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ON BASEBALL

For slugger, there is safety in the numbers

SEATTLE -- They were standing around the batting cage in Yankee Stadium one day when Manny Ramirez, then a rookie with the Cleveland Indians, sidled up to manager Mike Hargrove.

''He asked me if he could borrow $35,000," Hargrove, now managing the Seattle Mariners, recalled yesterday. ''I said, 'What for?' He said, 'I want to buy a motorcycle.' Just busted my chops.

''Tell Manny he can go and buy that motorcycle now. He doesn't have to borrow money from me."

Ramirez smiled when the story was related to him. ''I'm going to buy a big Harley," he said, ''just like the one [Kevin] Millar has."

Hargrove didn't know until after the fact that Ramirez's three-run home run in the fifth inning yesterday was the 400th of his career, a number achieved only 39 times in big league history, and only the fifth time by a player in a Red Sox uniform.

''But I remember a lot of them," Hargrove said after daring Ramirez to beat him in the ninth inning yesterday, a gamble he won when lefthanded closer Eddie Guardado induced Ramirez to line out to Ichiro Suzuki in right field for the final out of Seattle's 5-4 win over the Sox.

''I remember one he hit off [Dennis] Eckersley, it was either in '94 or '95, with two outs in extra innings. He fouled off five or six pitches, then hit one about 400 miles.

''We were trying to establish the fact that we could play, and his home runs went a long way toward establishing it."

That home run, in the 12th inning at Jacobs Field July 16, 1995, came the first time Eckersley ever faced Ramirez. Manny also homered off Eckersley in the last game the Hall of Famer ever pitched, Game 3 of the 1999 playoffs in Fenway Park. On both occasions, the Eck, now in the Hall of Fame, could be seen mouthing the word, ''Wow."

''Manny's amazing," Hargrove said. ''The thing of it is, he's a good guy to go along with it. He's got his quirks, just like everybody else, but Manny can make you look awfully smart as a manager."

Ramirez, who broke in with the Indians in 1993 and became a regular as a rookie a year later, has a lifetime average of .314 to go along with his 400 home runs and 1,304 RBIs. There are only five players in baseball history who have 400 or more home runs and 1,300 or more RBIs, with a higher lifetime batting average than Ramirez: Ted Williams (.344), Babe Ruth (.342), Lou Gehrig (.340), Stan Musial (.331), and Jimmie Foxx (.325). They're all in the Hall of Fame; Foxx is the only righthanded hitter on that list.

Ramirez's average is higher than sluggers Frank Thomas, Hank Aaron, and Willie Mays, in that order. Barry Bonds? He's at an even .300.

''I think he'll keep playing," Hargrove said, dismissing out-of-hand Ramirez's talk of wanting to retire after the 2008 season.

''But if he doesn't, I think he's a Hall of Famer," said the man who managed Ramirez for all but his last season (2000) in Cleveland. ''Maybe he's not a first ballot, but you look at the numbers he's put up year after year, and the clubs he's been with, prominent clubs, and he's played in three World Series and won one. And he's hit in the middle of the order for both of his clubs."

Ramirez, who contrary to his expressed preference, was flip-flopped with David Ortiz to cleanup in the Sox order, hit mostly cleanup for Hargrove and the Indians, especially after Albert Belle left as a free agent for the White Sox.

''I looked at an old lineup card in 1995, and I had Jim Thome hitting seventh and Manny hitting eighth, or maybe it was Manny hitting seventh and Jimmy eighth," Hargrove said of two sluggers who are now both in the 400-homer club. ''After Albert left and went to Chicago, I went to Manny and said, 'How do you feel about hitting fourth?'

''He said, 'I don't want to hit there.' I said, 'Well, I think you'll be a good hitter. This lineup, you won't have to take everybody on your shoulders.' It was a lot like Boston's lineup now.

''I said, 'Do me a favor, try it for a while and let's see how it works.' And he hit very well."

Hargrove, who used Ramirez in right field, said he's a better fielder than he's given credit for.

''I've always thought Manny got a bad rap as a fielder," he said. ''He played right field for me, he caught a ball with his legs crossed over. Somebody said, 'Jiminy Christmas.'

''I said, 'Do you realize how good his hands are? He's got great hands. How many people do you know who could have their legs crossed and still catch a ball?'

''Manny made two plays here, that ball he caught in the gap [Saturday,] [a liner by Randy Winn] and the ball [Jeremy] Reed hit [yesterday] in the gap. Baseball, it's really easy to get a tag. Two days to get a tag, 10 years to get rid of it. I've always thought Manny is a lot better fielder than his reputation."

Hargrove was managing in Baltimore when Ramirez first came to the Sox, and heard all the stories about how unhappy Ramirez was in Boston, how much he missed Cleveland. There was a lot of truth to those stories at the time.

''I talked to Manny here the other day," he said. ''He told me he likes it in Boston. Manny doesn't really like anyplace as much as where his family lives, down in Fort Lauderdale."

Hargrove was asked whether Ramirez, who recently said his mother was ailing, had mentioned his mother. ''No, he just told me about his house he bought for [his parents] down there.

''Why?" he asked, deadpan. ''Is she sick or something?"

He rolled his eyes at recent reports that Ramirez has appeared disinterested on the job.

''Manny plays like it's a picnic," Hargrove said. ''He's always been that way.

''Tell him I said, 'Congratulations.' You say he's building a house in Brazil? I know he married a gal from there. Tell him he can ride his motorcycle in Brazil."


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