Commentary

In search of Manny Ramirez

One of the game's best hitters is one of its biggest mysteries

Updated: April 22, 2010, 3:26 PM ET
By Ramona Shelburne | ESPNLosAngeles.com

Manny RamirezJeff Gross/Getty ImagesJoe Torre says Ramirez has been a "much more balanced hitter" this spring.

It's a perfect morning in Arizona, warm already by 7:30, and bright enough for sunglasses to seem smart, not stilted. We are in the stadium parking lot outside the Dodgers' spring training complex in Glendale, Ariz., completely overdressed for a group about to board a long flight to Taiwan.

Manny Ramirez has shown up in a tan checkered jacket, pink shirt and designer sunglasses. He's early, but he must wait. There's already a line to go through the security screening before the bus ride to the airport. One of the camera guys on this trip, a young guy who clearly hasn't heard about how Ramirez has been brushing off every interview requests this spring, approaches Ramirez and Ronnie Belliard and asks if they're excited about going to Taiwan.

I cringe.

[+] EnlargeManny Ramirez
Gary A. Vasquez/US PresswireManny Ramirez wears many labels -- charming, rude, playful, aloof, warm, distant -- but no one debates his skill.

Belliard and Ramirez keep their sunglasses on and don't say a word. You can almost hear the kid start to panic. Finally, after an uncomfortable stretch, Belliard throws him a bone and starts talking about how he's going to conk out on the flight as long as possible, watch some movies and hopefully wake up an hour before landing.

Ramirez stands quietly, looking out at the Arizona morning, saying nothing.

The bus to the airport flies through morning rush hour and we arrive earlier than anticipated. Two minutes after the cabin doors close, everyone gets comfortable. Ramirez sits forward in his window seat laughing with infielder Angel Berroa about something neither of them will remember an hour later, and waving to me to come over and chat.

I check to see if someone is behind me. He'd blown me off on his way out of the clubhouse just the day before -- there's a very real chance he's not motioning to me at all. But no one's there. I suppose he's serious.

Belliard is sitting across the aisle, with his arms folded across his chest and his headphones on in a don't-bother-me kind of way. Once we get airborne the stewardess says it's going to take exactly 15 hours and two minutes to get to Taiwan. Belliard seems to have decided he's not talking to anyone until that countdown clock gets started, but Ramirez refuses to accept the premise.

"You want to come to dinner with us tomorrow night?" he asks me, as if there was nothing out of the ordinary about the question. "Ronnie is buying."

Belliard looks up and gives him a slightly annoyed courtesy laugh.

"Yeah, that's right, Ronnie got a new contract, right?" I reply.

Ramirez runs with it. "Ronnie is taking all of us to dinner," he shouts, while pulling on the seat in front of him to catch James Loney's attention. "He has a new contract. Ha ha. Ronnie is buying. Thanks Ronnie."

Loney laughs, then looks over to Belliard, who is looking a bit concerned that he might actually be on the hook for this now.

For a second, I consider asking for details and trying to firm up these plans before they evaporate. But I don't. Act cool, let the wind blow.

The many faces of Manny Ramirez

I've presumed to know him since he first came to Los Angeles two summers ago. He's poured champagne on my head when the Dodgers won a playoff series in St. Louis last year, and he's told me proudly how his oldest son "has just got it" when it comes to baseball.

He's also blown me off half-a-dozen times. He's been, among other things: Charming, rude, playful, aloof, warm, distant, honest and, of course, pretty much the best hitter I've ever seen; a contradiction in terms which, based on everything we'd heard from the Clevelanders and New Englanders who'd also once presumed to have known him, actually sounds pretty consistent.

I'd like to tell you that after four days, two jogs across the international date line, 28 hours on a plane, a high-speed train ride across the island of Taiwan and a shared experience as strangers in a strange land, I understand Manny Ramirez better. I'd like to tell you why he refuses to explain himself, even though any explanation would probably be accepted and cheered by the legions of Dodgers fans he won over so swiftly two seasons ago. But all that would suppose those answers are out there.

