Future is bright for Hanley Ramirez: But will his arrival be in Boston?
SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic -- His hair is Manny-style, and his bedroom here is a shrine to the Red Sox left fielder, who gave him bats, spikes, a No. 24 wristband, and hugs.
He's handsome, wears diamond studs, and has a smile that lights up a dingy ballpark. Especially now. Shortstop Hanley Ramirez -- Boston's brightest prospect -- has a 2-month-old son, born while the Sox were marching toward a world championship.
But with the apparent signing of All-Star shortstop Edgar Renteria to a four-year deal with an option for a fifth year, Ramirez's future with the Red Sox becomes clouded. His shortstop reservation at Fenway in 2006 has just been canceled.
Before the Sox acquired the two-time Gold Glover, Ramirez said he was willing to move to second or third base, but would prefer to remain at short. He also understands he could be playing elsewhere.
"You never know; they could trade me," he said yesterday. "I just want to go to training camp and be on the team."
Asked if he was hurt by the signing, Ramirez said, "Of course I am hurt that I did not get the position I was expecting to fill. But I will play wherever they want me to and, for that matter, with whatever team wants me. I just like to play ball."
Did anybody from the Red Sox contact him?
"They haven't talked to me," Ramirez said.
According to Ben Cherington, the Sox' director of player development, the Renteria deal won't necessitate a position switch for Ramirez.
"Hanley is someone we like a lot and that hasn't changed in the last three days," said Cherington. "He's a shortstop and he's going to stay a shortstop. We believe he's going to be a good major league shortstop."
When he signed with the Red Sox in 2000 at age 16, Ramirez was a just a naive kid from the sun-drenched Dominican Republic who loved to play.
"I didn't know you got paid to play baseball," said Ramirez, sitting in the dugout before a recent Dominican Winter League game with his team, the Licey Tigers. A career .314 minor league hitter, Ramirez has been described as a five-tool shortstop. A can't-miss player.
The Red Sox placed him on the 40-man roster, which gets him an invitation to spring training with the big boys.
Last week, Sox owner John W. Henry and team president Larry Lucchino let him hold the World Series trophy at the Red Sox Academy in El Toro, 45 minutes outside the Dominican capital. "Get ready," Henry told him.
"I'm excited being on the 40-man roster, my whole family is excited," said Ramirez, who turns 21 Thursday. "I feel happy. I'm a young kid getting an opportunity to be in the league. My goal is to play hard and do everything the right way. I want to play with Manny and [David] Ortiz."
Ramirez told Henry he expects to be at Triple A Pawtucket for the 2005 season. Sox officials say his performance at spring training will determine whether he begins the year at Pawtucket or Double A Portland. Ramirez is widely expected to be ready to play in Boston -- or somewhere -- by 2006.
Despite missing several games already with a lower back sprain, Ramirez is batting .257 and has five home runs and 16 RBIs in 28 games. He's among the league leaders in homers, runs, extra-base hits, and slugging percentage. He finished the 2004 season batting .310 for Portland after playing most of the season at Single A Sarasota. "I've been working on my swing," he said. "The last home runs I have hit have been line drives. Maybe it's because I haven't put the pressure on myself to hit them. So I'm more relaxed and not worrying about them."
Ramirez has already checked out Fenway Park several times.
"I saw Fenway for the first time in 2001 when I was named the [Red Sox minor league] player of the year," he said. "I thought I'd want to stay there and play there."
Jose Offerman was the Red Sox' starting second baseman then, now he's a teammate with Licey. Offerman knows all too well the pressure of playing in Boston and the media attention. He thinks Ramirez can handle it.
"He's got a good idea about playing under pressure because there's a lot of pressure playing over here," Offerman said. "He's one of the future stars of Boston. He's got the tools. All he's got to do is put his mind on the game."
That hasn't always been easy. Ramirez has a dark side, too, but it's fading. He has been in trouble twice with the Red Sox organization for his temper and is still said to be immature.
In October 2002, while playing in the Instructional League, he swore at an assistant trainer and was sent home to the Dominican Republic for the equivalent of an international timeout. "It was the worst day of my life," he said.
In May 2003, while playing for Single A Augusta, he received a 10-day suspension for making an inappropriate gesture toward his own dugout.
His current manager, Manny Acta, former third base coach for the Montreal Expos, said that before the winter season started, he was concerned about Ramirez.
"I wondered about him, but he's been nothing but pleasant," said Acta, who will coach third base for the Mets next season. "I think he's gotten the message."
Ramirez reluctantly talks about the incident in Georgia. "I was accused of something I did not do, and later on they found out the truth about that issue and realized I was innocent," he said. "That day I was just mad that for a while some people were thinking something about me that was not true. I reacted that way. I was so angry. I learned from that a lot. That's never going to happen again."
Still, his manager thinks Ramirez is not quite ready for The Show.
