Commentary

Welcome to Mannywood

When Manny Ramirez steps into the batter's box, it's impossible to take your eyes off of him. So what makes him so special? Only those who watch him the closest can explain.

Updated: March 31, 2009, 3:12 PM ET
By Jeff Bradley | ESPN The Magazine

Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

Everybody being Manny.

Imagine that. Imagine every single player in the big leagues, all 750 of them, "Being Manny."

Crazy? Sure. A little scary? Absolutely. But, believe it or not, most of them would sign up for that right now. Maybe not the whole package, like the part where Manny half-asses it down the line on ground balls or forgets how many outs there are while playing defense. Not the part where Manny gets into dugout shoving matches or, much worse, a physical confrontation with a 64-year-old traveling secretary. And especially not the part where he puts his contract situation ahead of his teammates, which led one Red Sox player to publicly call him a clubhouse cancer.

But the pure talent part? Oh, yeah. When Manny Ramírez is on a baseball field, especially when he's in the batter's box, you can't take your eyes off of him. Quite simply, he's the most studied, most observed hitter in baseball -- and that's just by his peers. They marvel at Manny's ability to translate his prep work into success when the lights come on. They envy the short-term memory deficiency that seemingly allows him to bring the same level of confidence to the plate regardless of whether he struck out or hit a home run his last time up. "If slumps are between a player's ears, which I think they are," says former Boston teammate Sean Casey, "then Manny is slump-proof, because mentally he's always the same." That would explain how Ramírez could have just two months in his entire 15-year career in which his OPS was below .700. (His career OPS of 1.004 is ninth all-time.)

There are even some of Manny's personality traits that many other major leaguers would gladly adopt. For example, his "audacity," as Dodgers teammate Casey Blake calls it, to laugh off a baserunning mistake, an error, or even to say, "It's not the end of the world [if we lose]," as he told the Boston media and fans when the Red Sox were trailing the Indians 3-1 in the 2007 American League championship series. "That," says Blake, an Indian at the time, "was brilliant." Why? "Because it's the truth. Not everyone would say it, but it put the pressure in perspective."

Blake also admires the unbridled joy that Manny shows, even at age 36, when he comes up big between the lines. "He plays in a different league than the rest of us, a higher league," Blake says. "He's all by himself in it, and clearly he's having fun playing in it. He treats it like we're still playing in Little League. All of us sit back and wonder, How does he do it?"

Really, how does he do it? That's the question everyone asks while watching Ramírez in the batter's box. Even accomplished big league hitters are awed by the rhythm of his swing, the way he can load his body -- from his legs through his core muscles to his hands -- with power, then suspend everything until he recognizes the speed, location and movement of the pitch, before finally letting the bat fly through the zone. "Players were asking for video of him when he was a kid in Cleveland," says Mariners first baseman Russell Branyan, a former Indian. "And it hasn't changed. You watch him, and you try to grasp even a little of what he does, hope it sinks in. You wonder what he's seeing that you don't see, what he's doing that you're not doing."

Orlando Hudson, the new Dodgers second baseman, confesses he used to become a spectator, a fan, when Manny was at bat. "I had to slap myself at times," says Hudson, who watched Manny up close as a division rival during four years in Toronto, before moving on to Arizona. "I'd get so focused on what he did at the plate that I forgot my job was to see the ball coming off his bat and make a play. He can mesmerize you." When Ramírez was traded to LA last July, Hudson told his D-back teammates, "Wait until you see this guy hit." When a few of them said they'd seen Ramírez plenty on TV, Hudson barked, "Forget TV! Forget TV! You got to see him hit in person to know what it's like." Hudson smiles. "By the end of the season, those guys saw enough to understand. Forget TV. Doesn't tell the story."

But how about TV slowed down into still frames of 1/60th of a second? That's what a company called RightView Pro has done with Manny's swing, and those of baseball's other top hitters, to show high school and college players what separates the elite from the average. Don Slaught, a former major league catcher and the founder of RightView Pro, offers this scouting report on Ramírez: "It's three things, the way I see it: He's got a great plan at the plate; he's got a large database, meaning he's seen every pitch out there; and he's got great mechanics."

Courtesy RightView ProSwing analysis shows that while Guerrero (top right), Pujols (bottom left) and Rodriguez (bottom right) are already shifting their weight forward, Ramirez can stay back and react to whatever pitch he sees.

To illustrate those mechanics, Slaught places the images of Ramírez, Albert Pujols, Alex Rodriguez and Vladimir Guerrero, the best of the best, into four quadrants of a computer screen. This is footage of each hitter shot from the first base side. Every click of Slaught's mouse shows what happens in 1/60th of a second during an at-bat. The four hitters set up in similar fashion, with the weight on the inside of their back foot, almost knock-kneed. Slaught uses the mouse to draw lines from each hitter's eyes to his belt buckle, to show that the head is centered above the midsection. After a few more clicks, he circles the hitters' hands, to show what he calls the "negative move," meaning the backward movement into a locked, ready position. After each hitter has completed his stride, Slaught says, "Now look at everybody but Manny. Watch their back elbow begin to drop. They've started their swing. Now look at Manny. He hasn't started yet. Do you know why?"

The answer comes a few clicks later, when Pujols, A-Rod and Vlad are all at the contact point and Manny is lagging behind. "The other three guys are swinging at fastballs," Slaught says. "Manny is hitting a breaking pitch. He's ready for 98 but is about to hit 88. That's what is different about him. We never see him late on a great fastball, yet he can adjust to something slower. He can cover more pitch speeds and more pitch locations and be on time, better than anyone."

