Commentary

Preparation truly defines Ramirez's offensive approach

Originally Published: May 31, 2008
By Sean McAdam | Special to ESPN.com

Forget, for a minute, everything you know about Manny Ramirez.

Forget the time he ducked into Fenway Park's left field scoreboard during a pitching change and barely made it back to his position before play resumed.

THE 500 CLUB
Players who have hit 500 home runs in their careers:
Player Home runs
Barry Bonds 762
Hank Aaron 755
Babe Ruth 714
Willie Mays 660
Sammy Sosa 609
Ken Griffey Jr. 599
Frank Robinson 586
Mark McGwire 583
Harmon Killebrew 573
Rafael Palmeiro 569
Reggie Jackson 563
Mike Schmidt 548
Mickey Mantle 536
Jimmie Foxx 534
Alex Rodriguez 525
Willie McCovey 521
Ted Williams 521
Frank Thomas 520
Jim Thome 517
Ernie Banks 512
Eddie Mathews 512
Mel Ott 511
Eddie Murray 504
Manny Ramirez 500
Forget that he once called time during a rehab stint in the minor leagues to locate a diamond earring that had been dislodged by a headfirst slide.

Forget that he once asked to borrow tens of thousands of dollars from, of all people, a sportswriter.

In short, forget all the "Manny being Manny" moments. Anecdotally, they tell only part of his story and help obscure the more pertinent point, namely that Ramirez is among the best right-handed hitters in the history of the game.

Ramirez became the 24th player to reach the 500-homer plateau Saturday. Among right-handed hitters, he began this season fifth all-time in home runs per at-bat, swatting one an average of every 14.4 at-bats. When the subject turns to RBIs, Ramirez moves up to fourth all-time among righties.

Name the offensive category, and Ramirez either heads the list or is among a very select group of leaders.

Slugging percentage? Best among active players and fourth all-time among right-handed hitters.

OPS? First among active players and fifth all-time among right-handed hitters.

No right-handed hitter ever has hit more grand slams. No one -- right- or left-handed -- has hit more postseason homers.

His string of 30-homer, 100-RBI seasons was snapped at nine in 2007 when he missed most of the final month with an oblique strain. As early as 2009, he could join Lou Gehrig and Jimmie Foxx for most 100 RBI seasons in a career (13).

He has won a batting title and an RBI crown. He has had five 40-homer seasons, five 100-run seasons and seven seasons in which he posted an OPS of 1.000 or better.

And he has done all these things through hard work.

In sharp contrast to the popular perception that Ramirez is some sort of hitting savant who has achieved otherworldly numbers thanks to freakish natural talent, Ramirez has earned his status.

While his approach to life is decidedly casual and relaxed, his approach to hitting is studied and determined. Ramirez watches more video than any other Boston Red Sox hitter, analyzing his swing with a precision that might make Ted Williams swoon in admiration. Who knew that Ramirez, too, would be a student of the science of hitting?

Perhaps Ramirez's work ethic isn't well known because much of his preparation is out of sight. On the road, he frequently begins his workouts at 10 a.m. before returning to his hotel for an afternoon nap.

His video study often is conducted behind closed doors, where Ramirez has the time and the privacy to examine the next opposing pitcher and his catalogue of past at-bats against said pitcher.

Like a student who has committed the test material to memory, Ramirez comes to the ballpark with a sense of calm, quiet confidence. He might be flighty and delightfully unpredictable off the field, but there are no surprises when he steps into the batter's box.

[+] EnlargeManny Ramirez
AP Photo/Shizuo KambayashiManny Ramirez has hit 30 or more home runs in six of his seven full seasons with the Red Sox.
"Obviously, he's a natural," says Red Sox utility infielder Alex Cora, one of Ramirez's closest friends in the game. "But he works at his craft every day. He doesn't ever take the game for granted. Without a doubt, he's the hardest working guy I've ever been around -- and I've been around a lot.

"I see him walk into the clubhouse every day with this big smile on his face. And I finally decided that the reason he's so relaxed is because he knows -- he knows."

Once the game begins, Ramirez's at-bats are, for those in the game, a thing of beauty. Nothing happens by accident; everything is by design.

"Even when he's going well," teammate Mike Lowell recently told the Boston Herald, "he's trying things in the cage to really lock himself in. I feel like telling him, 'Hey, Manny, you're already locked in!' He's on a constant pursuit for what he feels is the right swing."

If Ramirez takes what appears to be an eminently hittable pitch, there's a reason. It might be that he's setting up the pitcher for later in the at-bat or even later in the game.

Ramirez won't be persuaded by form or conventional wisdom. In 45 3-and-0 counts in 2007, he swung just three times. Clearly, in these at-bats and, for that matter, all his plate appearances, he has other plans.

"I don't know if he's setting people up or he knows what's coming or what," says Cora, shaking his head in a mixture of confusion and awe. "He probably just sees something we don't."

In turn, people enjoy watching him. Opposing players study him in batting practice. Teammates try to learn by observation. And fans make him appointment viewing.

"Every time he hits," Red Sox manager Terry Francona says, "I bet you people never get up to get a beer or go to the bathroom. You never know what you might miss. Manny's that type of hitter."

He's the type who mixes raw power with hitting artistry. In addition to his 500 homers, he's a pure hitter. How consistent is Ramirez? In eight seasons with the Cleveland Indians, he compiled a .313 batting average. Before the start of his eighth season with the Red Sox, Ramirez had hit … exactly .313.

He's the type who generates such blinding bat speed that he can allow the ball to come to him before he unleashes his swing. When he connects, he can drive the ball to -- and out of -- every part of the ballpark.

"He's a complete hitter," a longtime advance scout says. "It used to bother me that all the work I did, all the preparation, didn't help [get him out]. But I'm resigned to the fact that he's in a special category. It isn't that he doesn't have any weaknesses. But he doesn't have many, I'll tell you that. And just when you think you've got a way to get him out, he finds a way to beat you."

I see him walk into the clubhouse every day with this big smile on his face. And I finally decided that the reason he's so relaxed is because he knows -- he knows.

-- Alex Cora on teammate Manny Ramirez

The quirks, to be sure, remain. But even there, things are not as they seem. Watch Ramirez before an at-bat, absentmindedly staring off into space before stepping into the box. Another Manny moment? No, this is Ramirez finding a focal point, gathering his concentration.

"He's got them all fooled," Cora says. "I meet people all the time who want to know, 'What's Manny like? Tell me about Manny.' They want to hear all the goofy stories. But they don't know about all the hard work. He hasn't done all of this by accident."

Now that he has joined the 500-homer club, Ramirez could well reach 600. The Sox hold two contract options for 2009 and 2010, and Ramirez himself isn't entertaining thoughts about imminent retirement. He only half-jokingly talks about matching Julio Franco and playing well into his late 40s.

"The sky's the limit," Ramirez says, repeating this season's adopted mantra, when asked how much longer he might keep going.

And so it is.

"Who knows where people end up?" Francona says, shrugging, when asked to place Ramirez in context.

But this one is easy: in Cooperstown, among the very best to ever play the game.

Sean McAdam of The Providence (R.I.) Journal covers baseball for ESPN.com.

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