The truth is, Manny Ramirez simply is who he is, in whatever moment he is in. Free verse, not a riddle. In this moment, he is a 37-year-old man ashamed and determined. Ashamed of being suspended for 50 games last season for violating baseball's drug policy, and determined to prove himself and his abilities once again.

To do that, he seems to know he must do what he has always been able to do so effortlessly at the plate: tune everything out. Every distraction, every noise, every other conscious thought besides seeing the pitch, uncoiling his bat and driving the ball someplace hard and someplace fast.

An artist at work

The music inside Tienmu Stadium is too loud and definitely too upbeat for this gray day. It's been raining for the past few hours, hard enough that the tarp has to stay on the field and the organizers are starting to get worried. A rainout is lost money and disappointed fans. There can be no makeups. Around noon, there's a slight break in the weather and a few players come out of the clubhouse. Some pitchers head to the outfield to get their running in, but mostly guys just walk out on to the dugout steps, lean over the railing to spit seeds or tobacco and have the kind of conversations about baseball you wish you could videotape and show to anyone who has ever loved the game.

Minor league pitchers Kenley Jansen and Jon Link poke their heads out and see what's going on. Any other day in spring training, they'd be on another field, working with the pitchers when the Dodgers hitters took BP before a game. Today, because of the unique circumstances of this series, they're able to watch.

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Ramona Shelburne/ESPN Los AngelesThe Dodgers stretch before their game against the Taiwanese Chinese Professional Baseball League All-Stars. The Dodgers won 11-1.

"Manny looks good," Jansen says, assuming everyone leaning against this particular dugout fence realizes that Ramirez had not looked very good at the end of last season. "His foot is getting down in time."

Link nods. In the offseason he had been traded to the Dodgers from the White Sox in the Juan Pierre deal. He'd seen Ramirez hit, but never the way he worked through a live batting practice.

"It was beautiful," Link says, staring out toward the batter's box, then spitting a cluster of sunflower seed shells over the railing. "He never hit a ball above the outfield fence. Not one. Every ball he hit was on a line. Honestly, it was like watching Picasso paint. It was like a work of art."

Ramirez looked more comfortable at the plate during BP the day before, but it wasn't something that stood out. Not like the first time I had seen him hit myself, the way Link was watching him now. It was a year or so ago on a back field in Arizona, before Ramirez was suspended for 50 games, before he lost the unearthly whip on his stroke or looked overmatched by pitchers who tried to bust him inside, on the hands, with their best fastballs. That day, there was just a man whacking a baseball on a warm morning in Arizona. A man who'd mastered his craft in a way few men ever had.

It was beautiful. He never hit a ball above the outfield fence. Not one. Every ball he hit was on a line. Honestly, it was like watching Picasso paint. It was like a work of art.

-- Minor league pitcher Jon Link, on Ramirez taking batting practice

"There are three great hitters in my generation," Link says, interrupting my flashback. "[Barry] Bonds, [Albert] Pujols and him.

"He's just a professional hitter. A professional's professional. It's his work ethic and the way he approaches the game when he steps between the lines.

"I remember watching this interview he did back in Boston, where he says, 'If you don't throw 95, don't even bother showing up.' And I'm thinking to myself, 'I don't throw 95, and I don't know if I can get there in five years. So what am I going to do when I get there, if I get there, to get him out?'"

The enigma flips the script

The camera is an impulse buy. Nothing special about it except that it's right in front of him as he walks into the most modern mall you've ever seen. All the brands that advertise in the front of the best magazines have stores in this mall, at the base of the Taipei 101 tower, once the tallest building in the world.

After a night in the presidential suite of a five-star hotel, Ramirez is wide awake. He had gone straight to bed as soon as the team arrived in Taipei, blowing off the welcome party and press conference downstairs.

Now, for security purposes and appearances' sake, Ramirez is being driven around town in a tricked-out, white Hummer with chrome rims and grills. At least 20 cameramen tail him at all times. The cameramen get closer than they would in the United States; personal space has different boundaries here. There seem to be just two choices: run from the cameras or smile for them.

