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Nick Cafardo | On Baseball

For now, Hanley Ramirez is one happy camper

So far this spring, Hanley Ramirez has been enthusiastic about playing first base.
So far this spring, Hanley Ramirez has been enthusiastic about playing first base.Evan Habeeb/USA Today Sports

JUPITER, Fla. — Maturity and Hanley Ramirez. Strange bedfellows, but it appears that it has happened.

The Red Sox are completely happy with him, from Dave Dombrowski to John Farrell to the players to coach Brian Butterfield, who is training him to be a first baseman. Gone are the old stories about Ramirez’s disruptive nature with the Marlins, who once thought he was the best player in baseball, but couldn’t build around him because he was so unpopular that teammates wanted to fight him.

After a couple of rants about Ramirez’s bad clubhouse days, he took me aside one day to tell me, “I’m not like that anymore.”

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When someone says that, you want to believe them, but you want evidence that it’s not just spin.

Ramirez seems to genuinely like playing first base. He’s shown the athleticism he didn’t show as a left fielder last year, when perhaps he bulked up so he could be the power hitter he thought left fielders should be.

Does that mean he’ll be a stellar first baseman? Does it mean he can save his infielders’ bad throws, which he says is a top priority? Does it mean he will avoid injuries, which have plagued him his entire career and made him so frustrating over the years?

Am I naive to think he has changed? Am I going to eat these words if he reverts back to his old ways? If so, there will be a lot of people who will have to do the same, because you can’t find anyone around the team who thinks this is fake.

Outside of the Red Sox, it’s still hard to find baseball people who don’t think Ramirez is a plague. They think of the guy who tried to protect his National League-leading .342 batting average in 2009 by sitting out when there wasn’t anything wrong with him. Ramirez’s average had dropped from a high of .361 on Sept. 13, but he beat out Pablo Sandoval by 12 points to win the NL batting title.

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They also bring up 2008, when Ramirez sat out a key series during an NL pennant race when the Brewers needed the Marlins to win games. The Marlins had to apologize to the Brewers for Ramirez’s unwillingness to play.

But the tone has changed.

When Ramirez was a young player with the Red Sox, Ben Cherington and others in the organization thought he was going to be the greatest player of the era. That’s why they fought Bill Lajoie, Jeremy Kapstein, and Larry Lucchino over trading him for Josh Beckett and Mike Lowell. And yes, Ramirez blossomed with the Marlins and became arguably the game’s best all-around shortstop — never great defensively, but someone who could really hit and steal bases, and was a terrific all-around athlete.

He was in a tough clubhouse in Los Angeles with the Dodgers, and his attitude was never endearing, but his problems there were more about days missed with injuries than attitude.

By the time he was ready to become a free agent, his days as a shortstop pretty much over, the Dodgers could no longer put up with the games missed.

They believed he was a designated hitter. They believed he belonged in the American League. So the Red Sox outbid themselves and signed Ramirez to a four-year, $88 million deal. On the same day, they signed Pablo Sandoval to a five-year, $95 million deal.

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It was a shock at the time. Not the Sandoval part, because the Red Sox needed a third baseman, but the Ramirez part, especially the fact that he would become an outfielder, which seemed far-fetched for a guy who was so injury-prone.

Ramirez started out like gangbusters last April, but dropped back in May, and then he simply didn’t work at being a left fielder anymore. He suffered a shoulder injury when he crashed into the wall at Fenway, and he decided he wasn’t going to work on balls off the wall anymore. He looked lackadaisical. The whole look was bad for a guy in his first full season with a new team.

Former outfield coach Arnie Beyeler couldn’t light a fire under Ramirez, or Yoenis Cespedes the year before. Neither wanted to work on defense. Cespedes refused to move to right field, where his cannon arm played better, and he had no interest in practicing balls off the wall.

Once Dombrowski came aboard late last season, he ended the left field experiment and wanted the Red Sox to concentrate on making Ramirez a first baseman. That ended when Ramirez’s injuries caught up to him again and he was shut down.

When spring training began, we had the glove incident. How could a guy who knew he was going to play first base since last August not have his own first baseman’s mitt? The sporting goods companies provide players with everything they need and everything they don’t need, but Ramirez was using a Mike Napoli glove that the Red Sox found in his locker at Fenway.

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Once a new glove was ordered, it went to Ramirez’s Miami home after he had already gone to Fort Myers.

Here we go again.

But the faux pas ended there.

Ramirez agrees that his infield instincts have taken over. He has studied how each and every infielder throws the ball, their tendencies, arm angles, and how the ball gets to him. He has taken this very seriously.

Where there used to be teammates in Miami and LA who mumbled under their breath about Ramirez, now you won’t hear a bad word about him. They build him up every chance they get. The “off-the-record” conversations you have with players and staff all reflect a positive theme.

Ramirez himself walks around with confidence and always with a smile on his face. He’s enjoying his new life as a first baseman.

“I’m very excited about this,” he said. “I’m really enjoying it.”

We will all remember those words.

Ramirez has matured.

We wonder if we’re right to buy into it.


Follow Nick Cafardo on Twitter at @nickcafardo.