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'New Hanley' might be here to stay

Hanley Ramirez's hustle and commitment aren't being questioned anymore.
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Ken Rosenthal

Ken Rosenthal has been the FOXSports.com's Senior MLB Writer since August 2005. He appears weekly on MLB on FOX, FOX Sports Radio and MLB Network. He's a member of the Baseball Writers Association of America. Follow him on Twitter.

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The scene, for anyone who perceived Hanley Ramirez as a diva during his days with the Marlins, is almost startling.

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Three Dodgers reserves — Jerry Hairston, Skip Schumaker and Nick Punto — will not let up on Ramirez in a corner of the visiting clubhouse at AT&T Park.

Their message — if we played every day, we’d have your swing — is laughable. But Ramirez plays along, allowing the vets to have their fun. He doesn’t even object when Punto reaches into his locker, dips his fingers into a jar of stickum-type substance and essentially tells Ramirez, “You’re always taking our stuff, now I’m taking yours.”

The clubhouse atmosphere was rarely, if ever, like this during most of Ramirez’s tenure with the Marlins, when he was surrounded by younger players and veterans who lacked stature. But Hairston, 37, Punto, 35 and Schumaker, 33, all played for World Series champions. They might be reserves with the Dodgers, but they’re not cowed by Ramirez, 29 — or, for that matter, any of the team’s stars.

OK, that is the first clue that things are different for Ramirez in Los Angeles. The second comes when I ask Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw about the team’s new phenom, right fielder Yasiel Puig, and Kershaw responds by taking up Ramirez’s cause.

Yes, Puig is batting .409 with a major league-best 54 hits since making his major league debut on June 3. But Ramirez, who went 3-for-5 to extend his hitting streak to 19 games Monday night in the Dodgers’ 6-1 victory over the Diamondbacks, is batting .419 in the same number of games as Puig and also producing a higher OPS (1.199-1.102).

“Hanley’s even better than (Puig), in my opinion,” Kershaw says. “He’s playing good defense at shortstop. And he’s hitting the ball harder than I’ve seen anyone hit the ball. It’s comparable to Manny (Ramirez) when Manny was here.”

A teammate, unsolicited, making sure that Ramirez receives his just recognition? This, too, is something different.

Like many of my colleagues, I’ve written in the past about a “New Hanley,” only to regret it when Ramirez dogged it on the field or acted petulant off of it.

This time, the “New Hanley” does not appear to be an illusion.

“He’s got me convinced,” Punto says. “He really wants to win,” Punto says.

***

Remember when Ramirez tore a ligament in his right thumb in the championship game of the World Baseball Classic?

“Damn WBC,” thought many Dodgers fans, and maybe some Dodgers themselves. “We just lost our shortstop.”

Well, those people had it wrong.

The WBC transformed Ramirez. Winning the championship for the Dominican Republic made him realize how meaningful winning a World Series could be.

“For me, since he came back from the WBC, he’s been different,” Dodgers manager Don Mattingly says. “You could just see it. He wanted to win.”

Dodgers catcher A.J. Ellis recalls asking Ramirez, “What was different in the WBC?”

“We were all for each other, all on the same page,” Ramirez replied. “It did not matter who got the hit. All we wanted to do was win. And you have no idea how good that felt, how fun it was.’”

So, what was the logical next step?

For Ramirez to play that way for the Dodgers.

“I tried to bring that energy over here,” Ramirez says. “I’m more mature now. I know what I want. That’s the key thing. At the end of the night, it’s just about the ‘W.’ ”

Ramirez’s commitment, the Dodgers say, is evident in numerous ways.

He got himself into better shape last offseason after the Dodgers told him that he needed to “quicken things up” in order to return to shortstop. He reported for early work four days a week during spring training, then continued his extra effort under the tutelage of former shortstop Alfredo Griffin while playing for the D.R. during the WBC.

The Dodgers see the “New Hanley” when he expresses frustration after failing to move a runner. When he offers pitchers counsel in the middle of innings. When he plays through various physical issues, as he did after arriving from the Marlins last July . . . and when he pulls back at opportune times, protecting his hamstring in accordance with the Dodgers’ wishes.

“I’ve been blown away by his leadership,” Ellis says. “Last year, when he came over, I thought he was one of the toughest people I’ve ever played with.

“The presence he has in the middle of the field, he’s always at the mound, talking baseball, talking situations — he really helps me a lot. When there are Latin American pitchers on the mound, he helps the communication there. He tells the younger Latin pitchers to trust me. He gives constant encouragement on the bench. . . .”

And then Ellis repeats the phrase you hear over and over again when the Dodgers talk about Ramirez.

“He’s here to win.”

***

Ramirez dates his transformation not to the WBC, but to last July 25, when the Dodgers acquired him and left-handed reliever Randy Choate from the Marlins for pitching prospects Nate Eovaldi and Scott McGough.

