Sports Outside the Beltway

How Manny became a Jedi

The ALCS will pit the Boston Red Sox against the Cleveland Indians for the honor of facing the National League Champion. Or Manny Ramirez’s current team vs. his first team.

Manny Ramirez, 16 years ago, was quite a sensation at the high school level (he played for George Washington High School in Washington Heights)and the New York Times gave him quite a bit of coverage as he was a highly regarded prospect. I suppose there was some hope he might get drafted by the Yankees and play just a few miles from his home.

Manny Ramirez, who plays center field and third base, batted .633 last season and is rated the best high school player in the city and one of the best in the country (he made USA Today’s top 25), will hit balls out of the park. He hit 16 homers last season.

His teammates say they admire Manny, the son of a cab driver, for not acting cocky. But he would like to be identified in the newspaper as the Hitman. The big-league scouts are following the Hitman; so is Washington Heights. Even the neighborhood’s greatest baseball success story — a Panamanian immigrant named Rod Carew who graduated from Washington in 1964 and was recently elected to the Hall of Fame — says he has heard of Manny Ramirez’s bat.

But the coverage continued even after he was drafted by Cleveland.

In many ways, Ramirez hasn’t left Washington Heights, the upper Manhattan neighborhood of Dominican immigrants where he rose from the Alexis Ferreira Little League to become a local hero as the star third baseman on the George Washington High School team. Last spring, with a .650 average and 14 home runs in 22 games, he was the best high school ballplayer in New York City.

Now, as the No. 1 draft pick of the Cleveland Indians, he has shown similar strengths in the Appalachian League. Batting third in the lineup, he leads the rookie league in home runs, with 14 in 49 games — including two grand slams in one week — and in runs batted in with 52.

But while the center fielder with the quicksilver swing feels at home within the confines of Burlington Athletic Stadium, the shy teen-ager from teeming, close-knit Washington Heights feels marooned here, in small-town America.

(Realizing that Manny was special, the Times followed the George Washington High School baseball team during his senior year as well as his development through the Indians’ organization.)

Manny was one of the centerpieces of a revitalized Cleveland Indians organization that was rebuilt through drafting excellent young players and retaining them. Under John Hart the team developed stars such as Ramirez, Albert Belle, Jim Thome, and Carlos Baerga, reaching the World Series twice (once in 1995 and once in 1997).

In the winter of 2000, Ramirez was lured to the Boston Red Sox as a free agent where he would become their new star. Cleveland was in decline and would start a new rebuilding era under John Hart’s successor, Mark Shapiro, which has now led the Indians back to the postseason.

Ramirez helped the Red Sox win their first World Championship in nearly a century in 2004 and, this year, to their first first place finish in nearly 20 years this year. Ramirez has been regarded as something of a flaky fellow. It was perhaps because of this perception that Boston was prepared to trade him for Alex Rodriguez prior to the 2003 season. (He still had a lot fans among his former teammates.)

By now Manny Ramirez is a great ballplayer and he’s reaching the age where a player’s skills often decline. So how does he retain his skills? Rob Bradford of Boston Herald uncovered some of his preparation in Manny has Plan.

The media, whose job it is to uncover every nook and cranny concerning each player’s makeup, is left living in the world of the fans for whom they write. This is the mystery of Manny, by all accounts one of the smartest, best-prepared hitters in the history of the game.

Few people know about the extra hand-eye coordination exercises Ramirez has added to his routine since the middle of the 2004 season. Strength and conditioning coach Dave Page fires golf ball-like spheres at the slugger’s strike zone, where they are caught by Ramirez’ right hand, acting as a bat.

Later in the workout, which is done 30 minutes before every game, Page throws four rings at Ramirez. Each ring has a different colored ball attached to it, and Page calls out the color of the ball Manny has to grab out of mid-air.

One of the toughest aspects of hitting is deciding what pitch is coming at you in a fraction of a second. So in order to maintain his skill Manny spends extra time honing that decision making. (It reminded me of Obi-Wan training Luke, without the blindfold.) It may very well be that at the end of next year, when his current contract expires, that Manny will once again be highly sought after. If so, it will be a testament, to his dedication to his job.

Friday night, the team that drafted the promising 19 year old will face the team that signed their star away. It will be the battle of Manny’s teams.

Crossposted at Soccer Dad.

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