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BOB RYAN

King of swing

Mates, foes trumpet Ramirez's prowess

The guy was born to hit. "Some people are supposed to be born with a silver spoon in their mouths," says Red Sox batting coach Ron "Papa Jack" Jackson. "Manny was born with a silver bat in his."

Truth be told, 2003 was just an ordinary season for Manny Ramirez, who hit .325 with 37 home runs and 104 runs batted in. Well, there was that .587 slugging percentage. And the league-leading .427 on-base percentage. And the league-leading 28 intentional walks, a figure that no doubt would be higher if a certain righthanded reliever hadn't become a teammate.

"Manny Ramirez," says Todd Jones. "Now there's a guy who's never going to beat me. He's in that Barry Bonds category. If I'm facing Boston, I know where he is at all times. I walk Manny. I face anybody else in that lineup before I face Manny."

"He's a great hitter," confirms Tampa Bay manager Lou Piniella. "One of the top four or five hitters in baseball. Outside of the fact that he plays for the Red Sox, and we have to face him, he's a pleasure to watch."

Ramirez's 10-and-a-fraction-year resume has one word stamped across the top: Cooperstown. Since his getting-the-feet-wet rookie season in '94 (.269, 17 homers, 60 runs batted in), he has batted over .300 eight times (with a high of .351 in 2000), has hit 30 or more home runs eight times and has driven in 100-plus runs eight times. In one amazing two-year stretch (1999-2000) he drove in 287 runs in 265 games. If he hasn't quite maintained that heady ribbie pace the past three years, it may be because Jones isn't the only pitcher who has chosen some variation of the safety-first approach when it comes to pitching to Ramirez.

"People pitch to him carefully, there is no doubt," agrees Mike Timlin, another Red Sox reliever who has faced Ramirez. "He is such a good contact hitter, and he has power to all fields. He's just a tremendous hitter."

Because he is so, shall we say, loosey-goosey off the field, it is easy to assume he is strictly a natural and purely reactive hitter. Of course, he has enormous raw talent. At 6 feet and a solid 215 pounds or so, he is very strong, with well-developed forearms. He generates great bat speed and is capable of titanic home runs. But there is something else going on.

"He has a great work ethic, which is what people don't realize," says Jackson. "He works hard every day to stay on top of his game."

"He's like a PhD in the batter's box," says Jones. "He may be happy-go-lucky everywhere else, but not when he's in the box."

From a technical standpoint, Ramirez is a batting clinic.

"The balance, the set-up, the follow-through, it's all there," says Jackson.

"He stays back real well," adds Piniella, himself a fine hitter. "He doesn't jump at the ball, and he doesn't chase that many bad balls."

There may be a book on Ramirez, but it's one you easily could fit into your pocket.

"He is unpredictable as a hitter," Jones says. "It's very difficult to figure out a pattern to get him out."

What frightens pitchers more than anything is his plate coverage and willingness to take the ball the other way. At no time does Ramirez come up strictly looking to pull.

"When he was in Cleveland, I had him once on a 3-and-2 count," Timlin recalls. "I wasn't going to pitch him inside. I threw a very good fastball, letter-high, away, and he hit it out to the opposite field. I said, `You've got to be kidding me.' It's a definite problem for a pitcher. He can take any kind of pitch and hit it anywhere. You've really got to mix up your pitches."

Had Ramirez been a high school basketball or football player, you'd have heard of him a long time ago. But high school baseball players don't get the ink or electronic attention their basketball and football counterparts do. The simple fact is that this Dominican immigrant was one of the great high school baseball players ever. He was All-City three years running at George Washington High in Washington Heights (New York City), capping his career with a senior year in which he hit .615 while blasting 14 homers in 22 games. Those numbers, combined with his summer exploits, inspired the Indians to make him the 13th pick in the first round of the 1991 draft.

He was fortunate to break into the majors with an Indians team that needed him only to fit in. There were plenty of other guys to worry about before reaching Ramirez, hidden away in the seventh spot in the order. And in a clubhouse poisoned by the glowering presence of Albert Belle, Ramirez never really had to deal much with the media.

He's not talking these days, either, which doesn't bother anyone much because, unlike Pedro Martinez, he is not overburdened with baseball insights beyond his own particular area of expertise. Meanwhile, he is once again involved with a deep lineup in which he is not being asked to be Superman.

"He's hitting in a nice lineup," Piniella points out. "Both in Cleveland and Boston he's had some very good lineups around him."

Consider the entire package. First of all, he is a very strong man. Secondly, he really likes the act of hitting, and he wants to be as good as he can be. Now throw in the fact that he has a perfect at-bat to at-bat temperament in this most grinding of all daily sporting endeavors.

"He doesn't let anything bother him," says Jackson. "If he strikes out, he's the same. If he hits a home run, he's the same."

It is because he is such an essentially carefree person that he is so dangerous in clutch situations. Aside from the fact that he likes putting a charge into a baseball with a bat in his hands, no one is ever sure what really matters and doesn't matter to him at any given time. If ever there was someone who could go up to the plate and feel relaxed in the ninth inning of the seventh game of the World Series, it is Manny Ramirez.

For Todd Jones, and for many others, here is what it comes down to. "If you get Manny Ramirez out," declares the righthander, "you figure he did something wrong."

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