Commentary

Manny Ramirez's voice being heard

Joe Maddon has taken a new approach with the volatile slugger -- he's listening to him

Updated: March 22, 2011, 11:54 AM ET
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

"Most of the successful people I've known are the ones who do more listening than talking." -- Bernard Baruch

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- He's Manny Ramirez, and he isn't Joe Torre's problem anymore. Or Terry Francona's problem. Or Ozzie Guillen's problem.

He's Manny Ramirez, and the joy of managing him is all Joe Maddon's now.

The manager of those free-thinking Tampa Bay Rays knows all about how that's turned out for the managers who preceded him. And you know what? He doesn't care.

[+] EnlargeManny Ramirez and Joe Maddon
AP Photo/Chris O'MearaJoe Maddon decided from the beginning he was going to listen to Manny Ramirez.

Asked if he has ever talked to Torre about Manny, Maddon shakes his head. Asked if he has ever talked to Francona about him, Maddon replies, simply: "No."

"I used to have a T-shirt," Maddon says. "And it said, 'Tell me what you think, not what you've heard.' So I'm not going to rely on what I've heard. Ever. Ever. … I've got to make up my own opinion. I've got to make up my own mind at the end of the day."

So in the case of Manny Ramirez, Joe Maddon is tuning out all the other voices in the universe except for one:

The voice of Manny himself.

What's the best way to manage a complicated figure like Manny? The secret, Maddon believes, just might be to listen.

Listen to Manny speak. Listen to his thoughts. Listen as often as possible. And listen closely not just to what this man says but to how he says it.

So if you pay attention on these otherwise uneventful spring training mornings, you may notice something. You'll see Manny Ramirez, dreadlocks drooping from his cap, waving a bat around the batting cage. And you'll see his bright-eyed, white-haired manager, engaging him in another conversation, just to learn a little more about how his new DH's mind really works.

"You know what I've learned about Manny? He's very serious about his craft," Maddon reports. "I mean, he messes around. He has a good time. But he's very serious about playing this game and playing this game well. I think there's a real misconception out there that this guy doesn't care, or he's just going to go through the motions. He truly wants to do well, extremely well. I think he loves this game as much as ever. …

"So I'm finding out how serious he is," the manager goes on. "And I'm finding out how knowledgeable he is, about hitting in particular. He really has some great thoughts on hitting. And he's also able to relay them on to other guys."

[+] EnlargeRamirez
AP Photo/Charles KrupaThe Rays are taking a $2 million flyer on Manny Ramirez. Is it worth the risk?

Now, we know what you're no doubt thinking about now: You're thinking Maddon is making a big mistake. He's buying the baloney. He's falling for the con job. And if he thinks this approach is going to work, he's crazy.

But where others see madness, Joe Maddon sees method. And no matter how it may look from afar, there is indeed a method to this particular madness for one of the great outside-the-box thinkers of our time.

It's one thing for a manager to make small talk with a player, any player. It's another for the manager to go out of his way to connect, to go deeper, to make a player with a troubled reputation feel as though his thoughts matter, his opinion matters, and his experience and leadership qualities, such as they are, are officially welcome.

There are people in this sport who shake their heads at this approach, who predict this little experiment in listening isn't going to have a happily-ever-after ending. We'll hear from them later.

But Joe Maddon sees no downside to listening -- not to Manny, not to anyone on his roster. And for now, during these serene days of spring training, he not only has a happy Manny on his team, but he has a Manny who has seemingly responded to the manager's invitation to share his thoughts -- not so much on Manny Being Manny-ness, but on the actually valuable stuff he's learned on the road to 2,573 hits.

"I think you kind of need to have that blessing when you walk into a new place, before everybody feels comfortable with you," Maddon says. "You know what I liken it to? It's almost like the best-looking-girl-in-the-bar theory. Everybody's afraid to talk to her because she's the best-looking girl in the bar. Well, Manny is one of the best hitters since -- I don't know -- Babe Ruth? So somebody's afraid to talk to him about hitting. And if they do, they're going to be less than forceful in their opinions because, after all, he's Manny Ramirez.

"So it's no different," Maddon philosophizes. "For those who are single, always approach that best-looking girl in the bar [and say], 'Excuse me.' And for managers and coaches, always approach that potential Hall of Fame player. He might want to hear what you have to say."

Now Maddon makes sure to point out that he's a listener by nature. So he's as interested in what Dan Johnson and Reid Brignac think as he is in what Manny Ramirez thinks.

"

Maddon If you listen, I am hoping to avert any kind of potential problems.

" -- Rays manager Joe Maddon, on Manny Ramirez

But the manager is also aware that Dan Johnson and Reid Brignac, fortunately, have never engaged in any ugly, embarrassing, unprofessional one-man work stoppages that threatened to disrupt their entire franchises. The new DH in town, on the other hand? He's been there, done that twice in the past three years. With two different storied franchises.

