it after ground balls," he whined, after suggesting that his speed on the play was compromised by the soreness he felt after fouling a ball off his left shin earlier in the game. "They don't apologize." He then went after his manager, the man who had, in effect, sent him to his room. "He doesn't understand. He never played in the big leagues."
Ramirez was held out of the lineup the next day. It was a hot story for a news cycle or two, a controversy made for sports talk radio. Still, this didn't feel like the misadventure of another self-enchanted superstar. Ramirez came off more as a huffy child who was angry with his parents and 24 siblings. It was Andre Dawson, the Hall of Famer and Marlins front office special assistant, who dispensed the tough love. According to The Palm Beach Post, Dawson summoned Ramirez last week and explained, "If you say the wrong thing to me, then you might wind up on the floor on your rear end.... I'm going to give it to you raw.... You have a ton of ability, but there's more than just going out and having a ton of ability."
"When you're that good and that talented, it's hard not to be selfish," says Helms. "You just need someone to jerk the chain once in a while." Two days after his benching, Ramirez started digging himself out. He apologized to Gonzalez and his teammates individually. "I'm sorry that all this got so ugly. My intent was not to cause a distraction," he told reporters. He was allowed out of his room. Then, in his first game back, he went 3 for 5 in a win over St. Louis.
The real pity of Ramirez's tantrum was this: It probably marked the most significant attention he's received to date. Perhaps because Ramirez works in Miami—not technically a small market, but the baseball team operates as if it is—the word has been slow in getting out. But at age 26 he has been putting up Xbox-type numbers for several years. Now in his fifth full season, Ramirez has an average 162-game output of 27 home runs, 121 runs, 201 hits and a .315 batting average; he's the only National League shortstop to hit more than 110 home runs and 175 doubles and score more than 490 runs before his 27th birthday. Through Sunday, Ramirez, the reigning NL batting champ (he hit .342 last year), was hitting .299 with seven home runs and helping the plucky, third-place Marlins stay close to the NL East--leading Phillies. "If he was playing in New York or Chicago or L.A., a good-looking kid, that talented ... whoa," says Gonzalez. "You talk about a five-tool player, and you won't find much better than Hanley."
A few years ago Ramirez was grouped with the Mets' Jose Reyes and Philadelphia's Jimmy Rollins as the NL's best young shortstops. The better comparison now: Think of him as a scaled-down Albert Pujols, the only National Leaguer to receive more votes in last season's MVP balloting. Ramirez, who signed a six-year contract extension in 2008 that will pay him $70 million through the 2014 season, can't match the raw power of the Cardinals' first baseman, but he offers comparable hitting skills, has more speed and plays a more demanding position. Plus—and this is a key point in any who-would-you-build-a-franchise-around debate—Ramirez is almost four years younger. And yet it's easy to wonder how good Ramirez might be if he had the maturity to match his talent.
Lavish as Ramirez's stats are, there's a sparseness to his game, no wasted movements or obvious earmarks of exertion. It's the curse of the talented athlete: Physical gifts can veil hard work and effort. But in Ramirez's case it's heightened by an insouciance that can be misinterpreted as indifference. "I don't mean this negatively, but it's a question of, How good does he want to be?" says Giants catcher Bengie Molina. "Because you can tell that the game comes so easy to him." Ramirez began the season slowly, batting .279 and knocking in just seven runs in April, but dismissed questions about his slumplet, declaring, "No worries, I'm going to get hot—and when I get hot, it's hot." Then, as if he simply needed to flip a switch, he knocked in 10 runs in the first four days of May.
Last month reporters asked Ramirez if he was worried about facing the Big Three of the Giants' rotation: Tim Lincecum, Barry Zito and Matt Cain. "They're going to have to face me," he responded. Sure enough, in the first game of the series Ramirez drilled a Lincecum offering over the leftfield fence, a game-tying three-run shot. "And I didn't even get all of it," Ramirez asserted.
"People talk about his talent, which is fine, but he doesn't get enough credit for really being geared like a baseball player," says Florida reliever Burke Badenhop. "When I'm pitching, he'll come to the mound and whisper something—he really knows other hitters—and you realize how good his instincts are."
Ramirez hears the praise about his baseball cortex and shrugs. "People say, 'Hanley, you should watch more [video] or whatever,'" he says, smiling and pointing to his head, "but it's all here."
Talking casually with Ramirez, there's nothing that says, "Look at me." In fluent English and in a soft voice at variance with his physique, he'll talk genially about his wife, Elisabeth, and their sons, Hanley Jr., 5, and Hansel, 3. Joy springing from his face, he'll describe the H2R Ranch in the Dominican Republic to which he repairs in the off-season to relax and tend to the chickens, goats and cattle he raises, or his fishing prowess. But when talk turns to baseball, his smile vanishes, he looks at the clock on the clubhouse wall and starts rocking the clichés: "I just want to be a good teammate.... I don't care about my stats, as long as we're winning.... I try to get better each season."
