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 die 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 37.3% 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.
[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]