Theo Epstein cannot possibly be talking about Manny Ramirez.
“It opened my eyes about how people can change,” said Epstein, the Cubs’ president of baseball operations, about Ramirez’s stint as a Triple A player-coach.
“If you had asked me a few years ago, I never would have believed that we would voluntarily put Manny in a position to impact our most important players – and that he would come through.”
Well, as Ramirez himself might say, “believe it.”
By all accounts, Ramirez positively influenced top prospects such as infielder Javier Baez, outfielder Jorge Soler and third baseman Kris Bryant at Triple A Iowa.
And though many fans and baseball people will never forgive Ramirez for his various offenses over the years – most notably, shoving Red Sox traveling secretary Jack McCormick, appearing to quit on the Red Sox to force a trade to the Dodgers and testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs – you can pick your adjective to describe Ramirez’s transformation since becoming a Christian three years ago.
Jaw-dropping. Mind-blowing. Life-changing.
Ramirez, 42, certainly stunned Epstein, who grew as exasperated as anyone with the player’s fits of immaturity and selfishness during their years together with the Red Sox.
But Epstein believed Ramirez deserved another chance and that he could impart his vast knowledge of hitting to the Cubs’ prospects. Yet Epstein was criticized and even mocked for hiring Ramirez on May 25.
In the end, Ramirez spent less than three months with Iowa, leaving the team Friday with four games left in its season due to a knee injury. But during that time, he instructed Baez to be more selective, adjusted Soler’s swing path and talked situational hitting with Bryant, all with impressive results.
Baez and Soler are now slugging in the majors. Bryant is completing a 43-homer season in the minors. No one should confuse Manny with Midas — Cubs minor-league hitting coordinator Anthony Iapoce, Double A hitting coach Desi Wilson and Triple A hitting coach Brian Harper all played significant roles in the young hitters’ developments. Still, Ramirez’s impact was undeniable.
“I learned a lot from Manny when I was with him at Iowa,” Soler recently told the Chicago Tribune. “He was always talking with me about hitting and personal stuff, what I need to do on the field, off the field. He’s just a tremendous person. I always tried to be around him to become the best I can.”
Before joining Iowa, Ramirez reported to the Cubs’ spring training facility in Mesa, Ariz. The idea was for him to take at-bats in extended spring games before advancing to Triple A.
The first day Ramirez was in Arizona, he arrived at 6 a.m. and asked manager Jimmy Gonzalez if he could address the players working out in Mesa, about 50 in all.
“I spoke to them about my suspension. I spoke to them about all the things that I did,” Ramirez said. “I told them about my family. I told them, when something like that comes up in your life, not only do you embarrass yourself, you embarrass your family and your kids.
“It made me proud just to go to those kids and tell them all the things that I did. They look up to me, the kind of player I am. Now they can look up to me and say, ‘Look at this guy with everything in the world. He’s coming to us and being humble.’
“Not a lot of people like to do that – make a mistake and go in front of people, and say, ‘I did this. I did that.’ At the end of the road, everyone respects you more. That’s why I did it.”
Ramirez, it turned out, was just getting started. He also gained respect within the Cubs’ organization by accepting reduced playing time once he got to Iowa.
Epstein had made it clear from the start that Ramirez would play part-time, with no chance of a major-league promotion. Ramirez still wants to return to the majors – he intends to play winter ball in his native Dominican Republic this offseason with the goal of taking one more shot. But once he saw the talent at Iowa, he essentially told the Cubs, “Don’t worry. Play the kids. I’m good.”
“I looked at it this way – I was playing once a week,” Ramirez said. “I thought it wasn’t right for the organization, the kids that came from spring training, working their butts off to go to the next level, for me to take at-bats from those guys.
Another episode, about a month into Ramirez’s stint in Iowa, left an even greater impression.
Ramirez, speaking on the phone to Epstein, broke down every player on the Iowa roster, giving detailed, sophisticated assessments of not only their skills but also their personalities.
Epstein found the conversation so impressive and surprising that he left his office immediately after getting off the phone with Ramirez and walked down the hall to visit with other Cubs executives.
He had to repeat the conversation verbatim to his colleagues to make sure that it had really happened.
“Manny being Manny” was a mantra, a summation of Ramirez’s seemingly happy-go-lucky approach to baseball and to life. Only now Ramirez says, “When I was in the big leagues, I didn’t enjoy the game, didn’t enjoy my family.”
These days, he is more at peace, worrying not at all about his critics, not at all about his past.
“People are always going to say things. Forget about people. It’s what you feel,” Ramirez said. “If you know you’re a changed man, and you know you’re doing the right thing, so what?
“Sometimes it’s good to be in the storm. You grow up. I did. And I’m happy that I did. I enjoyed it (at Iowa). I got along with everybody like I did during the times I played in the big leagues.
“I never thought, ‘Oh, I’m here riding this bus. I’m here taking this plane.’ If I was going to do something, I was going to do it for the Lord. When I was in the big leagues, I had a lot. Now in the minor leagues when I got less, I know how to enjoy myself. And that’s what I did.”
Ramirez said he learned from Eddie Murray, Dave Winfield and Roberto Alomar during his early years with the Indians. He advised the Cubs’ young hitters to take advantage of all that he could offer and gave freely of his time.
He learned how to throw batting practice while at Iowa. He would drag the minor leaguers to the batting cage, perform soft-toss drills, talk hitting on the bench.
Some players, though, didn’t need much help.
Bryant, 22, is practically a finished product, Ramirez said.
“What can you tell a guy who is hitting .350 with 43 home runs and 45 doubles? What can you tell him?” Ramirez said, laughing and exaggerating slightly (Bryant has batted a combined .326 at Double A and Triple A with 43 homers, 34 doubles and 1.102 OPS.)
“I just watched the game. Most of the time, I knew how pitchers were going to pitch him. I would tell him to look (a certain) way. They’re going to challenge you. They’re going to do this and that. That was it.”
Soler, 22, required more direct instruction – he has an advanced hitting approach but had a tendency to “smother” the ball, hit it on the top half and ground to the pull side.
Ramirez taught him to take more of a direct path with his swing, the better to create backspin.
“His swing was a little bit long, but we worked on it and he made the adjustment,” Ramirez said. “The kid is a phenom. He can run. He can throw. He can hit. And he’s only 22 years old.”
Ramirez, though, developed perhaps his greatest fondness for Baez, the youngest player of the group.
Baez, 21, batted .229 with a .709 OPS at Triple A before Ramirez arrived June 24, .315 with a 1.041 OPS after that date. He has reverted to his free-swinging habits in the majors, hitting seven home runs but striking out 49 times and drawing only four walks in 116 plate appearances.
“Baez is a special player,” Ramirez said. “He has the power of Bryant. And remember, Baez is only 6 feet. Bryant is 6-5. I didn’t have that kind of power when I was his age.”
Ramirez said he even became friendly with Baez’s mother and brother. He plans to check on the youngster and perhaps work with him during the offseason.
“I got real close to him,” Ramirez said. “I was kind of sad when he left, because I got so close to him. To be honest with you, now he’s like my favorite player. I love his leg kick.”
Ramirez predicted that the Cubs in two or three years will be “the team to beat” but offered no clear vision of his own future. He said he has not even considered becoming a major-league hitting coach, explaining, “I’m a guy who likes to live in the moment.”
His immediate goal is to return to the majors in a role similar to the one that Jason Giambi plays with the Indians. But he will be 43 next season, four years removed from his last major-league game.
“Nobody wants to give up the dream,” Ramirez said, quite understandably. Still, whether he plays again in the majors is almost immaterial.