Manny does something else. He joins them.

"Ha ha, look at me, I'm a paparazzi!" he shouts, turning the camera around on the photographers, who seem amused and confused. Who is this guy? And while they wonder, Ramirez is whisked away down a service elevator, back into the Hummer, off to the next event.

'I think he's trying to get his head right'

I'm about the seventh person to ask Joe Torre about Manny Ramirez this spring, but he's used to answering the same questions more than once. Twelve years filling up every notebook and nightly newscast in New York as manager of the Yankees has given him the ability to repeat himself without ever sounding like he's repeating himself.

"Part of my job is to eliminate a lot of distractions so players can play," Torre explains, when I ask if he deliberately tries to shield Ramirez from the media glare. "Which I thought I knew a little bit about [as a player], but certainly in New York it's at another level."

Torre says he's been watching Ramirez closely this spring. Watching his swing and how balanced he looks. Watching his mannerisms to see how comfortable he is. "He's been working on certain things that he thinks got away from him when he got back from his suspension," Torre says. "I watched him this spring and I've seen, so far, a much more balanced hitter.

[+] EnlargeJoe Torre
AP Photo/Hector MataJoe Torre faced the cameras and questions immediately after Ramirez was suspended last season.

"He's still working on timing, but I think he's got a plan now that's probably making him a little more relaxed than he was before. I think he's trying to get his head right, trying to get in that focused place and stay there."

We're riding on a bus to the stadium where Torre will answer questions from Taiwanese businessmen and baseball coaches about the principles behind his success. It's Saturday morning here but still Friday afternoon in Arizona. Don Mattingly is probably just finishing up managing the split-squad game.

"Are we at home today? Who are we playing?" Torre asks to anyone within earshot. Torre picks up his cell and calls Mattingly, who doesn't answer. "Don, it's Joe. I'm on the bus on the way to the field. It's about to rain here so we might have a long day. OK, bye." Torre isn't annoyed, but he does want to know how the game went. How did the pitchers look? Who hit well? Did anyone have any setbacks? He's curious about all that. But he mostly just wants to hear from Mattingly about how it went. "I'm the one, from the first spring he came in [to Yankees camp] as one of those celebrity instructors, who thought he'd be very good about this someday. I want to see if I'm right."

Torre is going a little deeper than he usually does. "Donny's tough. He's got that accountability thing. He doesn't run from it. As a player you've got to be accountable to yourself and everything you do. As a manager you have to be accountable for everyone and everything they do."

Last season, back when he was still granting interviews by his locker, I'd asked Ramirez if he recognized the role Torre had played in helping him get through his suspension. Ramirez never spoke publicly about the suspension until after it was over; Torre and general manager Ned Colletti faced the cameras and questions out at home plate on that surreal day at Dodger Stadium. Ramirez didn't answer my question directly, but he said enough: "Joe Torre is unbelievable."

Reaching out to a face in the crowd

His bandana is doing its best to conceal the strands of gray that have begun to pepper his dreadlocks. I can see because I'm 5 feet from him on stage. About 40 Taiwanese kids have come to a batting cage dressed in dreadlock wigs and his No. 99 Dodgers jersey, trying to win a look-alike contest. The rest of the team is out sightseeing in Taipei or relaxing in their rooms after the rainout. Ramirez is on a couch answering questions and taking pictures like some sort of baseball Santa Claus. There's an emcee who prods him to dance. There are kids in bandanas and dreadlocks who sit next to him on the couch, then freeze up out of nervousness. And Ramirez, leaning back, speaking a bit too softly as usual, is answering questions about his favorite music and food.

Manny RamirezRichard Clement/Icon SMIWith teammates, like Andre Ethier, Ramirez appears at ease but he has been cagey with reporters since reporting to spring training.

Halfway through the hour, he notices me and another reporter in the crowd, looks directly at us and says, "What, are you paparazzi now?" I can't tell if he's annoyed or amused. A couple of minutes later, he calls for a translator so he can answer in Spanish instead of English. Closing the window.

