Positive outlook carries Manny in comeback attempt
Confident in skills, slugger on best behavior with Rangers' Triple-A club
Special to MLB.com
ROUND ROCK, Texas -- Forget the haircut, the agreement to wear better-fitting baseball pants, the pact to hustle on groundouts. Perhaps the best example of Manny Ramirez's willingness to make his audition with the Texas Rangers work came a couple hours before Triple-A Round Rock's game against the Omaha Storm Chasers on Friday.
Ramirez, who also met with the media Thursday, had finished an informal availability session with a few reporters before a late-arriving cameraman asked for a few minutes of his time. Ramirez obliged. After a few questions in, he looked over his left shoulder, where his new teammates were beginning to warm up in left field, and excused himself to join in on the stretching and calisthenics he might have skipped out on a few years ago.
In what might be his final shot to play in the Majors, the 41-year-old slugger with 555 homers knows he can't miss a beat. For someone who's famously marched to his own drummer, it's a chance to script a better ending to his career. After all, the last time Ramirez played in the Majors was 2011, when he went 1-for-17 with Tampa Bay before retiring rather than serving or appealing a 100-game suspension after failing a drug test.
He started last season in the A's organization with Triple-A Sacramento, but he requested his release on June 15. Ramirez served a 50-game suspension for violating MLB's drug policy during his time in the Minors, and he would be cleared to play if the Rangers called him up.
"I never thought I was finished," said Ramirez, who left the EDA Rhinos of the Chinese Professional Baseball League in Taiwan on June 19 after hitting .352 (64-for-182) with eight home runs and 43 RBIs in 49 games. "I get my expectations high and think positive."
Ramirez says his debut with the Express will come Sunday as the DH, a couple days after he arrived in Round Rock (he's been stateside two weeks and in Central Texas for one day). In 42 cuts during Friday's live batting-practice session, Ramirez started slow while trying to go opposite field, squirting weak grounders right back to the mound and to first base. Once Ramirez began pulling the ball, the results improved, with two homers among his final swings.
"I feel good and I'm ready to go," he said. "I'm expecting to stay back [at the plate], use my hands and do what I always do -- stretch, run and get ready for the game. [My hands] are still quick. I've still got it."
The Rangers are taking a risk-free flyer on Ramirez, and it's certainly no guarantee he'll advance to the Majors.
"We'll evaluate him as we go," Texas general manager Jon Daniels said. "No deadlines, no end dates. If he's productive and we feel he fits our culture in the clubhouse, then we'll give him an opportunity. If either of those ends don't pan out, then no harm, no foul."
Already Ramirez has made an impression in Round Rock, where team staffers say he's been a good sport with the dog-and-pony media shows and where teammates say he's seamlessly assimilated into the clubhouse culture.
"He's a nice guy, a very nice guy," Express outfielder Jared Hoying said. "I'm impressed with him. He's a businessman who goes about his business."
While waiting his turn in batting practice, Ramirez offered pointers to infielder Yangervis Solarte, dealing specifically with Solarte's grip. The results were Manny-esque. A few swings into Solarte's next turn, he crushed a home run that bounced into the left-field bleachers.
"They're learning from me and I'm learning from them," Ramirez said. "That's the cool thing about the game. You can learn anything from anybody."
If Ramirez does resume some of his old form, his bat could help the Rangers, who are starved for some right-handed help.
Ramirez has a career .305 average against righties and hit .307 against them in 2010, his last full season. Of Texas' active right-handed and switch-hitting batters, the best production comes from Adrian Beltre, who's hitting .304 against righties and lefties. Switch-hitting designated hitter Lance Berkman has been underwhelming against both righties and lefties -- .257 and .269, respectively.
The Rangers have gotten steady contributions from the designated hitter spot this season (fourth in the American League with a .343 on-base percentage) but very little pop -- the eight homers are tied for 12th in the AL, the 12 doubles are 12th and the slugging percentage of .385 is 11th.
Ramirez says he's not thinking about how he could fit in the Rangers' lineup. He says he's not even thinking about the Rangers, just focused on helping the Express. The old "one day at a time" adage comes up a few times. Ramirez insists he's immune to the notion that this random sojourn -- "random" being Hoying's adjective -- in Round Rock could represent his last chance at the Majors.
"I never think this is going to be my last shot," Ramirez said. "I like to enjoy it, go have fun and let the moment take care of itself ... Why not keep going?"