FORT MYERS, Fla. — Call him Hustlin’ Hanley.
In the fourth inning of a meaningless mid-March spring training game at JetBlue Park, there was Red Sox left fielder Hanley Ramirez racing to track down a fly ball in the left field gap off the bat of Joey Terdoslavich of the Atlanta Braves. The next half-inning, Ramirez ran hard down the line on a swinging bunt out.
It was Hanley not being Hanley, or at least not the Hanley that we’ve been warned about, the one who in his previous baseball stops in Miami and Los Angeles was portrayed as being petulant and aloof.
Reputations are easy to damage and difficult to repair.
No one knows this better than Ramirez, who has a reputation as a gifted slugger and Faustian baseball bargain. The prodigal prospect returned to the Red Sox with the scars of a baseball life spent trying to separate the perception of him as a player who is a combustible clubhouse element with a flickering competitive furnace from the reality of a 31-year-old guy who owns up to his past transgressions and badly wants to win.
With a new team and a new position, Ramirez believes that people are clinging to an old impression of him.
“Definitely. What can I say about that?” he said following the Sox’ 11-3 loss to the Braves on Tuesday. “But that is why the world is the world, not everybody is going to like you. You cannot control that. What can I do? Just go out there and play hard.”
There have been whispers — and with the Marlins shouting matches with teammates — about how hard Ramirez plays.
The caveat emptor when the Sox signed him to a four-year, $88 million deal with a vesting option for a fifth season was a perceived penchant for occasional indifference.
The Sox have had an enigmatic left fielder named Ramirez before. Hanley’s idol, Manny Ramirez.
Manny’s occasional insolence and indolence were chalked up as Manny being Manny, a catchall for tolerating such behavior in exchange for having such a fearsome hitter.
Let’s hope Hanley hits like Manny, but doesn’t act like him.
The question is, can a player really change or only change uniforms?
Ramirez said at his introductory news conference in November that playing for a veteran Dodgers team after being traded there in 2012 changed his outlook on the game and his behavior.
He reiterated that.
“After I got to LA, everything changed in my life, everything,” said Ramirez. “I was around guys that they tell me when something was wrong. They would come up to me and nobody knew, just me. I never did anything wrong over there. I got along with everybody. I just was looking around at those guys. They just come every day and play. It was a winning organization. It was great, front office, everybody. So, when you see that you got to adjust to that. That’s what I did.”
If anyone from Ramirez’s past would be in a position to warn off Red Sox fans it would be Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez.
Gonzalez played Hanley Whisperer for three-plus seasons with the Marlins before getting fired 70 games into the 2010 season. That was the year of the signature transgression of Ramirez’s career.
He was pulled from a game against the Arizona Diamondbacks after he booted a bloop hit that landed just beyond his reach at shortstop and chased after the ball with less than full alacrity. Gonzalez yanked Ramirez from the game after the inning.
Ramirez, who had fouled a ball off his foot the half-inning before, got into a public spat with Gonzalez and disparagingly said his manager didn’t understand because he had never played in the big leagues.
Gonzalez was guarded Tuesday, but said he has a good relationship with Ramirez now. He said those who blame Ramirez for his firing, which happened a little more than a month after the benching, are wrong.
“Oh, no, no, I don’t blame him at all, not even for a second. It was a situation way before that,” said Gonzalez. “I’ve never even once thought or entertained the idea of blaming him. Our relationship has always been good. Shoot, he comes over here and gives me a chance to win a pennant, I’ll take him in a heartbeat.
“As far as [the incident] is concerned, it’s been over and done with the day after that thing happened for me and for him also. We talk when we see each other. I think he is going to be great here.”
Ramirez expressed contrition for the incident with Gonzalez.
“Obviously, I know it’s my fault that things didn’t come out like how they’re supposed to be, but that’s behind me,” said Ramirez. “He is a great guy and a great manager.”
Ramirez said he was misunderstood with the Marlins, where he was asked to take on a leadership role and be the face of the franchise at a young age after Miguel Cabrera was traded to the Detroit Tigers.
It bothered him deeply that situations where his comportment or effort were questioned became public.
There was not a veteran figure with the gravitas of David Ortiz to pull him aside in private and deliver the message.
It was Ortiz who compelled Ramirez to apologize to Gonzalez back in 2010.
“In Miami, I did something wrong, everything was going out [to the media.] I got pissed with how everything was handled,” Ramirez said. “At the same time, I know it’s my mistake, and I learned from that.”
Ramirez has learned from the mistakes of his youth, but he is still paying for them.
All Ramirez wants is to be judged by his play, not his past.