At the end of the event, one of the organizers comes over and whispers to him that he can leave whenever he's ready. Manny nods, then says, "It's OK, I don't have anywhere to be. Let's take five more photos." The organizer is thrilled. Manny starts picking kids out of the audience to come up on the stage to take pictures with him. When everyone realizes what's happening, a near mob scene ensues as kids jockey for the best position to catch his attention. Manny seems amused, then calls on a chubby kid standing off to the side of the stage.

Later, his handler asks him why he chose that particular kid. Not exactly a perfect look-alike.

"I chose him because I wanted to give him confidence," Ramirez says. Opening the window back up.

Seven words, many meanings

I ask him about the chubby kid a day later as we sit next to each other on the a train. It's Sunday morning and we're speeding from Taipei to the southern city of Kaohsiung. All of us are simultaneously finally adjusting to the time change and jetlag, and dog tired from a grueling four days of baseball and travel.

This would be a good time to grab a catnap, but there's too much to see. The countryside gets more tropical the farther south we go. It all seems to blend together into a hundred shades of green like it was mixed by a Spin Art machine. Ramirez has the camera out again and is pointing and clicking aimlessly. None of the pictures are going to come out, every shot blurry and fuzzy and out of focus.

"You know your life could be easier if you told people about the things you do?" I state, more than ask. "Why don't you do it more? Why do you go into these times where you don't talk to anyone? Did something happen? Did somebody write something you didn't like?"

He shrugs, then finally puts the camera down.

"You know last year, everybody was always by my locker, wanting to talk every day. I just need to worry about playing the game," he says, so softly that I have to lean over to hear him clearly.

You know last year, everybody was always by my locker, wanting to talk every day. I just need to worry about playing the game.

-- Manny Ramirez on staying quiet this spring

When I ask if he gets annoyed when the media doesn't leave him alone, as he so clearly would prefer right now, he says, "I know you have a job to do. Don't worry about it. It's OK."

We talk a bit more, and he says the same sentence, the same seven words, at least five times.

"I just want to play the game."

He says it when I ask about why he walked into spring training telling everyone this season would be his last with the Dodgers. He says it when I ask if he gets disappointed when others question his legacy and the legitimacy of his accomplishments because of what happened last year.

Over and over at the end of almost every statement he makes, he simply says, "I just want to play the game."

At first it seems meaningless, intended to fill space in the conversation but not my notebook; a more polite blowoff, but still a blowoff. But the more he says it, the more I hear some simple kind of honesty at its core. The more I think what he's trying to conceal is actually revealing.

Last season was humiliating for him. He won't say that publicly, but he's said it to everyone around the Dodgers who matters. "It was probably the worst time in his career," Torre says. "He never recovered in my opinion. Emotionally that is."

In the offseason he retreated to his home in Florida, spending time with wife and his three kids. He also hit. A lot. Not only did he want to prove he was still a Hall of Fame hitter without performance-enhancing drugs, he wanted to prove that at age 37 (and soon to be 38), he still has enough left.

When I run this idea by him, he pauses.

"I don't have no control over what people write or what they say. I don't worry about it," he says. "I just want to play the game."

'It only matters if you are happy'

Sitting this close on the train, it's clear he's worked hard in the offseason. He looks lean and light.

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Ramona Shelburne/ESPNManny Ramirez and the Dodgers were well covered by the media in Taiwan.

"Have you lost weight?" I ask.

"No," he says, grabbing his belly with both hands and almost smiling. "I'm fat."

He says he weighs 235 right now, after starting last year around 220, though it doesn't look that way.

"You don't look fat to me," I say. "I'm the one who is fat after all the food on the plane." (They brought two four-course meals on the way over, plus a snack and dessert, and I'm still feeling it.)

He laughs. He ate too much, too.

"No, no, no," he says. "You're not. But it doesn't matter. It only matters if you are happy."

He looks back out the window at the countryside whirring by.

"Are you happy?" I ask, as he starts to look off.

I wait. He doesn't say anything. Just stares out the window. The conversation is over.

We never did have that dinner.

Ramona Shelburne is a writer and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com.