Next, Slaught illustrates the path of Ramírez's swing, drawing an arc that tracks the sweet spot of the bat as it travels from the ready position through contact. The longer the arc spreads from left to right on the screen, the longer the bat stays in the hitting zone, and the better chance he has of putting the barrel on a variety of pitches. "This is another area where Manny excels," Slaught says. "It is why he's able to drive the ball to all fields."

As Slaught clicks through the frames, one last thing stands out about Ramírez, compared with the other hitters: his complete calm. A-Rod has his big leg kick, Pujols a deep crouch and wide stance, Vlad a violent twisting motion. But Manny, from his negative move through contact -- or 24/60ths of a second for a 90 mph fastball -- never seems even to ruffle a dreadlock. When he completes his swing, with his long, high follow-through, his feet have hardly scraped the dirt. Slaught says that when he analyzes Manny's mechanics, about six out of 10 swings are categorized as "perfect," more than for any other hitter RightView Pro has studied. "The best of the rest are at about five perfect swings out of 10," Slaught says. "Manny is just special."

Ramírez has often been called a natural hitter, gifted, a savant. But to stop there is to sell him short. "Make no mistake, a lot of what Manny has is pure talent," says Dodgers hitting coach Don Mattingly. "But I also use him as an example for our young guys, because he works hard and, more important, his work is clean." By this, Mattingly means Ramírez is focused and efficient in his preparation. Back in Boston, Ramírez always insisted that the television in Fenway Park's indoor batting cage be turned off when he was hitting. "He doesn't want any distractions," says Red Sox hitting coach Dave Magadan. "He's very serious when he's working."

Adds Mattingly, "A lot of guys go through the motions, like when they're hitting off a tee, for example. It's a tedious thing." But Ramírez gets into his comfort zone before most games by doing just that. "I'm there, but I don't say a lot," Mattingly says. "I set the ball up and let him go and I watch." The routine is basic, something major league hitters do on a daily basis. "The big difference," Mattingly says, "is that Manny is able to find his swing off the tee and take it into the game."

Jon Soohoo/Los Angeles DodgersDelwyn Young and Hiroki Kuroda got caught up in Mannymania last August.

This is a part of Manny that fans don't see, the athlete who works at his craft. One time, during spring training with Cleveland, he set up a pitching machine to spit out "the hardest sliders you've ever seen," Branyan recalls. "And he'd be whacking one line drive after another. No one else does stuff like that because no one wants to face that pitch, especially in batting practice!"

On the road, Ramírez can often be found in the hotel fitness room while his teammates are still sleeping. Before home night games, he'll show up at Dodger Stadium at 10 a.m. to lift weights and run on a treadmill. (Most workaholic players, such as American League MVP Dustin Pedroia, arrive at 1:30 or 2 p.m. That's when Manny, after lunch, catches up on his sleep.) Ramírez's early-morning regimen is nothing new. As a teenager in the New York City neighborhood of Washington Heights, after his family had moved to Manhattan from the Dominican Republic, he would run hills before dawn, dragging a 20-pound tire from a rope tied to his waist. He did this because a scout told him he was too slow to be a high draft pick. (In the 1991 draft, Cleveland made him the 13th overall pick.)

But if it were all as simple as putting in time on the batting tee or in the cage or in the weight room, there would be a lot more hitters like Manny Ramírez. Of course, it's more complicated than that. And yet when teammates, past and present, have asked him for tips, they typically get basic fundamentals. "He just happens to be a master of those things," Mattingly says. "He thinks, See the ball and stay through the middle. But he knows how to turn those thoughts into action."

When Manny talks to mere mortal hitters, his advice can be as frustrating as it is enlightening. "When I was playing with him in Cleveland," says Branyan, "Manny was trying to help me, and he asked, 'Why do you swing at inside fastballs when you can't hit them?' I'm thinking, Because I'm geared up, and by the time I realize it's an inside fastball, it's too late to stop. And Manny would say, like it was easy, 'I don't swing at that pitch unless I've got two strikes. And then I just try to foul it off.' So, basically, he's playing a different game."

One time, Ramírez laid it all out for Branyan, gave him the whole hitting equation. "He told me that he put 70 percent of his weight on his back foot and 40 percent of his weight on his front foot. And even though I knew the numbers didn't add up, I thought for a second, I've got to try that."

That's Manny Being Manny. Like right before game time, when the clown comes out. While his teammates are stretching and running sprints, it's not unusual to see Ramírez with his iPod on, hugging opponents, waving to fans. "No one realizes that he's already done a series of stretches and broken a sweat quickstepping through rope ladders in the tunnels," Mattingly says. "His work has been done before the show." And this is when Mattingly, known as Donnie Baseball during his days with the Yankees for his total respect for the game, reveals something surprising. "The thing I love more than anything about Manny, and the thing I try to tell our players, is that he puts in the work, he gets himself ready to play, but once the game starts, he actually has fun. When he hits a home run, I swear, on the bench, it's like he's never hit one before in his life. But when he strikes out looking, he's still smiling, coming back to the bench saying, 'He throws me there again, he's asking the ump for a new ball.' Man, the game is hard, but to him, it's still a game. I wish everybody could be like that."

Everybody Being Manny. Imagine that.

Got a question about Manny? Ask it here.

Everybody being Manny.

Imagine that. Imagine every single player in the big leagues, all 750 of them, "Being Manny."

Crazy? Sure. A little scary? Absolutely. But, believe it or not, most of them would sign up for that right now.