So whatever it takes to keep Manny smiling, raking and spreading sunshine, Joe Maddon is willing to try it. And who the heck can blame him?

"For me, as a manager, it's a challenge," Maddon says, "for all the reasons we've been talking about: Future Hall of Fame player. Coming off just a so-so year. Feels like he's got a lot left in the tank and a lot to prove this year. So it's up to me to try to understand this guy, to try to help him get the most out of his abilities again."

And so far? Couldn't have gone much better. Ramirez is hitting .297, slugging .568, volunteering to make road trips when he's not even on the travel list and trying his best to look like the best free agent 2 million bucks could buy.

"To this point, it's working," said an executive of one club that has played the Rays this spring. "I've seen him twice, and he looks like he's got his swagger back. And we all know that when Manny has his swagger, he's dangerous. And I give all the credit to Joe Maddon. There's something about a guy like Joe that can bring out the best in a guy like Manny.

"Let me tell you something about Joe Maddon," the exec continues. "That son of a gun can motivate. I know he can be a little eccentric. I know he can be different. But he's a difference-maker. And he's made a difference in Manny. The guy's having good at-bats. He's swinging great. And he's PLAYING."

But we wouldn't want to give you the impression that everybody is sold. Heck, we wouldn't want to give you the impression that WE'RE sold. So now let's hear from the skeptics out there, the many people all over the game who believe Maddon has no better shot to get Manny straightened out than the Pope, Tony Robbins or General Norman Schwarzkopf.

Do we honestly believe, they ask, that Terry Francona didn't try to talk to Manny? Do we honestly believe, they ask, that Joe Torre didn't try listening to Manny? They're two of the most player-friendly managers of modern times. And they couldn't keep this guy on track. Right?

[+] EnlargeRamirez/Jones
AP PhotoManny Ramirez and his teammates are getting along. But how long will that last?

So the only shot Operation Listen Up has to work, says one long-time executive, is "if Manny's a good player. But if he can't produce runs, if his bat's slow, if good pitchers start getting him out, then it won't make any difference if Joe Maddon is his godfather.

"To be honest," the same exec said, "this guy [Manny] is not that tough to figure out. He'll be everyone's best friend as long as they've got a chance to supply what he needs. And what he needs is to hit more home runs, drive in more runs and get more contracts. As long as they do that, everything's great and everything Joe's doing will be great -- until it isn't. And then it won't matter what Joe Maddon is doing."

"I know one thing," says a veteran big-league coach and manager. "It will end horribly. They might get some good out of it, but it will never end good. Right now, Joe's doing the only thing he can do. He's got a guy he's got to get something out of, so he's doing everything he can to get it out of him. But Manny can fluctuate so fast, from feeling good to feeling bad, that it's hard to figure out what sets him off. You never know what it'll take to set him off, but it'll be something. And once it does, none of the other stuff matters anymore."

An executive of another club -- one that wanted no part of Ramirez, at any price -- says he knows the Rays are thinking that, for $2 million, what do they have to lose? But this exec's big fear was that if Manny got off to a good start, he'd be thinking, "I'm only making $2 million? I'm underpaid." And if he got off to a bad start, he'd be thinking, "I'm only making $2 million. So who cares?" So even the he's-a-bargain theory has a chance to run seriously amok.

Then again, another front-office man theorizes, never discount the idea that Manny might already be working on his 2012 marketing campaign. And if he is, "he'll be on his best behavior. I mean, he can't dump on Joe Maddon after dumping on Joe Torre and after dumping on Terry Francona. Unless he's a good guy and he has a good year, he won't get a deal for next year. The clock is ticking on this guy. So he needs to have a productive year -- and a quiet year."

But even in a quiet year, the storm fronts always seem to be just over Manny's horizon. And Joe Maddon recognizes they're out there. So just as all Floridians know to tape up the windows before the hurricanes hit, the manager knows anticipation is the key to surviving any storm.

"My perception, from what I've heard and read about those moments, is that it's incumbent upon us to stay ahead of that potential moment," Maddon says. "How to do that? Listening and conversation and making sure that you're truly listening to his voice. If you listen, I am hoping to avert any kind of potential problems."

Now maybe Joe Maddon is dreaming. Maybe he's just deluding himself. Maybe, laughs an official of one team, he can pull this off for a year, because "Manny might be a great one-year affair -- just don't marry him."

But maybe something different will happen. It's hard to count on, given Manny's history. But maybe Joe Maddon will discover something all managers can learn a lesson from:

If you believe everything you hear, you're asking for trouble.

But if you listen before you speak, you just might find the answer that's been blowing in the wind.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.

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Senior Writer, ESPN.com