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For now, Manny is a Ray of sunshine

New Rays DH Manny Ramirez vows to play with “a chip on my shoulder,’’ which could very well work to Tampa’s advantage. New Rays DH Manny Ramirez vows to play with “a chip on my shoulder,’’ which could very well work to Tampa’s advantage. (J. Meric/Getty Images)
By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / February 18, 2011

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FORT MYERS, Fla. — We can only assume Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon will grow to be amused, if not bemused, by Manny Ramirez. Put it this way: He’ll surely collect his personal stash of Manny moments in the next few months.

The old Manny stories have already made their way through Rays camp. And if the new ones are the funny kind, not the bad kind, Maddon will survive this.

To his credit, the former Red Sox slugger, who last month signed a one-year deal with the Rays for $2 million, showed up five days ahead of positional players and worked out at the Port Charlotte camp yesterday before addressing the media.

He told Tampa Bay reporters he was going to play with “a chip on my shoulder’’ in 2011 as he tries to regain the greatness he exhibited as a hitter throughout his career.

Maddon’s interpretation: “It means it could be a very exciting year for the Rays. I don’t really know him that well. I just see, for me, a guy that is focused, that is driven right now.

“And I love the idea that he feels as though he needs to go out there, wants to go out there, and prove something. It’s going to benefit him and us.’’

As someone who has seen plenty of Manny moments, he managed to add another to my personal list last summer when he sat glued to a TV set before his Dodgers were to play the Red Sox.

It was Day 50 or so of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. There had been saturation coverage of the story, yet it was news to Manny, who turned to teammate Reed Johnson and said, “What’s going on here?’’ Johnson patiently explained the situation, but Ramirez seemed puzzled by the gushing oil and the fact that it couldn’t be stopped.

Maddon likely doesn’t care whether Manny is up on current events, as long as he’s hitting cleanup and looking like the old Manny Ramirez and not the one whose career tumbled since he tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs and served a 50-game suspension to start the 2009 season with the Dodgers.

“The only expectation is to become absorbent into our program and to play the game the way we play the game here, that’s it,’’ Maddon said. “And we’ve talked about that already.

“Whatever he hits, how many home runs he hits, how many runs he drives in, that’s going to take care of itself. For me, we’ve pretty much built a method or way of doing things here, and I want to be able to continue along those lines.’’

Ramirez didn’t really explain why he has that “chip,’’ saying, “I don’t know, that’s just me. That’s just me. I want to go and get that feel back that I’ve still got it.

“I think every year you have to go out there and have something to prove because you like to compete. I think every player during the offseason prepares just to have a great season. We love to compete.’’

Ramirez will likely hit fourth or fifth in the revamped Rays order, protecting Evan Longoria. The Rays suffered tough losses to their offense in the offseason, with Carl Crawford escaping to Boston and Carlos Pena to the Cubs.

Ramirez’s former Sox teammate, Johnny Damon, will replace Crawford in left field. Not exactly an even swap, but not a huge letdown for the Rays, either. And Ramirez could be an upgrade over Pena, who hit below .200 last season.

Maddon thinks Ramirez has a lot left.

“Over the last two or three years, the highest OPS belongs to [Albert] Pujols,’’ said the manager. “I think the second-highest belongs to Manny. If you look at last season, he got hurt. Part of last season was being hurt, and when he went to the White Sox, apparently that did not work out well.’’

Maddon also said that having Ramirez DH is a way to protect his legs. Ramirez worked out at Athletes Performance Institute over the winter and lost some weight.

“Last year, not looking for an excuse, I got hurt, like, maybe three times in the season,’’ said Ramirez, “so I think I was a little bit heavy. So I said maybe I put my weight down to see how I feel. I feel much better. I can move much better. I was 237, now I’m 225. I feel good.’’

Ramirez at least came to camp in what seems to be the right frame of mind.

“I just want to stay healthy, that’s my main course,’’ he said. “If I do that, I think everything is going to take care of itself.’’

“He makes a difference,’’ said Maddon. “In Boston, he was with a great group also, and I think that helped him. He helped other guys and they helped him also, having Papi [David Ortiz] there.

“He looks in shape to me, he looks motivated to me. Adjusting to the DH is something to be considered. Maybe the way we’re going to use him regarding days off, that may be helpful, too. I don’t want to run him into the ground.’’

Ramirez said he got a pep talk from Ortiz a couple of weeks ago.

“He was excited I had a job,’’ said Ramirez, “and we’re talking about ‘keeping your head up, you’ve still got it.’ ’’

That certainly remains to be seen.

“For me, it’s kind of a fun challenge to make this whole thing work,’’ Maddon said. “And it does work both ways. We’re going to have to communicate. He and I are going to have to communicate a lot and make sure that everybody is on the same page about things.

“I’m really eager to work with this guy. I really am. I’m going into it with a real positive mental outlook and I really believe it’s going to work.’’

Ramirez starts the season ninth all time in OPS (.998), 14th in homers (555), 18th in RBIs (1,830), and with a career .313 average. He has 2,573 hits, which is only two more than Damon.

Asked about the 600-homer milestone, he said, “I haven’t thought about it, but it don’t matter, man — 600, 500, 800.

“Because when you die, none of that matters. They could make you a statue or whatever, it don’t matter when you die. When you die, you can’t take them with you.’’

But the stories will live forever.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.

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