Commentary

A new and improved Hanley Ramirez

Slugger appears to be happy and healthy, and transition to third base going well

Originally Published: March 18, 2012
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- He walked through the Marlins' clubhouse door at 5:30 a.m. He could have sworn he heard a noise coming from the weight room.

Couldn't be, right? Not at 5:30 in the morning. Not when the bus was supposed to leave before sunrise for a three-hour trek to scenic Port Charlotte.

[+] EnlargeHanley Ramirez
Scott Rovak/US PresswireHanley Ramirez has been "working his butt off," according to Marlins bench coach Joey Cora.

So Joey Cora listened again, then poked his head inside that weight room and was shocked by what he saw.

It was Hanley Ramirez, of all people, doing his agility drills.

"What the [heck] are you doing here?" the Marlins' bench coach asked, incredulously.

"Gotta get my work in," Ramirez told Cora. "The bus leaves at 7."

"Okayyyyy," said Cora.

Welcome, friends, to the world of the "new" Hanley Ramirez. He's a third baseman now. We're guessing you've heard about that. But as that 5:30 a.m. journey to the weight room would suggest, that isn't all about this guy that seems to have changed.

He has morphed, all of a sudden, into your basic, happy-go-lucky workaholic. And that, we're guessing, would be something you'd find fairly mind-blowing.

It would be another 11 hours before that bus would rev its engines and head back across the state. It would be 14 hours all told before Ramirez could climb off that bus and call it a day.

All he would do in between was play nine innings at third, in a game that didn't count, on one of the hottest days of the spring -- and even do it with a noticeable smile on his face. What a concept.

"He's been working his butt off," said Cora, who has become Ramirez's favorite drill sergeant. "You know, everything that you hear about Hanley -- we haven't seen that. He's been unbelievable."

Hmmm. That expression -- "everything that you hear about Hanley" -- wouldn't exactly be considered a term of endearment, right? It's a term that reminds us Ramirez is a guy with a reputation to live down, at age 28. And not a good one, either.

His last manager, Jack McKeon, benched him for being late on Trader Jack's very first day on the job last June. Marlins left fielder Logan Morrison ripped him that same day for making a habit of being the last player at the park. And back in 2009, his former teammate Dan Uggla once insinuated that Hanley cared more about chasing a batting title than about winning.

So from the moment the Marlins committed 106 million bucks to Jose Reyes in December and told their one-time face of the franchise he was about to become a third baseman, the world wondered how Ramirez would embrace that little maneuver.

Well, so far, so good. In fact, said assistant GM Dan Jennings, "You could not have scripted what's occurred any better."

Two weeks into spring training, Ramirez is hitting .474/.583/.895. He and Reyes have bonded "like brothers," says hitting coach Eduardo Perez. And the big news is, Ramirez is adapting miraculously well to playing third base, with only one error (on a squibber he couldn't scoop up on the run) in seven games. Yet still, many folks wonder:

Is this for real?

"I don't care what happened in the past," said his new manager, the ever-loquacious Oswaldo Guillen. "I don't know why people keep waiting for him to screw up. [But] everybody is. Media. Front office. Everybody. They're saying, 'OK, when is going to be the day he's gonna show up with attitude?'"

Well, if that day is coming, if that attitude is still percolating deep (or not so deep) inside, Ramirez has hidden it well. His new manager and his coaches keep watching for signs of any sort of meltdown. Haven't seen it yet.

"He's smiling again," said Guillen. "He's enjoying this game again."

Of course, it's easy to love life in spring training, when the pressure is off and the scrutiny is low. It's also easy to talk the talk in spring training. Ramirez has done that before, too.

But so far at least, people who know him think what they're seeing is more than an act.

It starts with the newfound work ethic, a regimen that didn't just begin this spring. Ramirez went home to the Dominican Republic, after the worst year of his career, and sought out a man he says has been "a big inspiration to me," Toronto's Jose Bautista, and let Bautista push him to places he'd never been before.

"I never worked that much," Ramirez said. "But I knew that I needed it because I didn't play the whole season. The other years, I always played over 150 games, so I just went back, got some rest and started [working out] in January. But after what happened last year, I knew I needed to work harder to get back soon on the field."

