Batting behind three of baseball’s most prolific table setters, Manny Ramirez has provided the punch for the offensive feast that is the Cleveland Indian lineup while slowly shedding his reputation as mistake-prone on the bases and in the field--the game’s dumbest player in an unscientific ranking by The Sporting News two years ago.
There is an adage in baseball that it takes 10 minutes to acquire a reputation and 10 years to lose it, but Ramirez--among front runners for the American League’s Most Valuable Player award--seems on the fast track to shaking his with talent and dedication.
“He’s probably the hardest worker on this team,” Cleveland Manager Mike Hargrove said. “He swings the bat as well as anyone I’ve ever seen, and he’s diligently become as good a right fielder as there is in the game from both an offensive and defensive standpoint.”
Ramirez, selected twice previously as a reserve, will join teammate Kenny Lofton and the Seattle Mariners’ Ken Griffey Jr., in the AL’s starting outfield for the Tuesday night All-Star game in Boston, the voting fans having contributed to a reputation of another kind.
As the cleanup hitter for a team that has the best record in baseball and may break the all-time record for runs in a season, Ramirez has reached the All-Star break with a major league-leading 96 runs batted in and a top-10 ranking in most of the league’s offensive categories, including home runs, 25, and average, .333.
Among American League hitters, only Hank Greenberg (1937) and Juan Gonzalez (1998) had a higher RBI total at the break, and Ramirez is ahead of Hack Wilson’s record pace in 1930, when Wilson drove in 191 runs and had 87 in 87 games compared to the 96 by Ramirez in 87 games.
Ramirez drove in two more runs Sunday and has 202 RBIs in his last 172 games, a normal season being 162. He totaled 145 RBIs in 150 games last year, when he also slugged 45 homers and batted .294, breaking Rocky Colavito’s home run and RBI records for an Indian right fielder. Now 27 and in his sixth full season, the 6-foot, 205-pound Dominican evoked memories of Roberto Clemente for, Mickey White, the Indian scouting director at the time Ramirez was selected in the first round of the 1991 draft. Ramirez is likely to swing any bat he finds in the rack and generally rejects interview requests out of what teammates say is a natural shyness with strangers and reluctance to make a mistake in a language he is still trying to master.
He is also a frequent visitor in the cutting-edge Cleveland clubhouse to the office marked Psychology Department, where he consults with Dr. Charles Maher, a Rutgers professor who is retained by the Indians and who disputes any contention that Ramirez is dumb.
In fact, Ramirez commissioned the red T-shirts worn by teammates with “Indians” on the front and what is said to be his favorite theme--"Baseball is a Mind Game"--on the back. Ramirez, when honored by teammates as the club’s most valuable player last year, promptly handed the trophy to Maher.
“From every standpoint--practical and otherwise--Manny is a bright and disciplined guy who enjoys what he’s doing,” Maher said. “He approaches baseball like it’s a Sunday beer league, and the older he’s gotten the more determined he’s become to be the best he can be, and his question to me--from a standpoint of focus and preparation--is ‘what do I need to do to get there?’ Manny doesn’t come to me because he has a problem. He knows what he wants, and that makes it easier.”
For Ramirez, as it is with other players, the goal is to help keep his mind on the moment, Maher said, and to recognize and provide remedies when he wanders. The measure of his success is that Ramirez keeps coming up focused and relaxed in the toughest situations. He is batting .369 with runners in scoring position this year, and has a lifetime average of .615 with the bases loaded.
Said Hargrove: “The thing that makes Manny special is that he is tension-free and oblivious to pressure. He understands what works for him and doesn’t try to manufacture something that doesn’t.”
Sitting at his locker, in a brief exception to his interview policy, Ramirez said, “I just want to be the best I can be. I don’t care what my reputation is. I don’t even pay attention to that. As long as I do my best and play hard, no one should be able to say anything about me. But I don’t really care what people think, and I don’t care if nobody knows who I am. I just want to play. I just want to stay quiet and relaxed. I don’t have a lot to say and I don’t need anything else.”
Why should any cleanup hitter, when he has three guys with the speed and skill of Lofton, Omar Vizquel and Roberto Alomar batting ahead of him? All are on a pace to score 100 runs, as is Ramirez.
“With all the speed and versatility we have at the top of the lineup, I think we can get guys in scoring position better than any team I’ve seen in a long time,” Cleveland batting coach Charlie Manuel said. “People talk about Manny and the RBI record, but the key is our top three hitters. If they keep getting on base like they have, anything is possible. The pitcher always has pressure on him, and that’s not to take anything away from Manny.
“His potential is unlimited. He has the best weight shift of any hitter I’ve seen, and it’s all natural. . . . I don’t mess with his swing and I don’t let anybody else mess with it.”
Said Vizquel, speaking for Lofton and Alomar: “There’s no RBIs if there’s nobody on base. If Manny were to make it [to 191 and beyond], we would have made it happen, but whoever you put in front of him or behind him, he’s going to do the job. . . . And I still don’t think he knows how good he can be. We keep telling him that he’s good enough to be the MVP, and he looks at us like we’re crazy.”
Maybe Manuel Aristides Ramirez still has to convince himself that he is where he is.
