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.