So when he showed up in spring training, only five months after shoulder surgery, he was ready to throw himself into the biggest challenge of his career -- the transition to third base after a lifetime of playing short. And there were many, many eyeballs watching to see how he went about that.

All winter, after all, the whispers persisted: Hanley doesn't want to do this. He'd rather get traded. He still wants to be a shortstop. Yada, yada, yada.

You heard that so much, it's hard to believe he never thought any of it, at least in the beginning. But Ramirez says none of that was true. Whatever they asked him to do, that's what he was always going to do.

"I work for the organization. I don't work for me," he said. "They decide what I'm going to do. I just want to win."

And the Marlins have worked hard to convince him that his best chance to win is with him playing third and Reyes at short.

"I talked to him a few times this winter," Guillen said. "I didn't expect him to be happy. But I told him he had two choices. I said, 'You gonna play very [ticked]. Or you gonna play very happy.' But I'm telling you, he's been so good for us. He's been awesome."

Guillen, who played shortstop for a decade and a half in the big leagues himself, has also talked incessantly about how Ramirez was going to have to move to third base eventually. So why not now?

"At the end of the day, this is his career," the manager said. "And for him, he has to be at third base. He's bigger. He's stronger. He's [getting] older. This is where he should be. …

"At shortstop, you have to do too much stuff," Guillen said. "It wears you out, mentally and physically. Put it this way: If Hanley makes 30 errors at third base, he's gonna have an MVP career. If he makes 30 errors at shortstop, he ain't even gonna make the All-Star team."

But Cora, who pounds ground balls at Ramirez every morning from every angle, doesn't see a 30-error machine in his future. He sees a tremendous athlete with the skill set to be a better third baseman than he was a shortstop.

"He's got great hands and great feet," Cora said. "He's got a tremendous arm. … He's got great instincts. It's not easy to move from short to third. But the first day we're hitting ground balls at him, a lot of stuff came natural to him, because he's a great athlete. Either that, or he was working like [crazy] in the Dominican and didn't tell anybody."

His teammates say Ramirez is well aware of how many people decided, almost instantly, that he wouldn't be able to do this. So now, every time he turns a scorcher to third into an out, a smile crosses his face and he wags a finger subtly, as if to say to the skeptics: "You STILL think I can't do this?"

"Every time he makes a play, watch him," said Perez. "That's for a lot of people. And there's nothing better than special players playing with a chip on their shoulder."

Then again, at least there are no chips INSIDE Ramirez's shoulder, either. The surgery he underwent in September 2011 to repair the instability in his left shoulder seems to have taken care of that issue. So he isn't only happier this spring. He's also healthier.

[+] EnlargeHanley Ramirez
Brad Barr/US PresswireHanley Ramirez has been swinging the bat with authority this spring.

"Healthy MAKES him happy," Perez said. "And last year he wasn't. And it frustrated him."

For the record, Ramirez denies the "frustration" portion of that analysis: "I don't get frustrated," he said. "Everything happens for a reason."

And in his case, he decided, the reason was, he needed to "get my body stronger." So now here he is, looking as strong, as fit and as healthy as he has in three years. And that could be a gigantic development in the life of the National League East.

"Look around the National League," said Cora. "This guy could be an All-Star third baseman forever. … He's got to be one of the top five most talented players in the game when he's healthy. He does everything. He's like a Nintendo guy or something."

You think that sounds a little excessive? Think again. Ramirez's career slash line is .306/.380/.506, with 216 stolen bases thrown in there for fun. You know how many other hitters in the live-ball era have had a .300 career average, 200 steals and an on-base percentage and slugging percentage as good as Ramirez? Just three:

Willie Mays … Alex Rodriguez … and Larry Walker. Ever heard of them?

So if this man can also play third base, look out. The 2012 Marlins could have a fun year ahead of them. And so could the new and improved Hanley Ramirez.

"When I was working at ESPN the last few years," said Perez, "I remember, we always talked about this was the first pick in the fantasy draft. Well, I'm telling you right now. This is no sleeper. He's up there. He'd be my first pick."

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com