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Manny Happy Returns

Though His Lapses Can Be Maddening, the Indians' Ramirez Has Been Extraordinary in Short Time as No. 4 Hitter

October 06, 1998|TIM KAWAKAMI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Manny Ramirez is nothing more and certainly nothing less than the perfect player for this season of instant gratification and short-attention-span baseball.

Cleveland's right fielder hits big-bang home runs. He throws rockets from the outfield. He flexes both his muscles and his tattoos for the fans.

"That guy's awesome," said Boston reliever Dennis Eckersley, who gave up Ramirez's long home run in the ninth inning of Game 3 of the division series.

And occasionally, maddeningly, Ramirez lets his thoughts drift and he gets caught doing things that make the purists wince.

He jogs after hitting balls that don't quite clear the fence, for instance, or runs off the field when there are only two outs.

In Game 1 of the division series against the Red Sox, Ramirez reduced a double to a long single by admiring the ball's flight too long, then got picked off first. Later, he barely made it into second for a double after another long blast bounded back off the left-field wall in Jacobs Field.

But hey, what are a few mental miscues here and there when some of his drives actually do clear the fence, the fans are having fun and "SportsCenter" can't get enough of him?

As the Indians prepare for their American League championship series with the fundamentally phenomenal New York Yankees, amid a lineup of solid, productive veterans like David Justice, Kenny Lofton and Jim Thome, Ramirez is the Cleveland wild card.

"I told Manny, 'Not all of your hits go out of the park,' " Indian General Manager John Hart said with a smile.

With Ramirez, you take your boom with your bust. In Cleveland's four-game victory over Boston, Ramirez was, as he has been all season, the Indians' most dangerous hitter.

"He's playing like a No. 4 hitter ought to," said Kenny Lofton, center fielder and No. 1 hitter,

He's also the Indians' most interesting player.

Ramirez hit two solo home runs in the pivotal 4-3 Game 3 victory at Fenway Park, hit two doubles in the first two games in Cleveland, and was five for 14 in the series with three runs batted in.

That continued a torrid streak that started in August, when the 26-year-old Martinez was moved into the cleanup spot after first baseman Thome broke a bone in his hand, causing him to miss 35 games.

Ramirez was moved to the No. 4 spot Aug. 8, and from then until the end of the season, he hit 18 homers, 10 doubles and drove in 48 runs, raising his batting average from .291 to .294. In one five-game stretch in September, he hit a major league record-tying eight home runs.

"He's so hot, you don't know what the hell you're going to do," Eckersley said. "You don't know if it's a bad pitch, good pitch, whatever. You could one-hop [the ball] up there and he'd get it out."

Ramirez finished the regular season with career-highs in home runs, 45; RBIs, 145, and runs, 108.

"When Thome got hurt and I put him in the cleanup spot, Manny really took off and we didn't miss a lick [in] production from that spot," Cleveland Manager Mike Hargrove said. "He really kept the lineup together."

Said Thome, "He's stepped into the four-hole and become a big-time player. The way it looks, it'll be hard [for Thome to get the cleanup spot back], but that's fine, as long as we win."

Ramirez had strong numbers in his first four years, averaging 25 homers, but this season he began getting mentioned as a candidate for the most-valuable-player award

Two years after Albert Belle left the Indians, and took his 50 home runs and 130 RBIs with him, Cleveland has found another right-handed pitch killer.

"Manny came to me in spring training and said, 'I want to be the best player that I possibly can be and I want you to help me,' " Hargrove said. "I said, 'Manny, I've been trying to help you for four or five years, so we'll continue what we've done.'

"He's paid attention to details this year. He's always worked extremely hard in the outfield to get better. He's always been a pure natural hitter. You'd have to ask him, but I think he understands pitchers a little better today than he has in the past and understands what pitches he can really hit and drive better.

"He's been able to take that information and put it into practical use as a hitter."

Ramirez, for his part, says he takes most pleasure in the strides he has made on defense. He points to the Dodgers' Raul Mondesi as his favorite player, mainly because of Mondesi's cannon arm in the outfield and long blasts from the batter's box.

"That's why I'm more pleased with my defense than anything else I've done this year," Ramirez told the Cleveland Plain Dealer. "I want to be like Paul Molitor--a complete player. That guy is awesome."

Said Hargrove, "Manny's turned himself into one of the better right fielders in the AL today. He and [Yankee] Paul O'Neill are right there together. Defensively, he makes all the plays and has an above-average, accurate arm.

"He's as close to a complete player as we have on this club: He hits for average and power, is a fringe-average runner. He's a guy that has done a lot to enhance his reputation and has not had a lot of lapses in concentration as he's had in the past."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Major League leaders from Aug. 1 to the end of season

HOME RUNS

Mark McGwire, St. Louis: 25

Sammy Sosa, Cubs: 24

Manny Ramirez, Cleveland: 21

Ken Griffey Jr., Seattle: 15

RBI's

Manny Ramirez, Cleveland: 57

Ken Griffey Jr., Seattle: 53

Mike Piazza, New York Mets: 52

Sammy Sosa, Cubs: 50

Mark McGwire, St. Louis: 47

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