Hanley looks ready for 3rd — and critics

BY foxsports • March 14, 2012

Last Aug. 2, Hanley Ramirez injured his left shoulder diving for a ball at New York’s Citi Field. He left the game immediately, telling reporters he hoped to come back quickly.

He didn’t. Ramirez, the Marlins’ star shortstop, missed the rest of the season.

Much has changed since.

For one thing, Ramirez is the owner of a surgically repaired shoulder. The Marlins — now known as the Miami Marlins — are about to open a glimmering new ballpark. Jose Reyes, who played shortstop for the Mets in that fateful game, signed a $106 million contract with Miami to take Ramirez’s job. Reports suggested Ramirez wanted out. New Miami manager Ozzie Guillen stated his desire to play Ramirez at third base. Ramirez has three years left on his contract. So he stayed.

Amid the tumult, Ramirez shot a Powerade commercial in his native Dominican Republic. Ramirez is immensely popular there; he won the National League batting title in 2009, the same year he represented his country in the World Baseball Classic.

The ad was cleverly done, with Ramirez at a ballpark and his voice narrating in Spanish.

"To all those who sent messages criticizing me, I want to apologize for not having replied yet,'' he says. "I was busy with this bat and this marker, writing your names.''

Ramirez is shown, Sharpie and Louisville Slugger in hand, scrawling the Twitter handles of his detractors onto the barrel — presumably those who sniped at him during the disappointing, injury-plagued 2011 season or said he behaved petulantly when he was slow to embrace the position switch.

"The response,'' the voice says again, "is on its way.''

Then Ramirez takes the inky bat and smashes a baseball out of sight.

If Ramirez’s salesmanship is true to life, we might assume that Dr. James Andrews performed a chip-ostomy on his shoulder. Ramirez, already a three-time All-Star at age 28, clearly believes he has something to prove.

Tuesday, with various bats surrounding his locker, I asked Ramirez which one had all the haters’ names.

“Every bat that I use,” he replied.

(For the record: one of the wittiest answers I’ve heard this spring.)

If, as his nimble metaphor suggested, Ramirez is carrying criticism onto the field, he may want to continue doing it. He’s hitting .500 in five games this spring, all in the No. 3 spot. He made two sparkling plays Tuesday in a 2-2 tie with the Atlanta Braves, bare-handing a high chopper by Martin Prado and smothering a tough-hop grounder with the infield pulled in.

“He’s such a good athlete,” marveled Atlanta second baseman Dan Uggla, Ramirez’s former Marlins teammate. “Wherever you put him on a baseball field, he’s going to get adjusted real fast. He looked great over there today. Obviously, he looks good swinging the bat.”

He usually does. Last year was the exception. Ramirez began having trouble with his left shoulder during spring training and never fully recovered. The result was the worst season of his decorated career.

Despite the lost year, he leads all major league shortstops in home runs since the start of the 2006 season. Of course, that’s the irony: He’s not a shortstop anymore — even if it is hard for him to admit it. When I asked if he feels like a third baseman now, Ramirez said only, “I feel good. I feel comfortable at third base.”

For now, the half-diplomatic answer will have to do. And that’s OK. As Uggla put it, “This is supposed to be your team. They bring in a guy to take your position and ask you to move over. It’s a tough thing to do. But he’s taking it like a man. And it maybe adds a little fuel to his fire. Maybe this will trigger something (where) he’s going to work that much harder to prove he’s good enough to play a Gold Glove third base and be an All-Star at third base. Little things like that can trigger crazy things.”

Crazy things for a player with Ramirez’s ability suggest an MVP-caliber season. And if any of this sounds familiar, it should.

Young superstar who enjoyed fast success . . . criticized after a down year . . . comes into the next season more determined than ever.

The same circumstances precipitated Matt Kemp’s breakthrough last year.

As with the Kemp of 2011, an analysis of Ramirez’s maturity has become common this spring. Marlins legend Jeff Conine (last year), former manager Fredi Gonzalez (2010) and Uggla (2009) are among those who have questioned Ramirez’s effort level in the past.

But Guillen, who considers Ramirez the face of the franchise, used the words “very professional” to describe his comportment in camp thus far.

“He’s the glue with this ballclub,” Guillen said.

Ramirez also carries himself as the team’s Alpha Male. He went 0 for 2 on the top buttons of his jersey Tuesday, exposing the bright orange undershirt of the Marlins’ new color scheme. He wore a carrot-colored wristband on his left arm, a white compression sleeve on his right. He had the flopped-out pants pocket. He moved as if he believed he was the best athlete on the field, and he probably was.

Ramirez roped a double to center and remarked afterward that, unlike last year, he’s able to finish his swing.

“It looks like he’s ready to rock,” Uggla said. “He looks good in the new uni. I’m sure he’s excited to play in the new stadium. There’s a lot of good things going for him.

“I know our relationship has gone above and beyond whatever I thought it was going to be. Ever since we had some issues back in the day, we’re as tight as ever. He’s going to continue to grow. But I like the kid in him, honestly.”

Ramirez, a father of three, seems to have accepted the circumstances as they are. He has a good relationship with Reyes, which helps. Also, he appreciates that the Marlins — with the offseason additions of Reyes, Mark Buehrle and Heath Bell — have a legitimate chance to make the playoffs, something he has yet to do.

It’s not a bad thing for Ramirez to consider himself a shortstop in exile, as long as he wholly dedicates himself to his current assignment. By all accounts, he has.

“I’ll predict something,” Guillen said. “I know a little bit about this game. Hanley might not win the Gold Glove this year, but he’s got a chance to win the Gold Glove in the future. In his career, Hanley’s going to be a third baseman, because he’s a big kid. I think he’s handling it very well.

“Everybody with the Marlins — fans, organization, media — was waiting until Hanley did something stupid on the field. I’m not seeing that. I see the Hanley I want to see.”