- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
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.
Now on SI.com
Joe Posnanski discusses records he thinks will and won't be broken at SI.com/mlb