Ramirez likes to describes himself as "easygoing." But he also can be difficult-going; his healthy ego is striking for its delicacy. Before last season the Marlins forbade players from wearing long hair and sporting jewelry on the field. That the get-a-haircut policy was promulgated by a man named Samson (team president David Samson) offered comic relief. But Ramirez, who'd worn his hair in braids and took to jewelry, didn't find anything funny. He took it as a personal affront. During spring training he grabbed a Sharpie and scrawled i'm sick of this s--- on a T-shirt. "I'm angry," he told reporters. "I want to be traded.... It's incredible. We're big leaguers." The adults pulled him aside and scolded him; he calmed down and never complained publicly again.
On Sept. 1, with the Marlins still in contention and Ramirez leading the batting race but cooling off, he removed himself from a game, citing hamstring cramps. In the clubhouse the next day he was explaining to Juan C. Rodriguez of the South Florida Sun Sentinel that some teammates thought he was dogging it to protect his stats: "A couple of the guys [didn't like it] when I came out."
A few stalls away, second baseman Dan Uggla overheard and interjected, "I was one of them."
Uggla didn't stop there. "If you really wanted to win you, would have never come out of the game," he said, then added, "Yeah, you got your $70 million, so f------ win. What the f--- you have to come out of the game for?"
Tensions eased after a closed-door meeting, but teammates recall that Ramirez appeared to be genuinely wounded—as if, says one team employee, "he needed some love." He got some this spring. The player who started the 2009 season complaining about his team's anti-bling policy was rewarded with ... a necklace encrusted with 394 diamonds in the shape of .342, his league-leading, season-ending average. (The decimal point was a teal-colored gem.) Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria, an unabashed fan of Ramirez ("I love the young man. I tease him relentlessly just to get him to smile," he says), presented him with the gift at ceremonies during spring training and before the home opener. "Hanley has this star presence, this magic to him," says Loria. "But he also has a very sensitive side."
If Ramirez requires special handling, it most likely traces to his upbringing. For all the Dominican players who have used baseball as a means of escaping poverty, Ramirez is an exception. An only child, he was doted on by his father, Toribio, a mechanic, and mother, Isabel, who shuttled him to practices and games in Santo Domingo. By Dominican standards it was a solidly middle-class life. "I had everything I wanted," Ramirez says. "It was the kind [of childhood] you want to give your own kids."
Signed at age 16 by the Red Sox, Ramirez was a well-regarded prospect but brought along slowly. Finally called up in 2005, he had two at bats and then, packaged with other prospects, was traded to Florida in the off-season for righthanded ace Josh Beckett and third baseman Mike Lowell. When Marlins executives characterized the trade as "a potential Cy Young winner for a potential MVP," it sounded like a hollow justification for another fire sale. And yet this stands as the epitome of a win-win trade. Beckett and Lowell helped Boston win the World Series in '07. In Florida, Ramirez has done a convincing impersonation of a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
After winning the NL Rookie of the Year Award in 2006, Ramirez had one of the best offensive years of any NL shortstop ever in '07, batting .332, slugging .562, clubbing 29 home runs and stealing 51 bases. He followed that up by hitting 33 homers and stealing 35 bases in '08. Dropped, at his request, from first to third in the order in '09, he had the best year of anyone in the NL not named Pujols. He also improved his defense, which despite his possession of an arm that should require a permit had been seen as a weakness. He cut the number of errors he made from 22 in '08 to 10 last season. "I'm surprised, because you didn't hear that much about him coming up," says Cubs leftfielder Alfonso Soriano, also a Dominican. "But he's become a great, great complete player."
A handsome, bilingual Dominican baseball star dropped into South Florida ... well, the boys in marketing couldn't have cooked it up any better. And yet, at least before last week's drama, Ramirez was still something of an unknown quantity in the region. A highly unofficial poll earlier this month among patrons of El Carajo, a popular tapas restaurant off Miami's U.S. 1, revealed far more sports interest in the Dolphins and Dwyane Wade's contract status.
In this sense Ramirez resembles the Marlins, baseball's most enigmatic franchise. The team, born in 1993, has already won two World Series titles. And given the size of its market, the demographic of retirees with ample free time and its sizable baseball-loving Latin community, fans ought to be abundant. Yet Florida consistently pulls some of the worst attendance figures in baseball; its average crowd of 17,469 this season ranks 27th. The explanations vary. Sun Life Stadium is a charm-deprived football venue. The summer weather makes attending a game unappealing. (The team does claim some of the highest local TV ratings in the majors.) Some fans—and several rival owners—blame Loria, who makes a healthy yearly profit thanks to revenue sharing but keeps one of the lowest payrolls and least stable rosters in the game.
In two years South Florida can prove once and for all whether it can support a major league team. The Marlins will move to a new park in Miami's Little Havana neighborhood, on the site of the old Orange Bowl. Funded by the city, county and the Marlins, the $609 million facility will include a retractable roof to counter the weather. While naming rights are still available, it may as well be called the House That Hanley Built. It didn't go unnoticed that the project, discussed for years, gained traction after Ramirez signed his contract extension. "I'm telling you, this ballpark is going to be the jewel of the south," gushes Loria. "And we're counting on Hanley to be a big part of it!"
Translation: The team is relying on Ramirez to sustain his play, while developing into more of a leader. "No problem," he says. "I try to lead more with how I play. I'm getting older. I'm already 26." The Marlins can only hope that growing older and growing up are one and the same.
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