JUPITER, Fla. -- Marlins shortstop Hanley Ramirez has amazing athletic ability, which comes as no surprise given that he was a great basketball player in the Dominican Republic.
"We were doing this drill last year,'' Marlins catcher John Baker said. "Hanley was at shortstop. He says, 'I'll bet you $100 that I can shoot this baseball in that bucket [of balls].' The bucket was next to first base. I said 'Sure, Hanley.' So, with perfect basketball shooting form, like a free throw, or little jumper, he shot a baseball from shortstop into the bucket. I threw up my hands and said, 'That's it, I quit. I quit baseball, watching this stuff around here.'"
And now, just when it looked as though Ramirez couldn't get any better as a baseball player and couldn't look any better in a baseball uniform, he has added 25 pounds of muscle to his upper body. Now he is a sculpted 225 pounds, bigger and stronger than ever, and he is likely just as fast.
"He walked in the other day and we joked that he looked like he could play safety for the Dolphins,'' Baker said. "It's scary to think what he's going to do in his career in baseball.''
Ramirez, 25, has already done a lot. In 2007, he had one of the greatest seasons by a shortstop in baseball history: He hit .332, slugged .562, had 212 hits, belted 29 home runs, drove in 81 runs and stole 51 bases. Last year, some of his numbers dipped slightly, but he still hit 33 home runs, stole 35 bases, hit .301 and played defense better than he ever has.
Now he is looking for more.
"I was only 200 [pounds]; now by getting to 225 in the offseason, I should be 210 or 215 when the season starts,'' Ramirez said. "I lifted a lot of weights in the offseason, and I ate good. What I want is to be one of the best players in the game.''
He already is.
"Remember that guy in high school, the guy who could just walk out on the field and do whatever he wanted? That's what Hanley does on the highest level in the world,'' Baker said.
"He's the guy who says, 'Today, I think I'll get three hits to right field,' and then goes out and does it. It is shocking and frustrating for normal men to see him play, to see him turn it on whenever he likes. That's why he's one of the best, if not the best, player in the National League. I am dazzled by some of the things that [Albert] Pujols does. Hanley is on that level. He will look at me and say, 'If he throws me a second-pitch slider, I'm going to hit it for a home run.' And then on the second pitch, he gets a slider and hits a home run. Incredible. I'm in the on-deck circle thinking, 'I'm not as good as he is.'''
Dan Uggla, the Marlins' second baseman, has hit 90 home runs over the past three years. And, like Baker, he is equally impressed with Ramirez's talent.
"He's amazing; he takes the exact same path to the ball every single time,'' Uggla said. "My path isn't always the same, neither is it for almost all hitters. But he has a natural downward movement straight to the ball. The barrel of his bat stays in the hitting zone for a long time.''
As good as Ramirez is, he wants to get better, and wants to get the Marlins to the playoffs. So he announced this spring that he wanted to hit third in the order, not leadoff, to drive in more runs. Last year Ramirez became the sixth player in baseball history to drive in fewer than 70 runs in a season of at least 30 home runs, joining Felix Mantilla (1964), Brook Jacoby (1987), Rob Deer (1992), Brad Wilkerson (2004) and Chris Young (2007). Ramirez is the only player ever to have as few as 67 RBIs in a season of 33 home runs.
I want to drive in more runs, and help our team win. I've got to change my approach
”-- Marlins shortstop Hanley Ramirez
"I want to drive in more runs, and help our team win,'' Ramirez said. "I've got to change my approach. Me, Uggla and [third baseman Jorge] Cantu, we've got to drive in more runs.''
Ramirez hasn't been as productive as a No. 3 hitter in his career as he has been as a leadoff guy. From 2006 to '08, he hit .313 with a home run every 22.8 at-bats hitting first compared to .290 with a home run every 31.5 at-bats hitting third. But he had only 221 at-bats hitting third. Maybe by hitting third every day in 2009 Ramirez will be more comfortable there.
"[Marlins manager] Fredi [Gonzalez] said last year that he thought I could hit third,'' Ramirez said. "I'd like to do it right away in spring training. I'm confident that I can do it.''
Hanley Ramirez basically can do anything he wants on the field.
"What he did this winter -- his new dedication in the weight room -- is huge for us,'' Baker said. "We live and die with him.''
Count on the 2009 Marlins to live well.
Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book "Is This a Great Game, or What?" was published by St. Martin's Press and became available in paperback in May. Click here to order a copy.