"I think he's two years away," said Acta. "He needs to be a little more consistent on defense and improve on the mental aspects of the game. A little more mature. He's a hard worker, eager to learn. He has power to all fields. He's a strong kid, a 20-plus-homer guy in the big leagues, for sure. He's as advertised. He's going to be good."
Ramirez, who enjoys reading, has taken solace in serious literature. The last book he read, "Life Is A Dream," is a 17th-century Spanish classic play by Pedro Calderon de la Barca. It is a philosophical tale that teaches about separating dreams from reality and making the most of second chances.
"It talks about how you have to fight to survive and get what you want in life," said Ramirez.
Cherington said Ramirez has grown up.
"He's really matured a lot," Cherington said. "His behavior is no concern at all, he's always been a hard worker once he gets on the field. He just needs to prepare himself better mentally. If you're going to play in Boston, you have to learn to deal with the attention."
Cherington said Ramirez isn't a Manny clone -- he even promised to get his hair cut before he reports for spring training.
He will be a future multimillionaire, but he said he doesn't think about money. "You can't get that in your mind right now," he said. "If I sign, I'll buy another house and bring my whole family to the States."
Will money change him?
"No," he insisted. "I want to be the same thing now as in the future. I want to be the same for the rest of my life."
An MVP assessment
He started playing baseball when he was 4 in the Dominican village of Samana. He said his family was not poor. ("I always had a ball, bat, and glove," he said.) His mother got him a glove and went to every one of his games. He has two half-sisters and one half-brother. Ramirez, the son of a mechanic, said he graduated from high school and was planning to enter college to study medicine when he got the call from the Red Sox in 2000.
"Yes, I would like someday to do that career because I really like to help little kids," he said.
The Red Sox got him as an undrafted free agent for the bargain-basement price of $20,000. "The best day of my life was the day I signed with the Red Sox because it was the team I always dreamed of playing with," Ramirez said. "I saw that check and gave it to my mother and she bought a house."
Ramirez admires the Orioles' Miguel Tejada, the 2002 American League most valuable player, more than any other shortstop. "He plays with the heart and for the whole team, not just himself," Ramirez said. He flexes his blue-colored glove, an Orlando Cabrera model. "Cabrera himself gave me this glove," said Ramirez, who has made strides defensively. "One day he just asked me if I needed one and he just gave it to me. I'd rather make a great defensive play than a big hit."The amazing thing about the Dominican Winter League is the camaraderie, and the nurturing by the Dominican players. Vladimir Guerrero, the 2004 AL MVP, shows up at batting practice. He says he will play part of the season with Licey because, "I want the little kids in this country to see me play."
Guerrero said he likes what he's seen of Ramirez.
"He has the skills to be a great shortstop," he said. "I hope God gives him health."
Labeled for greatness
Ramirez knows the "top prospect" tag isn't a guarantee of success.
As rated by Baseball America, righthander Seung Song was the Sox' top prospect in 2002. That year, he was dealt to Montreal as part of a trade for outfielder Cliff Floyd. Song had a mediocre 2004 season in Triple A Edmonton, was rocked in the Arizona Fall League, and finally was claimed off waivers by Toronto last month.
Outfielder Dernell Stenson earned the distinction in 2001. Stenson, who had been claimed off waivers by the Cincinnati Reds, was murdered in Arizona while playing for the Scottsdale Scorpions Nov. 5, 2003. Police ruled the motive was robbery.
"You gotta have luck," said Elvio Jimenez, holding court in a box seat at Quisqueya Stadium before a Licey game. Jimenez, now a scout for the Red Sox, was a legendary Dominican outfielder signed by the New York Yankees in 1959.
His No. 11 is retired and hangs in the rafters here. He likes to tell people he led the 1964 Yankees in batting average. "Look it up," he said.
It's true. He batted .333 (2 for 6) Oct. 4, 1964, in his only major league game. Then Elvio left the building and never made it back to Yankee Stadium.
He said Ramirez is very talented. "Hanley's got a great chance, but in baseball a lot of things happen," he said. "You never know about the future."
Meanwhile, Ramirez sits in the bullpen and grudgingly consents to another interview.
"Everybody wants to make it to the big leagues but not everyone can," he conceded. "I just like to play ball and would do it anywhere. I just don't like to talk much. I am a man of action. I love to play but don't really like to talk a whole lot."
He said the immaturity rap is old news.
"I'm a man right now," he said. "I worry about the future every day. That's why I'm working hard every day. I get up at 8 and go to the gym and work out. I do 80-90 situps a day. Then I go to my house and get something to eat. I shower and come to the ballpark at 12 o'clock for a night game. I don't feel pressure. I just play the way I know how to. It's the same game I've always played.
"It's my life. Baseball is my life."
Correspondent Eric Taveras contributed to this report from Santo Domingo.