CLEVELAND — Manny Ramirez borrowed teammates’ underwear and socks. He used their bats. Once, he knowingly used a broken bat, splintered long before he strolled to the plate, and hit a home run.
Those around him in the clubhouse or dugout every day never bothered to study his behavior. They didn’t know if they should be laughing with him or at him. It was just Manny being Manny.
“I want to ask you something about that,” Ramirez said Saturday afternoon in the interview room at Progressive Field. “What does that mean?”
The phrase gained popularity as Ramirez’s career evolved. It came to be because he said things no one else would say, like when he thought teammate Chad Ogea was riding in the infamous white Bronco in 1994, not O.J. Simpson. It came to be because he did things no one else would do, like wearing the bullpen catcher’s pants — five sizes too big — during batting practice, fastening them with a belt at his chest.
At least in Cleveland, Ramirez says he was simply young and goofy. Take, for instance, the time he and pitcher Julian Tavarez asked a couple of reporters for $30,000 so they could buy new Harley Davidson motorcycles.
“What did we need a motorcycle (for)?” Ramirez said. “I didn’t even know how to drive.”
Fair enough, though manager Mike Hargrove said that day Ramirez had already asked general manager John Hart for an advance on his salary.
What about the time Ramirez played left field for the Boston Red Sox and high-fived a fan in the stands in Baltimore after running down a fly ball?
“I planned that before that happened,” he said. “I’m thinking like nobody else. I’m one step ahead of everybody.”
He also swung the bat like nobody else, with his slightly hunched-over stance, the bat loaded above his right shoulder and then uncorked at the speed of light. That stroke produced 236 home runs in Cleveland, the third-highest total in the franchise’s history.
Evolution of ‘Manny being Manny’: Borrowed underwear, uncashed paychecks, carefree confidence for a ‘hitting savant’
The Guardians inducted Ramirez — along with outfielder Dale Mitchell, a 1948 champion and a .312 hitter in 11 seasons in Cleveland — into their Hall of Fame on Saturday. Ramirez said he enjoyed returning to “the house that I built, The Jake,” before acknowledging the team replaced the original Jacobs Field name 15 years ago.
Ramirez, looking as slim as he did when he debuted as a 21-year-old three decades ago, sported pitch-black Dolce & Gabbana sunglasses to match his tie as he reminisced about his Cleveland career.
He said his favorite memory from his eight-year tenure was his final at-bat, a home run to center off Toronto Blue Jays reliever John Frascatore, with every being in the ballpark on their feet, pleading with the slugger to stay in Cleveland. He wound up leaving that winter for the Red Sox, a decision that pained him. As he waited to speak with reporters Saturday, Ramirez hopped off a golf cart to catch up with Frank Mancini, a longtime clubhouse attendant whom he (unsuccessfully) begged to accompany him to Boston so he’d have some sense of comfort in his new surroundings.
Ramirez won a pair of titles in Boston, with Terry Francona steering the ship. He captured World Series MVP honors in 2004. He didn’t win a ring in Cleveland, despite five division titles and a couple of trips to the Fall Classic.
“I think we should have won it,” he said, “but we had no pitching.”
Dennis Martinez, who reconnected with Ramirez over the weekend, might disagree, as he anchored a staff that led the AL in ERA in 1995. There’s no debate, however, that Cleveland employed one powerhouse lineup after another in the ’90s.
Cleveland drafted Ramirez in 1991, thanks in part to a last-minute scouting visit from Hart and Mickey White. Ramirez turned heads immediately, spraying doubles and home runs across the field during a batting practice session at Baldwin-Wallace College.
His first big-league hit served as the perfect foreshadowing for a career marked by pulverizing pitchers and prompting laughter. He thought he hit a home run at Yankee Stadium in front of about 100 friends and family members. He didn’t realize the ball one-hopped the left-field fence for a ground-rule double. So, he trotted around first … and around second, until he looked up, nearly 270 feet into his leisurely jog, to see a dugout full of players convulsing with laughter.
In those early days, Ramirez batted seventh or eighth, often joining Jim Thome and Sandy Alomar Jr. at the bottom of Hargrove’s loaded lineups. Ramirez said he appreciated the placement, as it allowed him to avoid overloading himself with pressure. He could instead study how Albert Belle and Carlos Baerga operated.
Before long, Ramirez was a cornerstone in the middle of the order, the unflappable slugger no pitcher wanted to duel.
“I’m ready to play,” the 51-year-old said. “Just put me in the lineup.”
Ramirez finished his career with 555 home runs. He recorded a slash line of .312/.411/.585. He stood out in an era in which everyone seemed to produce gaudy numbers, and he stood out in the era that followed. But a couple of failed PED tests late in his career prevented him from reaching Cooperstown, though he says that decision isn’t final.
“It’s going to happen with time,” he said. “But I’m not in a rush.”
Everyone has a Ramirez story, or 12. And everyone who supplies one can’t share a laugh without also marveling at his hitting prowess. The phrase “hitting savant” is thrown around with regularity. In Game 2 of the 2007 ALDS, as the Red Sox mounted a ninth-inning rally, Ramirez grabbed a bat and headed for the on-deck circle. Before he exited the dugout, he turned toward Francona and said, “It’s time to go home.” Ramirez then blasted a walk-off homer against Angels closer Francisco Rodriguez.
“I wasn’t looking to be the best right-handed hitter ever,” Ramirez said. “I was just playing and competing and knowing that if I fell, I could get up.”
Teammates and coaches vouch for his work ethic, too, and for the puddles of sweat that pooled at his feet during morning batting practice sessions. Ramirez simply loved to hit, and he still does.
“You could be a natural,” he said, “but if you don’t work, you’re not going to go to the next level.”
He played into his 40s, spending parts of three seasons in the minors with the Oakland Athletics, Texas Rangers and Chicago Cubs, plus stints in China and the Dominican winter league.
For his next stop? He says he’s planning to play in Prague next season.
He threw out a ceremonial first pitch there and took batting practice, and representatives asked if he would log some at-bats.
As has always been the case, and as he said, Ramirez is like nobody else.
As he exited the interview room Saturday, he turned back toward his audience and shrugged his shoulders.
“Manny being Manny,” he said as he walked away.
(Top photo: David Richard / USA Today)