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MIAMI – If there is anyone on the Los Angeles Dodgers who can take in Yasiel Puig's well-publicized series of youthful missteps with detached bemusement, it's the man he is most often compared to.
"I used to play the game the way Puig plays the game," Hanley Ramirez said. "Maybe if he would have played somewhere else, they might not like it."
Ramirez once was somewhere else, and no, they didn't always like it.
The Miami Marlins clubhouse these days is a plush, carpeted room bathed in dimmed lighting, a place filled with new, eager faces and unfamiliar names above the lockers. Since trading off every player whose salary exceeded $2.75 million in the past year or so, the Marlins didn't just become bad. They became practically anonymous.
But they do have a couple of powerful young hitters, Giancarlo Stanton and Logan Morrison, who came up in Miami at a time when Ramirez was the star around which everybody else in the room orbited. They didn't exactly give ringing endorsements of Ramirez's leadership style up to the July 2012 trade that sent him West.
|Ramirez has relished the chance to start fresh in Los Angeles.|
"He kept to himself a little bit," Stanton said. "I don't know. I'd prefer not to be a part of that one."
The whispers around Puig this season -- together with his behavior pattern -- sometimes create the impression that he listens to advice only sporadically. Ramirez was that guy before Puig, the hyper-talented young player with a reputation for doing his own thing and, at times, defying authority.
Dodgers manager Don Mattingly didn't do much research into Ramirez's issues in Miami, which included benchings for lack of hustle and personality clashes with manager Fredi Gonzalez and team icon Jeff Conine. To Mattingly, it has been about how new surroundings can give a person an opportunity to adopt a new persona.
"Thank God Miami is in the past," Ramirez said. "Everybody's just seeing what kind of person I am, what kind of teammate."
And if you're wondering how Puig, 22, is going to mature, you may want to take a look at Ramirez, who is seven years older.
Since he flew West, Ramirez has worked steadfastly to revive his game and reputation. The Dodgers say he has blended into the team structure seamlessly, played hard -- not to mention effectively -- and even helped to nudge Puig along.Said Morrison: "He's playing well, because he's happy. He probably feels he's getting treated better over there."
Or, maybe, it has just allowed a different aspect of his personality to elbow its way to the front, where everybody can see it.
"He was always a good guy deep down inside, you know?" said pitcher Ricky Nolasco, who joined Ramirez on the Miami-to-L.A. trail about a year later. "There were just some things that went sour in Miami, but the change of scenery was the best thing for him."
It doesn't seem to have hurt. Ramirez's 1.020 OPS is third among major league players with at least 250 plate appearances. And he looks like he's having fun. Along with Puig and Juan Uribe, Ramirez is perpetually pulling pranks and trading dugout barbs with his teammates, fueling the impression that the Dodgers aren't just talented, but they're likeable.
It's rare to see Ramirez these days when he isn't smiling, so forgive him if he isn't interested in dredging up his time in Miami. When approached for this story, he initially said he didn't want to discuss the past. He does, however, take exception to people saying he was not a good teammate.
"Nobody knows what goes on in that clubhouse. The last two years, wasn't fun for me. I got hurt a couple times and I was struggling," Ramirez said. "It's not the same when you're struggling. When you're hitting, everything is easy. What can I say, I'm just really happy to be in the Dodgers organization."
He and Puig have been the engines driving the Dodgers' offense since Puig burst through the door from Double-A on June 3 and Ramirez came off the disabled list the next day. Ramirez leads the Dodgers in slugging (.628) and OPS+ (183) and, amazingly, he trails only Adrian Gonzalez in home runs (15) though he has had nearly 300 fewer at-bats.
Ramirez is batting .343, Puig .346.
|Together, Ramirez and Puig have been crucial to the Dodgers' attack.|
Ramirez has given hitting coaches Mark McGwire and John Valentin a couple of keys he'd like them to keep their eyes on, but otherwise he has been his own hitting coach. McGwire said he told Mattingly and general manager Ned Colletti "there was just something" about Ramirez as soon as he started working with him in spring training. Though at 6-foot-2 and 235 pounds, he can still be a bit awkward at shortstop, but he has improved his footwork and focus.
If not for three stays on the disabled list, Ramirez would be on the tip of everybody's tongue in the National League MVP discussion. Ted Williams' manager, Joe McCarthy, once said, "Any manager who can't get along with a .400 hitter is crazy." Generally, performance is the only criteria teams use to judge their players. But star players with diffident attitudes can make for an uncomfortable clubhouse, particularly for younger players.
If Ramirez has been anything but a pleasure for the Dodgers to work with, they're doing an awfully good job hiding it. Just the fact that he has worked hard to stay on the field when his hamstring and thumb tendon have conspired against it has garnered him respect in the room.
"We heard the same things you did," Mark Ellis said. "He's on time for everything. He shows up for everything. He's supportive of his teammates. Plus, he wants to be on the field every day. That's what guys respect."
Ramirez and Clayton Kershaw are both free agents following the 2014 season. By all accounts, locking up Kershaw is the primary objective, but if the Dodgers can come up with enough money to keep both of them, Ramirez might one day be remembered as a Dodger. That would take some pretty serious production, considering he won a Rookie of the Year award and a batting title in Miami.
The one thing that would accelerate that process more than any other is if Ramirez were to help the Dodgers play in one or more World Series while he's here. He has never been to the playoffs.
"Let him play the seventh month," McGwire said. "That's the great thing about all this."
For the first time in his major league career, Ramirez can look around and feel like he's part of something that's bigger than himself. Sometimes, that's all it takes to realize you're not bigger than the game.