Rays are thrilled with Manny Ramirez … so far

Reporting from St. Petersburg, Fla.

Manny Ramirez may have worn out his welcome with the Cleveland Indians, Boston Red Sox, Dodgers and Chicago White Sox. But they love him in Tampa Bay.

Teammates rave about him. Journalists fawn over him. Even grocery store cashiers are smitten.

"He seems really nice," said Rita Ankney, who works at the Tampa Whole Foods market where Ramirez often stops for breakfast. "But he's awfully quiet. Maybe he doesn't speak English very well."

It's far too soon to say how all this will end, of course. At 38, will the Rays be the last team on Ramirez's Hall of Fame resume? Or will he grow tired of Tampa too, making it just another stop on his Burning Bridges tour?

The Rays didn't wager much in their effort to find out, signing him this winter for $2 million, one-tenth of his former salary and $1 million less than they're paying catcher Kelly Shoppach, who batted .196 last season.

If Ramirez felt slighted, he hasn't said so. But then Ramirez's actions always spoke louder than his words, anyway, and his actions this spring have been a piercing scream, one that says Ramirez believes he has something to prove.

That's why he arrived at spring training five days early and 15 pounds lighter. It's why Craig Albernaz, a nonroster catcher, found Ramirez sweating in the batting cages before 7:30 one morning. And it's why Rays players have been wearing light-blue T-shirts reading "Prove It" across the chest, a challenge from and for Ramirez.

"I just have a chip on my shoulder," Ramirez told mlb.com writer Bill Chastain early in spring training. "I'm just here to go out there and prove to people I can still play."

Last year, when he sat out more games than he played for the Dodgers, he says he was injured and, he now admits, overweight. The Dodgers wound up trading him to the White Sox, who let him go at the end of the summer.

"It doesn't matter what you did last year," Ramirez told Chastain. "It doesn't matter who you are. You have to keep showing what you can do."

Ramirez did just that this spring, swaggering his way to a .311 average and .556 slugging percentage in 19 exhibition games. For the Rays, whose designated hitters batted .239 with 17 home runs last season, anything close to that would mark a huge upgrade, especially now that three-time All-Star third baseman Evan Longoria is out because of a strained side muscle.

In Tampa Bay's season-opening series with Baltimore, however, Ramirez managed only a single in 12 at-bats and the Rays scored only three runs in as many games, all losses.

So the doubts remain. Has Ramirez really turned over a new leaf, spreading joy and happiness wherever he goes? Will he remain the guy hitting coach Derek Shelton calls a joy to be around? The player outfielder Matt Joyce calls a role model?

Or will he revert to being the same old Svengali of Swat, a guy who, a rival coach told ESPN's Jayson Stark, "can fluctuate so fast, from feeling good to feeling bad, that it's hard to figure out what sets him off."

"He has been nice up to now," said Enrique Oliu, the Rays' Spanish-language radio analyst. "He seems to be focused."

Of course, Oliu concedes, people once said that in Cleveland, Boston, Los Angeles and Chicago. And look how that turned out.

"Everyone is thinking that," he said.

Manager Joe Maddon remains firmly in Ramirez's corner, though, predicting he'll prove to be the biggest bargain in baseball this year. And though the professorial Maddon, a wine-swirling literature buff, is Ramirez's opposite in many ways, he too found himself quoting a T-shirt slogan to describe his feelings toward his mercurial slugger. "Tell me what you think," the T-shirt read, "not what you've heard."


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