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'You couldn't wait for Manny to come to the plate'

Ramírez in '99 still astonishing

CLEVELAND -- There aren't many people left in the Indians' organization who witnessed it, but bullpen coach Luis Isaac was there all the way.

It was one of the most remarkable seasons from a righthanded hitter: Manny Ramírez, 1999.

The Red Sox left fielder was then the Indians' right fielder. He mainly batted fourth in the talented Cleveland lineup and had 100 RBIs by July 23 -- the 93d game -- when he drove in three against Houston in a 7-1 Indians victory.

Many are making much of Alex Rodriguez's 100 RBIs with the Yankees this year -- as they should because 100 RBIs before the end of July is the stuff of legend.

But Ramírez really had it going that summer. Ramírez finished July with 108 RBIs and completed the season with 165 RBIs, as well as 131 runs, 44 home runs, and a .333 average.

Isaac remembers a hitter that came up to the plate with runners on base with a unique focus.

"I'm not saying that Manny didn't try when he didn't have runners on, but on that team we had a lot of good hitters -- like Robbie Alomar and Omar Vizquel and Jim Thome, David Justice -- and Manny always came up with people on base. It was like Manny felt he could deliver the run home any time he wanted to. It was amazing to watch. At the end of the season, you look and he has 165 RBIs and you just shake your head because that's so many."

Isaac said he and Ramirez had a father-son relationship. Often times Isaac would spend time speaking to Ramírez about playing the game properly, running hard down the line and not jogging after balls.

"Not too often really, but once in a while Manny had to be reminded. But he was a good kid who really loved to hit and you could just see he had a remarkable talent for it," Isaac said. "He understood what the pitcher was trying to do with him. I know that's continued over the years. I mean, I don't follow him like I used to since he left here [after the 2000 season], but I keep in touch with him. He's a friend and he'll always be a friend.

"It was sad when he didn't come back here because everyone knew what a great talent he was. You don't see that come by very often, but that year was special. Every time you had a guy on, you expected Manny to drive him in."

When Isaac speaks of Ramírez's proficiency with runners on base, he wasn't kidding. Ramírez hit .383 with runners in scoring position with a .481 on-base percentage and a .755 slugging percentage for a 1.236 OPS. With men on base, Ramírez raked at a .377 clip with 26 homers and 147 RBIs. With two outs and runners in scoring position, he hit .375. Overall, in 147 games, he had a .442 on-base percentage and a .663 slugging percentage.

Ramírez hit mostly cleanup, with Kenny Lofton, Vizquel, and Alomar hitting ahead of him, and Thome, Justice, a young Richie Sexson and Travis Fryman following.

"We had some incredible lineups," Isaac said. "Manny had great years in that time. They were his prime years. I think he was 27 years old then. He was a strong hitter. The amazing thing about him is that he hit the ball better on the road than he did in our home park."

Ramírez hit .354 on the road with 23 of his 44 homers and 92 of his 165 RBIs coming away from Jacobs Field.

"I would say it's the best year I've seen here," Isaac said. "Juan Gonzalez was the other one when he drove in 140 runs in 2001 here. That was amazing, too. I think it was one of the last good years Juan had, but what a show he put on."

Ramírez would not be interviewed for the story, but he hasn't granted midseason interviews for more than two years. You can tell he enjoys returning to Cleveland. He has a smile on his face and those who remain from the years he spent here are always eager to see him.

Ramírez certainly had his quirky times in Cleveland. Jim Ingraham of the News-Herald remembers in '99 when Ramírez hit a home run with a broken bat.

"We asked him about it afterward," Ingraham said, "did he know he was swinging a broken bat? He just said 'Yeah, I knew it was broken before I went up. I just liked that bat.' "

Ingraham also makes the point that in 1995 Ramírez and Thome, two future Hall of Famers, hit sixth and seventh in the Indians lineup.

He had an extraordinary game Sept. 24 at Skydome in Toronto when he went 3 for 4 with two homers and eight RBIs. It was the same game in which Dave Roberts came in to spell Lofton in center field and knocked in four runs.

"I've been around him for a long time, including 2004 with Boston, but that year in '99, man oh man. You couldn't wait for Manny to come to the plate," Roberts said recently. "It was such a great team because Robbie had a great year and he was getting on base a lot in front of Manny and . . . before you knew it, there'd be a run or two runs home.

"[Ramírez] had to be the most feared hitter in the league that year. I know he finished third in the MVP voting [tied with Alomar, behind winner Pudge Rodriguez of the Rangers and the Red Sox' Pedro Martiñez], but he was our MVP. The big hits just came and came and came."

Ramírez did it in '99 in the same manner he's always done it. With nary a care in the world.

"Always joking and laughing," Isaac recalled. "Manny never had a bad day. Pressure never got to him. He's always been very loose, especially when he hits. No worries. I think that's what has made him the great player he is. You could tell when he was young he was going to be great and he went out and did it."

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com.

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