He was born in the Dominican Republic and accompanied his family to New York City when he was 13. His father drove a cab, and Ramirez and his two sisters were raised in the tough and dangerous Washington Heights area known as Little Santo Domingo. Drugs and shootings were part of the environment. Friends and teammates didn’t survive. Ramirez concentrated on baseball. He honed his body running up Fort George Hill, pulling a tire attached by rope to his midsection, and was the sultan of stickball. He attended George Washington High, Rod Carew’s former school. Weather and economics limited his activity, but Ramirez played summers in a Police Athletic League under the supervision of Mel Zitter, a man acclaimed as an unsung hero within baseball for demanding good citizenship and keeping the game alive in that area. Ramirez was the city’s player of the year in 1991, among USA Today’s top 25 nationally, and the 13th player selected in the June draft.
The Indians also liked New York-based pitcher Allen Watson, but scouting director White, now in a similar post with the Pittsburgh Pirates, wasn’t going to be talked out of Ramirez. White had grown up in Pittsburgh, sweeping trash out of old Forbes Field so that he could afford to see his beloved Pirates play. Clemente was his idol.
“I told myself when I got into scouting that if I ever had the opportunity to draft a player who reminded me in any respect of Clemente and I didn’t do it, I’d quit,” White said in reflection. “It would be ridiculous for me to suggest that a kid out of high school was going to be the next Clemente, but I did see something special in Manny and I wasn’t going to be dissuaded. It’s a tough business, trying to project, but you look at his career to this point and he’s been everything I thought he would be and more. I feel fortunate. It doesn’t always happen that way.”
Scout Joe DeLuca did much of the legwork and actually signed Ramirez before he graduated. He has since acquired a general education diploma, but his schooling has basically come at the major league level, and he has had to learn the nuances of defense and base running at the graduate level.
Sometimes, painfully. There was the game against Detroit when he stole second base, thought mistakenly that the pitch had been fouled off, trotted back toward first and was tagged out. There was Game 6 of last year’s American League championship series against New York when he turned his back on a long fly, made an awkward running leap near the fence and the ball dropped at his feet.
Erratic at times on the field and quirky at times off it. Like the time he asked a clubhouse attendant to get his car washed and said there was money in the glove compartment. Sure was--$10,000 in cash. Or the time he left a pair of boots in the visiting clubhouse in Texas with his pay check in one of the boots.
When Ramirez--who once homered using a bat that felt good, even though he knew it was broken--reported to spring training this season with bright orange hair and yellow curls, no one was really surprised.
It is back to black now, and teammates insist that the right fielder is simply a guy who likes to have fun while also one of the most supportive figures in the clubhouse.
General Manager John Hart said he has never been angrier than when he read that ranking in The Sporting News.
“Manny got here ahead of schedule because of his bat,” Hart said. “He wasn’t a polished baserunner or fielder, but I know how hard he’s worked to turn the corner. I had a conversation with Manny after that report, and I told him how mad I was. He didn’t even blink. He didn’t care. He has a unique ability not to pay attention to positive or negative things.
“The whole routine about being dumb? There’s probably no one more focused. On off days, when other guys are out playing golf, Manny’s in the weight room.”
There is also probably no one more pivotal to the Cleveland attack.
The Indians are 3-6 when Ramirez is out of the lineup this year, their runs per game average falling from 6.9 to 4.6. Nevertheless, he could be gone after next season, when he is owed $4.25 million in the option year of a four-year, $10.375 million contract that provided Ramirez with security after only his second year but is clearly undervalued.
The Indians have never paid a player $10 million or more, which is the direction Ramirez is headed. He turned down a seven-year, $56-million offer last November and could be a free agent after the 2000 season, when Griffey, Alex Rodriguez, Shawn Green and Carlos Delgado are among players also eligible, and the market probably will explode again.
“There’s no question we want to keep Manny, but he may be asking for more money than we’ve paid anyone,” Hart said, citing Belle, Lofton (who was traded once and returned as a free agent), Carlos Baerga and Eddie Murray as evidence that the Indians are “not afraid to move” a significant player.
“I have to think guys would be in line to hit fourth on this team,” Hart added.
Perhaps, but would anyone clean up after those table setters the way Manny Ramirez has?
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Manny Ramirez has been able to drive in 96 runs at the All-Star break by hitting well in the clutch. A look:
AL leaders in batting average with runners in scoring position:
1. Tony Fernandez, Tor, .438
2. Roberto Alomar, Cle, .406
3. Rafael Palmeiro, Tex, .395
4. Manny Ramirez, Cle, .369
5. Harold Baines, Bal, .365
Leaders in on-base% and slugging%:
1. Derek Jeter, N.Y., 1.072
2. Ramirez, Cle, 1.067
3. Rafael Palmeiro, Tex., 1.057
4. Nomar Garciaparra, Bos, 1.054
5. Shawn Green, Tor, 1.049
A closer look at Ramirez:
Batting with runners in scoring position:
41 for 111, 8 homers, 69 RBIs, .325
Batting with runners in scoring position, 2 out:
18 for 45, 6 homers, 33 RBIs, .400
Batting with bases loaded:
8 for 14, 1 homer, 18 RBIs, .571
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ALL-STAR GAME ’99
AMERICAN LEAGUE vs. NATIONAL LEAGUE; Tuesday, 5 p.m., Channel 11; Fenway Park, Boston
NO WAY, JOSE
Jose Canseco, voted to the All-Star team and leading the American League with 31 home runs, will miss at least six weeks after back surgery. Page 6.