Posted: Wednesday March 23, 2011 3:00PM ; Updated: Wednesday March 23, 2011 3:00PM
Joe Lemire
Joe Lemire>INSIDE BASEBALL

Ramirez is one happy camper and the Rays are glad to have him

Story Highlights

Manny Ramirez joined the Tampa Bay Rays as a free-agent in the offseason

Ramirez has lost much of his power since a 50-game suspension in 2009

Rays people say they are impressed with Ramirez's work ethic and attitude

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Manny Ramirez
Manny Ramirez is trying to recapture the form that made him one of the majors' most feared hitters for more than a decade..
AP

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- Before Monday's 7 p.m. home game at Charlotte Sports Park, the Rays were required to be dressed and on the field by 3:30, so when a player entered the clubhouse at 3:04, that was not only an acceptable but also a standard arrival time for a long-tenured veteran of the majors, especially one who wasn't in that evening's lineup.

But when Manny Ramirez marched in the door, it was clear he wasn't entering it for the first time that day, judging by the sweat staining nearly every square inch of his t-shirt -- which carried the words "Manny Ray" and bore the silhouette of a dreadlocked sting ray -- and by the well-worn bat he carried in his left hand. Sherlock Holmes wasn't needed to deduce that Ramirez had been in the batting cage for a very long time.

This is nothing new for the 38-year-old Ramirez, who may have a reputation for being laid back but is all business with a bat in his hands. "If you just looked at the amount of time he spends in the cage and the weight room and everything, you'd think he was trying to make the team," said Rays outfielder Sam Fuld.

That hard work helps explain why this spring Ramirez batted .316 with three home runs in his first 38 at-bats and looked more like one of the greatest righthanded hitters of alltime than he has since before his 2009 suspension for violating Major League Baseball's drug policy. From 1995 through 2008 Ramirez had a .317/.414/.598 batting line and averaged 36 home runs; in '09 and '10, he was still a good hitter, batting .293/.414/501, but the power numbers slipped to a two-year total of only 28 homers, while playing just 194 games.

Ramirez always put in as much or more time than any player in the batting cage, the gym and the video room, but that dedication to his craft has been overshadowed by his antics the past three seasons, which also included acrimonious departures from two competitive clubs at midseason.

His new Rays teammates love him. His hitting coach, Derek Shelton, called him a "joy to be around." Outfielder Matt Joyce, 26, even called him a "role model." Even the media, to whom Ramirez was mostly silent for years, has found him more amenable to interviews.

Ramirez spoke with SI.com for a few minutes on Monday while sitting under his locker, which, like most of the Rays' regulars, carried a nickname ("Pelo," the Spanish word for hair) rather than his given name. His answers weren't long, but he was friendly. He smiled and said he "felt great" about being with Tampa Bay. When told that a scout had recently raved about his swing, Ramirez humbly downplayed his performance until the season, saying, "I don't know. We've just got to wait and see."

Asked if he had any goals for the season, he simply said, "Not really, I'm just happy with that place that I'm at, you know?"

Keeping Manny happy is, of course, the great challenge facing manager Joe Maddon and the rest of the Rays. Maddon stresses the importance of starting fresh with no preconceived notions and then to build a relationship on trust and with open lines of communication so that constructive criticism can be shared

"Sometimes people are intimidated by who he is," Maddon said Tuesday, shortly before Ramirez had two walks and a single in his first game in the Red Sox' spring park since he was traded from Boston to the Dodgers in 2008. "He's a Hall of Fame player. He's had a great career, and it's not over. Many times I find people in his position are, from the outside, seen as unapproachable. But he's very approachable.

"If I don't build that [relationship] up, he's always going to be defensive like anybody else. He's not unlike anybody else. He's like everybody else, but people treat him unlike everybody else at times."

But because this is Manny, who can't help but be Manny, he will never quite act like everybody else. As he walked passed a reporter he had spoken to for the first time 20 minutes prior, he lightly tapped the handle of his bat just below the reporter's belt, the age-old baseball prank of a "cup check" more commonly played amongst teammates who might conceivably be wearing one, rather than with a reporter soon to be retreating to the safe confines of the press box. (Luckily -- or perhaps intentionally -- it was a rare swing from Ramirez this spring that did not make solid contact.)

It was a playful, albeit unusual, moment that both seemed to be in jest and showed just how unpredictable Ramirez can be. This spring alone he has also talked his way into extra work and even an extra road trip, often proclaiming himself the "Traveling Man."

Ramirez has engaged a few of his younger teammates in conversations about hitting. In one such discussion with outfielder Matt Joyce, Ramirez told him, "I like where your hands are." While recounting this interaction, Joyce indicated that he held his hands higher than Ramirez had the past couple of years and that Ramirez suggested he would now do the same.

