It is, according to Shane Victorino, “that shadow that follows [Hanley Ramirez] wherever he goes.” Suggestions that Ramirez is not a good teammate carry across baseball’s whispering arch.
When the Red Sox signed Ramirez to a four-year deal in December with the intention of moving him to left field, the reaction of many in the industry was to question how he would fit in with the Red Sox and whether he would remain committed to left in the face of adversity in his transition. For a night, at least, Ramirez offered a rebuttal to both concerns.
In some ways, the most notable aspect of the Red Sox’ odd 8-7 victory over the Nationals had less to do with the final score than with the evidence of a player who is doing his best to fit in, and whose priorities have more to do with his team’s comfort level than his ego.
“I just want to win and get that first ring on my hand. That’s what I want,” said Ramirez. “The only thing that matters in this game is winning. That’s my attitude. Guys here know how to win. I just try to follow that. When I went to L.A. [from the Marlins in 2012], I learned how to win. That’s what I’m trying to do here, too. Just win no matter what.”
Ramirez is amid a still-choppy transition to left field. Tuesday night offered a reminder of his status as a work in progress, when the 31-year-old proceeded with uncertainty on a fly ball at the base of the Green Monster, unsure whether to try to catch it on the fly or to play it on a ricochet. In the end, the indecisiveness turned ugly. Ramirez essentially ducked on a ball he might have been able to catch.
It was the first in-between ball that Ramirez has faced since making the commitment to move to left in order to fit into the Red Sox roster. Somehow, none of his games in spring training featured plays that confronted him with reason for indecision, so his first such encounter occurred in a game that mattered.
It looked bad, yet it also offered a reminder that Ramirez has embraced a challenging path in pursuit of something bigger than himself.
“We all have egos. You don’t want to get embarrassed on the field,” said Victorino. “That play, most people are like, ‘What the heck is Hanley doing? Is he giving up on that play?’ He’s still learning. He’s not comfortable out there. He doesn’t know what it’s like to go up against a wall. It may take him one or two times for him to get up on that wall, try to jump, bang into it to understand.”
It’s work to which Ramirez is readily committing. On Monday, prior to the home opener, the Red Sox didn’t have any structured early work on the field because of their 3:30 a.m. return from New York.
Yet there was Ramirez smiling through his morning work on the field with outfield coach Arnie Beyeler. He wanted a crash course in the idiosyncrasies of his new position in his new home.
Familiarity will take time. Tuesday offered evidence that it hasn’t come yet.
But when Ramirez couldn’t figure out the right approach to the ball off the wall, which turned a potential out into an Ian Desmond double, he didn’t pout. He instead retreated to the dugout to discuss with Beyeler the right approach to take on the ball, hoping to learn from his mistake.
“He got caught kind of in-between. It was a great learning experience for him and we’ll move on from there,” said Beyeler. “You need to go one way or the other. He chose to try to get it and didn’t quite get there tonight, kind of turned on it. He learned from it and said maybe next time he’d try to pull back on it. But that’s how we’re going to learn on those. That’s the first one he’s had.”
That Ramirez has seemed measured in left field, pulling up on line drives that fall in front of him, is likewise no accident. He has marching orders to proceed with caution until he establishes his comfort in making the adjustment from a career spent almost entirely at shortstop, save for 99 games at third (more on game 99 at third in a bit).
He’s not at the point where he’s crashing into walls or diving with abandon. That is, at least in part, because he’s been told not to do so.
Beyeler believes that by the second half of the season, Ramirez has a chance to be comfortable in left field, to become sufficiently familiar with his reads and routes to allow his athleticism to emerge. If that happens, there is a chance that he can become not just adequate but something more than that. Team officials note that some of the game’s elite left fielders, such as Alex Gordon, emerged after moving from the left side of the infield.
That down-the-road possibility is a conversation for another day.
“He’s got health concerns. He’s not 16 anymore,” said Beyeler. “It’s not like we’re playing with crystal out there or anything. But at the same time, that’s the nature of the game. We’ve got to keep him healthy and keep him on the field.
“I think he’s secure enough that he understands the big picture of what’s going on. If he blows himself up running into the wall trying to make a play, that hurts the whole team in the lineup. We’ve got to be thoughtful of that also. It doesn’t mean don’t play the game, but there’s got to be a little preservation there. We can’t run him into walls day after day after day and sacrifice him being in the lineup. There’s a priority system there from a baseball sense that we need to understand a little bit. I think being a veteran guy, he understands that.”
And on Tuesday, there was more evidence of that understanding. With Xander Bogaerts out of the lineup due to a sore knee and Pablo Sandoval knocked out of the game after getting hit by a pitch on the foot, the Sox were down two starters on the left side of the infield with only one Brock Holt available to them.
Manager John Farrell approached Ramirez to see if he’d be willing to play either third or short, even going so far as to give his cleanup hitter a choice. Interestingly, Ramirez – who reportedly had been reluctant to move from shortstop to third to accommodate Jose Reyes with the Marlins in 2012 – opted for the hot corner, where he hadn’t played since August 1, 2012, instead of at shortstop, where he’d played exclusively over the last two seasons.
Had Ramirez done any work at third in spring training?
“Yeah, I did it in PlayStation, when I put myself in third and put Panda in left. In reality, no,” said Ramirez. “[Farrell] asked me where I would prefer to go. I said third. Brock made a couple nice plays [at short] at the beginning of the game. I didn’t want to move him over to third. I just went to third. … We don’t have nobody else. I have to do it for the team. It was a pleasure for me.”
It is early. Ramirez is months into his Red Sox tenure, into his new role as a do-anything citizen. That shadow, the one Victorino mentioned, formed over years. It will take longer to know whether it will be eliminated in Boston.
But so far, Ramirez has given every indication of doing the right things to fit in. His teammates have taken note.
“People put labels, people put a certain thing on you without even knowing you,” said Victorino, who played with Ramirez at the end of the 2012 season with the Dodgers. “He’s showing, to me, a lot of maturity from the standpoint of a teammate, that willingness to [move positions for the team]. I just want to keep it going, keep him doing that kind of stuff that he’s been doing.”
“He’s a guy that works extremely hard. He wants to get things done the right way,” added David Ortiz. “He’s learning how to play left field. But he’s going to try. He’s very athletic. He decided to leave his position where he’s been playing his whole position, his whole life, to move to another. That’s a guy you want to appreciate.”