Commentary

Fredi Gonzalez vs. Hanley Ramirez

There's one form of discipline players truly understand, and it doesn't involve cash

Updated: May 20, 2010, 4:05 PM ET
By Mark Kreidler | Special to ESPN.com

Fredi Gonzalez got it exactly right. The Florida Marlins manager got it so positively, absolutely right. What, he's going to fine Hanley Ramirez some sock-drawer money after Ramirez double-dogged it going after a ball he booted during a game? As the famous man once said: For who? For what?

We have reached a stage of critical mass in the area of money when it comes to pro ballplayers. They make too much for a "fine" to have any bite whatsoever, unless it's Tha League calling with a major infraction.

[+] EnlargeHanley Ramirez
AP Photo/Jeff RobersonHanley Ramirez returned to the starting lineup after a series of apologies Wednesday.

Ask Trey Hillman, the erstwhile K.C. manager who tried exactly such a maneuver on Yuniesky Betancourt two weeks ago when Betancourt casually muffed a popup. Nothing screams "Out of ideas" more than a big league manager trying to jimmy money out of a guy for the kind of infraction that most tight clubs would handle among the players in a kangaroo court.

(Just between us? Most of those guys never miss the money, because they never see it at all. Somebody in an agency office cuts the check out of the player's master account, and off it goes.)

Betancourt, who was mostly guilty of hideous, long-ingrained pop-fly-catching technique, signed a $13.5 million deal a few seasons back. Hanley Ramirez, a very talented, very immature player, signed a $70 million contract extension in 2008. Sorry, fellas, but we're not going to get the point across by lightening these guys' wallets to the tune of a couple thou.

So what Fredi Gonzalez got exactly right this week was the part about getting to a player's heart. The way to that heart is still innings, pure and simple. Playing time is the last hammer that most coaches and managers in sports have. Nothing is more precious to someone who loves (and gets paid) to play a game than the ability to, well, play the game. And nothing sticks harder than denying the player that ability.

Assuming the backing of ownership -- and only a fool would so assume, but there you go, wishing on a star -- playing time remains the ultimate trump. It's bigger than cash. Who knew?

For proof of this theory, consider Ramirez's reaction to being removed by Gonzalez midgame on Monday. Hanley sulked. Hanley pouted. Hanley went after his teammates (sideswipe style) and after Gonzalez in public comments aimed at belittling the manager's lack of a major league playing career -- all because he was furious at being benched.

Ramirez was so far off the edge, in fact, that he received a stand-down talking-to by Marlins assistants Andre Dawson and Tony Perez. The two Hall of Famers, in a meeting described by Palm Beach Post writer Joe Capozzi as "an intervention," essentially told Ramirez he was acting like a spoiled brat and that, as Dawson put it, "You're not bigger than the game."

By Wednesday night, the storm had settled. Ramirez, benched not only for the remainder of Monday's game but for all of Tuesday's as well, apologized to his teammates one at a time, told reporters his reaction was wrong (though he maintained that an injury he suffered earlier in the game was what kept him from going all out for that ball), and found himself back in the lineup at the same power position the big-hitting shortstop normally occupies.

Gonzalez, who never wavered in his decision to bench Ramirez, simply waited out the player through all the histrionics. In so doing, he won a clubhouse full of Florida players who admire Ramirez's talent but grow weary of his act. Several Marlins publicly supported Gonzalez. But, in the end, the manager didn't even need that. He held the cards. After all, he writes out the lineup.

It's remarkable how durable the playing-time trump has proven over the years. It's no secret that managers have used playing time as either a carrot or a stick, depending upon the need; but certain managers also have wielded the power of the bench simply to make a point.

[+] EnlargeFredi Gonzalez
AP Photo/Jeff RobersonFredi Gonzalez brushed aside Ramirez's broadsides and stood his ground.

Way back in 1998, Atlanta's Bobby Cox yanked a young Andruw Jones off the field in the middle of an inning when he determined that Jones had half-arsed it while jogging toward a ball that fell in front of him for a single. Ten years later, Philadelphia's Charlie Manuel benched reigning NL MVP Jimmy Rollins for barely running up the first-base line after popping up a ball that subsequently got dropped. (To his lasting credit, Rollins accepted full blame for the incident.) In 2008, Indians manager Eric Wedge benched Ryan Garko for not running out a grounder.

And you don't even have to go that far when it comes to playing time. Just Wednesday, the Mets' David Wright was despondent and clearly miffed about being given a night off by Mets manager Jerry Manuel -- and Wright wasn't being punished at all. He's just in a terrible slump. Even so, Wright had to choose his words carefully as he spoke with reporters about missing his first game all season. Being on the field means that much to him.

One of the beautiful tensions of pro sports is that there's always someone ready to take over any job. This creates an insecurity that can afflict even an established player, even a star. The worst thing for a star is suddenly not to matter, not to contribute -- not to lead. It's a powerful, powerful draw. And almost all of that power ultimately rests in the coach's or manager's hands.

Fredi Gonzalez, who never played the game at the big league level, had that part figured out long before Hanley Ramirez went casually after the ball he'd misplayed across the field Monday night. Sure, he could have taken a small draw from Ramirez's bank account. Gonzalez instead went after the stuff he knows Ramirez guards more zealously. Veteran move.

Mark Kreidler is a longtime contributor to ESPN.com. His most recent book, "Six Good Innings," was named one of the Top 10 Sports Books of 2009 by Booklist. Reach him at mark@markkreidler.com.

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