Red Sox see Hanley Ramirez as a new man
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It was early on a Sunday morning in April, the clubhouse at Fenway Park quiet before a day game. Suddenly Hanley Ramirez emerged from the showers wearing only gold briefs and skipped through the room like some mythological figure gone mad.
From his office in the corner, Red Sox manager John Farrell looked up and smiled. Teammates laughed.
"I'll tell you, we have a player I think is completely different than a year ago," Farrell said later in the day. "He's engaged. He's having fun playing the game."
In his second year with the Red Sox, the 32-year-old Ramirez has shown he's adept at playing first base and changing first impressions. A player considered an expensive problem last season is now a core member of a likable, winning team.
"I look at him now, and I see somebody who is a new person," said David Ortiz, Ramirez's closest confidant on the team. "Hanley looks around, and he knows what's important."
Ramirez has had an enviable career by any measure. There's a Rookie of the Year trophy at his home in Miami and memorabilia from three All-Star Games. He won a batting title when he was 25 and has played in13 postseason games.
His career earnings are approaching $100 million, and that does not include the $65 million he has remaining on his deal with the Sox.
It's not yet a Hall of Fame résumé, but it's one good enough to get on the ballot someday.
What Ramirez wants now is a better legacy — something people will remember instead of all the injuries, wasted potential, and impetuous comments and actions that dot his career timeline.
"I want to win," Ramirez said. "Really, that's it. If we win and people think I was a good teammate, I'll be happy. The momentum, the feeling, the atmosphere around the clubhouse is different. During the season this is my house, and I want to get the best I can out of it."
It sounds good, and the words are almost identical to what Ramirez said when he first signed with the Red Sox. But this time they've been backed by his deeds.
Ramirez, team staffers say, has been on time for all his commitments this season, from the training room to the field. It started in spring training when infield coach Brian Butterfield scheduled 8:30 a.m. sessions on a practice field to work with Ramirez at first base.
"Every day, he was ready for me," Butterfield said. "There was one day we both didn't realize there was a meeting he had to attend, but that was it."
Infielders trust him
Ramirez looked stiff in the early days of spring training but quickly regained the feel for playing the infield. Years as a shortstop made it easy for him to field ground balls, and his footwork around the base improved.
"You're more in the game in the infield, and that's better for me. I love it," Ramirez said.
Ramirez has yet to be charged with an error, and advanced metrics grade him as essentially neutral, which is far better than what was expected.
"He's done great," second baseman Dustin Pedroia said. "I don't know what else to say. He's done everything they asked of him. I trust him; I think we all do. He knows what he's doing out there."
Ramirez also followed through on the team's desire that he reshape his body over the winter and become more athletic. He dropped 15 pounds and became a quicker player with better agility.
Ramirez has stolen four bases in as many attempts, something the coaching staff has encouraged. But he also has twice been thrown out at second base trying to stretch a single. Other base-running mishaps resulted in needless outs at third and the plate.
"He's been aggressive on the basepaths," Farrell said. "There's been times when he's been pushing the envelope a little bit, maybe too much at times. But we'd rather have that than the other."
The third leg of Ramirez's makeover was changing his approach at the plate.
Ramirez swung at pitches too aggressively last season, determined to hit a home run every time. It was, he admits now, a reaction to being moved to the outfield.
"They wanted me to play left field at Fenway Park. That's always a place for power hitters," he said. "I was trying to do too much when I look back at it."
Every swing seemed to end with Ramirez trying to regain his balance as his batting helmet flew off his head. He rarely hit doubles — 12 in 401 at-bats — and strikeouts piled up.
It worked at first. Ramirez hit .283 with a .949 OPS in his first 24 games last season, connecting for 10 home runs and driving in 22 runs. Then he injured his left shoulder on May 4, crashing into a wall at Fenway chasing a fly ball down the line. He later strained his right shoulder.
Ramirez played only 80 games the rest of the season, hitting .239 in that span. He finished the year with a .291 on-base percentage, by far the lowest of his career.
Hitting coach Chili Davis worked with Ramirez on taking a more measured approach. It started with keeping both hands on the bat as he followed through to maintain better control and cut down on the stress on his shoulders.
Ramirez also went back to using the entire field instead of trying to pull every pitch. The result has been a .284 batting average and 17 RBIs in 29 games. His .748 OPS is up from .717 last season, and the Sox are confident it will continue to rise.
"He's always been a good hitter and a good player," president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski said. "For our ball club, he's a very important player. He's a threat in the middle of the order. Hanley will hit."
‘I care more’
Ramirez was one of several problems Dombrowski inherited when he joined the Red Sox last August. Within a few weeks, Dombrowski told the coaching staff that Ramirez wasn't viable in left field and needed to start working out at first base.
Ramirez had agreed to play left field in return for the Red Sox signing him to a four-year, $88 million deal before the 2015 season. He appeared committed to the idea in spring training but only rarely agreed to extra work once the season started. He proved to be one of the worst defensive outfielders in the game.
Ramirez went through half-speed drills at first base last season, enough for Dombrowski to commit to the idea that he could play there.
"I've seen a lot of guys go over there and not look comfortable," Dombrowski said. "But he looked comfortable to me off the bat. I couldn't guarantee it, but he looked more natural there than he ever looked in the outfield.
"My gut told me he could do it. You could tell he was willing to do it. He looked like he had the tools to do it."
Other changes are less noticeable in public but still important. Ramirez was reminded that he was one of the team's leaders and needed to take that role seriously. He also was encouraged to be more accountable to the media.
"We have a lot of young guys here who want to learn," Ramirez said. "You want to show them nothing else matters except to win. You want to come in here every day and be a good teammate."
A baseball team often has the same dynamics as an office or a classroom in that people will occasionally be in a bad mood. In the past, Ramirez would let everybody knows when he was.
Farrell has emphasized being the same person every day, and so far it has worked.
"If you do everything right, get here early and get your work done, it doesn't mean everything will go right on the field," Ramirez said. "Even if you personally fail, you have to care about the team.
"I feel I care more about the team this season. I don't pay attention to myself; I pay attention to what we can do to get better."
Ramirez is bound to stumble a time or two as the season goes on. But the Red Sox believe he's now part of their solution, not a problem.
"He's playing with some freedom, and it's showing up in his personality," Farrell said. "We see it. To Hanley's credit, whether it's a conscious effort to make a change, we've got a different player. He's in a good place."