“Everything turned around after I came here last year,” Ramirez says. “That passion, all the fans in LA, that turned everything around.

“Pretty much everybody in Miami was young, happy to be in the big leagues. We still competed, but, I don’t know, this is a different feeling. Since I got to the clubhouse here, everyone was focused, happy, together.

“Only I know what I went through in Miami. I don’t want to talk about that . . . that’s in the past. But I knew that as soon as I left there I was going to be a different guy. When I came here, they just let me play. They said, ‘Play hard and be you.’ ”

At the time of the trade, a Marlins source acknowledged that the team failed to “rein in” Ramirez, coddling him, excusing him, serving as his enabler.

Ramirez, who signed a six-year, $70 million extension in May 2008, was the Marlins’ highest-paid player and center of their universe, lacking established, veteran teammates to offer him proper direction.

Once he joined the Dodgers, none of that mattered.

“I told him when we acquired him, he starts fresh,” general manager Ned Colletti says. “Whatever happened to him before, we weren’t there. So come here and start fresh and you will write on a new piece of paper how you want to be viewed.”

Colletti says that when he asked Ramirez if he had any questions, the player replied, “Just one — will I get to meet Magic Johnson?”

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At first, Ramirez’s position was in doubt — the initial plan was for him to replace the injured Dee Gordon at short, then possibly switch back to third. Ramirez, who needed time to digest his move to third when the Marlins signed shortstop Jose Reyes as a free agent after the 2011 season, gave the Dodgers carte blanche. He says he was so touched by the Dodgers’ welcome, he was good with whatever the team wanted.

“The way they treated me when I got here, I was like, ‘Wow, I’ll play anywhere.’ You want me to catch? I’ll catch, I’ll pitch, anything.’ ” Ramirez says.

“The way they treated you, the way they talked to you, when someone shows you respect, man, you’ve got to respect that, respect your teammates, everybody in the organization, the fans.”

Who was it that treated him so well? Colletti? Mattingly? His teammates?

“Everybody, from the front office all the way to the clubhouse guys, the bat boys, everybody,” Ramirez says. “I’ve got the clubbies telling me every day, ‘What a hitter you are.’ Little things like that keep you positive. For me, this game is 99 percent mental and 1 percent physical.”

Funny Ramirez should put it that way.

When it comes to baseball talent, he is the 1 percent.

***

Dodgers hitting coach Mark McGwire is talking about Ramirez the hitter. And McGwire — he of the 583 career home runs, tainted or not — is waxing poetic.

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“I see a guy who knows how to hit a baseball correctly,” McGwire says. “He hits it just right.”

“I tell him all the time in the cage, ‘You are a perfect example of how to hit a baseball.’ His downward plane, his hands through the baseball, his extension — that’s how you backspin a baseball.”

Punto raves about Ramirez’s “pure, powerful swing” and likens him to the TigersMiguel Cabrera. "His (batting practice) is by far the best on the team, or any team I’ve played on."

Schumaker previously was with the Cardinals, who share a spring-training facility with the Marlins in Jupiter, Fla. To him, Ramirez again looks like the hitter who dominated the National League before he underwent shoulder surgery in September 2011.

“I saw him when he was one of the best players in the major leagues — ’06, ’07, ’08, ’09, there wasn’t a guy hitting balls harder in spring training or took better at-bats,” recalls Schumaker, who played with Albert Pujols in St. Louis.

“I felt like, besides Albert, he was the best hitter in the National League for a long time. What I see here, I’m not as surprised. I’ve seen him for so long do what he’s doing right now. He’s back to where he was a few years ago.”

Ramirez, because of his recent injuries, now follows a daily routine prescribed to him by the Dodgers’ training staff — stretches, hot- and cold-tub “contrasts,” etc. Watching him swing, watching him run, watching him field, it’s clear that he is finally healthy.

Ramirez disputes that Puig is pushing him — “I don’t think so,” he says. “I was excited when I got here.” Heck, the way Hairston see it, neither Ramirez nor Puig is even the best player on the team.

“JHair keeps telling me, ‘One day you’re going to be like me, one day you’re going to hit like me — you might be the third-best player on the team,’ ” Ramirez says, laughing. “He’s No. 1, Puig is No. 2 and I’m No. 3.”

Hairston tells it differently, explaining that when he and Ramirez take pregame grounders, he tells Ramirez, “You can be like Cal Ripken” — one of Hairston’s former teammates — “you can make a lot more money in this game.”

Well, Ramirez’s contract expires after the 2014 season, but that’s a story for another day. The story now is about a player who finally is figuring things out, finally understanding that winning matters above all else.

This is the last “New Hanley” story I will ever write.

We are talking, at last, about a player in full.

Tagged: Athletics, Dodgers, Marlins, Manny Ramirez, Nick Punto, Hanley Ramirez, Skip Schumaker, Clayton Kershaw, A.J. Ellis

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