"I went home and told my dad I just gave hitting tips to Manny Ramirez," Joyce said.

A few minutes later Joyce conceded, "It also could be one of those things where he was just trying to make a younger teammate feel good."

It ought to remain Camp Good Feelings for at least as long as Ramirez hits, something he's done exceptionally well so far. One National League scout who has seen him a few times said Ramirez has had a "great spring" and has proved he can still hit a fastball and still hit to all fields.

But, the scout said, "He has to show he can regain some of the power that he's had in the past. This is a club that is starved for power. They have to knock some runs in. That's why Manny is there."

He wouldn't be there had he not signed a discounted $2 million contract -- "I already made my money," he said earlier this spring -- and, quite likely, had the club not signed Johnny Damon too. Ramirez and Damon were Red Sox teammates from 2002 through 2005, famously winning the '04 World Series together as two of the most celebrated self-proclaimed "Idiots."

Both Damon and Ramirez said the idea of them signing with the Rays was never a package deal. Damon noted that his contract was nearly complete when his agent, Scott Boras, called to say that the Rays were interested in Ramirez too. Damon, always lauded as a good clubhouse presence and team leader, said he was excited, knowing Ramirez would help Tampa Bay be a better team and that what he heard of Ramirez's well-documented episodes with the Red Sox and Dodgers wouldn't be an issue here.

"It never concerned me," Damon said. "He's going to be happy here."

Maddon also insisted that he's not at all worried about how Manny will fit in. But the track record isn't good. Most of Manny's first seven and a half years with Boston were happy ones before life with Ramirez turned sour for the Red Sox, highlighted by an instance in which he reportedly shoved the club's traveling secretary and engaged in a fiery dugout dispute with teammate Kevin Youkilis. Those incidents helped lead to a trade to the Dodgers at the July 31 trading deadline in 2008. He got off to a good start in Los Angeles but by last summer things had gone south again. In his final days with the Dodgers, Ramirez was benched for four games, apparently for being such a distraction, and then when he pinch-hit with the bases loaded in a game L.A. needed to stay in the playoff hunt, he was ejected for arguing a strike call on the very first pitch he saw. When the White Sox claimed him on waivers last August, the Dodgers didn't contest it.

Damon knows if anyone can get through to Ramirez, it's him, and he vows, "If there's something that needs to be said, I'll say it."

The Rays have another, more established but much younger clubhouse leader in third baseman Evan Longoria. When he made the All-Star Game as a rookie in 2008, Longoria happened to be locker neighbors at Yankee Stadium with Ramirez. Longoria recalled marveling at how cool it was to be with guys like that and how he should soak it up in case he doesn't make it back, a comment that drew a friendly rebuke from Ramirez.

"I forget what that exact words were," Longoria said of Ramirez, "but he said, 'Don't say that because if you do say that, you'll never be back here. You've got to believe that you're going to be back.' "

The two reunited, again coincidentally, when both chose to work out at the Athlete's Performance Institute in Arizona. Longoria said Ramirez joked about them being future teammates, but Longoria didn't consider it a serious possibility until he had conversations with Andrew Friedman, the Rays' executive vice president of baseball operations, and with Maddon, who were looking for first-hand accounts of how Ramirez was doing.

"Obviously they were all positive because I had seen him working out the whole time," Longoria said. "When he did sign, I was pumped because I knew the way he had prepared."

Incidentally, Ramirez was very complimentary of Longoria, too. "He's an unbelievable player and also person," Ramirez said. "Those two combinations are great."

Asked his reasoning for joining the Rays, Ramirez noted the proximity of his home in Miami and said, "There were a couple of teams [offering] more money, but I just liked to come here."

But will it last? The scout offered one other bit of foreboding speculation.

"The question with Manny, as always, is how long he can stay interested," the scout said. "Getting out of the blocks well will be important."

If not, will Ramirez lose interest as he seemed to do with Boston and Los Angeles? A key difference here is his pittance of a salary won't prevent the team from cutting him outright, and who would want a player with baggage who couldn't justify such relatively meager earnings?

It's fitting, then, that along with "Manny Ray," the other t-shirt in wide circulation in that clubhouse bears the words "Prove It," a phrase that Ramirez's teammates said originated with him. (Asked where it came from, Ramirez quickly replied, "I don't know." But his poker face wasn't very good and he didn't quite hold back the forming smile. Perhaps it's an inside joke.)

Regardless of what it means to Ramirez internally, outwardly it's perfectly applicable to his season. Ramirez needs to prove that he can not only still hit but also be a good teammate for the full season. He is in a good situation with Maddon managing and Damon as his teammate. He's happy. His teammates are happy. But with two poor departures from teams already, Ramirez may be down to his last strike.

 
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