In his right hand Ramirez carried a black bat, the tool he harnessed like few right-handed hitters in baseball history. He led Jorge Soler, a 23-year-old prodigy from Cuba, through the outfield grass, toward the batting cage under the left field bleachers. Ramirez pointed at the giant scoreboards with the knob of the bat. Before they vanished through the ivy, Ramirez handed it to Soler.
A stroll through the Chicago Cubs’ clubhouse or a glance at their pregame dugout provokes a double take. Is that really Manny Ramirez? Yes, it’s him, the once-banished, rarely understood, never-dull man-child known during his 19-year career for both genius and infamy. He terrorized pitchers, thrilled fans, enraged managers and confounded teammates. He mashed 555 home runs retired with a .996 OPS, fourth-highest ever for a right-handed batter. Major League Baseball suspended him for using performance-enhancing drugs in 2009 and would have done so again in 2011 if he hadn’t semi-retired first. He once dived to cut off a throw from the outfield after it had traveled about 20 feet. He now provides hitting instruction and general wisdom to a team headed to the National League Championship Series.
“It’s awesome, bro,” Ramirez said, sitting the home dugout at Wrigley Field. “It’s unbelievable now that I’m here. It’s crazy.”
Ramirez played his last big league game for the Tampa Bay Rays in 2011. He bounced around the minors with Oakland and Texas and played a stint for the EDA Rhinos in China. Ramirez joined the Cubs at the outset of 2014 as a player-coach at Class AAA Iowa. If Ramirez possesses an official title now, no one can ascertain it.
“I just know he’s Manny,” rookie slugger Kyle Schwarber said.
“Talk to [team president Theo Epstein] on that,” pitching coach Chris Bosio said.
“I just be myself,” Ramirez said.
The Cubs view Ramirez as equal parts sage, hitting instructor and life coach, particularly for the club’s stable of young Latin players. He has been especially crucial for Soler, who does not have access to his family and speaks little English. Players notice Ramirez roaming with the Latin contingent at the ballpark and away from it.
“Manny has done a wonderful job in the background,” Cubs Manager Joe Maddon said. “A lot of it has to do with our young Hispanic players. He does a great job with them. He does a great job in general, but I’ve always been a big believer in the Hispanic culture regarding having a coach specific to that group who they could really relate to. … I watch what he does. I don’t just stare him down, but I know what he’s doing all the time. And it’s been pretty special.”
Ramirez serves in part as an interpreter between Cubs hitting coach John Mallee and the team’s Latin players. Ramirez can chime in with his own advice, and he has the understanding of both language and hitting to translate Mallee’s message.
“Our hitting coach doesn’t speak Spanish,” Schwarber said. “How’s he going to try to get it across to Soler?”
Ramirez said he always believed he’d work in baseball once his playing career ended, which sounds either false or delusional. Yet baseball has welcomed back other admitted PED users. Mark McGwire is the Los Angeles Dodgers’ hitting coach, and Matt Williams managed the Washington Nationals for two seasons. Ramirez drew scorn for other antics. At the end in Boston, he made near-annual trade requests of Epstein, who finally dealt him in 2008 after teammates believed Ramirez faked a knee injury.
And so no baseball franchise appeared likely to ask Ramirez to mentor some their young hitters – especially one headed up by an executive who tolerated Manny being Manny for so many years.
“Theo would have been the last person you would have expected to give Manny a second chance,” one Cubs official said. “But he recognized a changed person.”
“I never thought I was going to get a chance from him,” Ramirez said. “Now, I’m here. We’re best buddies. We always talk about the game and the guys. That’s why I’m here.”
Ramirez contends that finding religion altered his life after his playing career, and that he has dedicated himself to passing wisdom to younger players. He remembers the effect players like Dave Winfield, Eddie Murray and Roberto Alomar had on him as a young player in Cleveland, and he wants to have the same effect. Ramirez uses his performance-enhancing drug use as a cautionary tale with his pupils. He does not like to address the ugliness at the end of his career publicly, at least not during the postseason.
“I look at things like, that’s in the past,” Ramirez said. “I’m not going to go back. I live in the moment. I’m here. I’m helping. We see the results that we’re having as a team. It makes me so happy when you’re working with the young guys and you see the success they’re having. That’s all you can take with you.”
Ramirez spends his time during games in the video room and clubhouse. Hitters wander down the tunnel, and he explains what he has gleaned from the game. “He tells me how the pitcher is going to pitch me,” second baseman Starlin Castro said. He reminds players to be patient, to make the pitcher come to them. He reinforces good hitting habits and reminds players to think about what worked during their best streaks.
“The game is still easy,” Ramirez said. “All you got to do is pay attention to the game, and the game will tell you what the pitcher is trying to do to you. By you just watching the game and watching what he likes to do, that’s all it is.
Even for all his goofball moments and malcontent proclivities as a player, no one questioned Ramirez’s dedication to craft. He is a savant who used to purposefully take foolish swings so the pitcher would throw him the same pitch later. He arrived at the ballpark at 10 a.m. to watch film and hone his heavenly swing on the day of a 7 p.m. game.
“He was a hitting machine, man,” Cubs catcher Miguel Montero said. “Sometimes, it sounds easy for him to tell you something. But it’s not as easy as it was for him. He gives you that confidence level. He’s amazing. Sometimes, that’s all you need.”
Ramirez operates with relentless positivity. Monday afternoon, the day of Game 3 of the NLDS, Ramirez told Anthony Rizzo over and over, “You’re going deep tonight.” Rizzo had started the postseason 0 for 10. In his third at-bat, Rizzo launched a fastball into the right field bleachers.
Players struggled to describe the precise effect Ramirez has on their clubhouse, but they agreed his aura adds levity and confidence. His message sinks in because of his stature. If Ramirez is telling them something, including how good they are, it must be true.
“He’s really good and positive, too,” Rizzo said. “Manny Ramirez is being positive to me. I grew up watching him do heroics year in, year out. For him to say something to me like that, it’s like, ‘Wow.’ ”
Schwarber first noticed Ramirez at spring training this season, and he had a double-take moment. “I’m like: ‘That’s Manny! That’s the guy who made Fenway look like Great American Ball Park for years,’ ” Schwarber said. “You get starstruck. Then you get to know him, and he’s just a regular dude.”