FORT MYERS, Fla. - It is no news flash that Manny Ramirez remains somewhat of a mystery. But there is one relatively unknown piece of information regarding the slugger which might be hard for some to fathom.
Throughout his professional life, Ramirez had never practiced his hitting in the offseason, that is until this winter.
The owner of a career .314 batting average and 470 home runs would always use his offseason to better his body, primarily with trainer Juan Carlos Santana in Boca Raton, Fla. But not one time did the 34-year-old consistently pick of a bat and fine-tune his bread-and-butter skill - hitting.
This year, however, the hour ride from Ramirez's home in Westin became too much, leading him to a facility called Perfect Competition in nearby Davie. The idea was to join other professional athletes working out at the facility. But once Ramirez arrived for the first time, he found his offseason took on a whole new life.
"I remember giving him a tour and he was very cordial and outgoing," said Greg Brown, Perfect Competition's director of baseball training. "I was telling him that we had this cage here to help supplement his training and I would always be here if he wanted to work out. I asked him, 'How often do you hit?' He just said, 'No, spring training.' Then I asked him, 'Well, do you throw?' Again, 'No, spring training.' I was like, 'OK ....' It is just unbelievable.
"So he comes in for his first performance-enhancement training, bringing two bats with him. When he came to meet me, he brings these bats and I'm figuring he was donating them to me as a favor. I walk up to him and thank him for the bats. He's like, 'No, no, no. Let's hit.' This is back in November. For me, it was almost like a dream come true to have hands-on experience with the greatest right-handed hitter of our generation."
The facility, which was founded by former professional hockey player and Massachusetts native Sean O'Brien, already hosted such major leaguers as Miguel Tejada, Raul Ibanez, Jose Guillen and Mike Lowell, who participated in workouts prior to last season.
But in Ramirez's case, getting used to the surroundings was just half of the equation. He also had to adjust to actually having a bat in his hands on a consistent basis outside of the regular season.
"He kept asking me, 'How was that?' or 'Where are my hands?' Questions like that," said Brown, who is a catcher in the Florida Marlins system. "I was very standoffish. Here I am, a struggling minor league backup catcher and Manny Ramirez is asking me for advice. I kind of let him do his thing, but he kept asking me. In the first 15 minutes, he probably asked me about 10 times, so you keep knocking on the door I'm finally going to say something. So I opened up to him.
"For whatever reason, we just took off together and had a real bond from the start. All the way up to the day he reported, we were hitting five days a week."
According to the facility's records, Ramirez worked out 47 times. Brown began his new client with strictly tee work, and then got into a routine that would stretch from a high tee to a regular-sized tee to front soft-toss to live throwing. Not once was a pitching machine used. Brown serving as the eyes, ears and the arm for all things related to Manny and his new training.
The impetus for the altered offseason approach, according to both Brown and Ramirez's agent, Gene Mato, was partly due to his slow starts in each of the past two seasons. A .342 career hitter in April, he finished the month batting .276 last season, just two points higher than his '05 total.
"I know he wanted to try and eliminate the slow start," said Red Sox manager Terry Francona. "A lot of guys (don't hit in the offseason). Robin Yount never did; he didn't need to. He didn't need to make the team, he just needed to get ready for the season. He was going to play 162 games. He didn't want to wear his body out.
"Manny wants to be good hitter. The last couple of days he has taken extra balls in the outfield. He's at a point right now where he feels good about things, and I hope it stays that way because if that's the case we've got a premier player."
Brown made that same determination early in the offseason and throughout the training, which ended two weeks ago.
"Manny has been notorious for starting slow the past few seasons, but the numbers always end up there," Brown said. "Manny is a very determined man. He's passionate about the game. He loves playing the game of baseball and wants to be one of the best. He is going to have one of his best years, and I think he feels that way. He's prepared.
"He was aware of what was going on (that) maybe he wasn't ready early. He made a conscious effort of saying, 'I'm going to come out of the game hot!' I'm ecstatic where he is right now. If you have a guy such as Manny with the utmost confidence as a hitter, and then you prepare him as well ... I think it is frightening how good a year he could have."
According to 26-year-old Brown, the more Ramirez took part in his new regimen, the more he embraced it.
The workouts would stretch around 21/2 hours, typically five days a week. Even in the days leading up to spring training, when the minor league catcher had to attend morning workouts with the Marlins, Ramirez volunteered to take part in the lifting and running portion of the session and then come back in the middle of the afternoon for the baseball workout with Brown.
The routine included work in the field, as well as baseball-specific speed drills ("He's a lot faster," Brown insists.). In terms of hitting, the focus wasn't far from what would be considered typical for most of the game's premier power hitters.
"He got into a routine where we would back the baseball up and allow him to make contact as deep as possible," Brown explained. "We didn't pull the ball until about mid-January. This was a man who would hit nine baseballs on the screws to right-center and then all of a sudden get around one and be visibly upset about not being perfect. This is a guy who cares passionately about his craft.
"This guy is a workaholic. He was the earliest guy there every single day, he didn't take breaks and just got after it. There wasn't a day that went by he didn't have a quote like, 'Champions are made in the offseason.' If the real Manny was portrayed to everybody, he would be the face of baseball, and he should be. His personality, the way he carries himself, he's just an outstanding guy.
"He's ready. I've never had more confidence in a player going into spring training. That man is ready to tear it up."
Dr. Gill: Starting is the way to go for Papelbon
At first glance, you wouldn't think that Dr. Thomas Gill was the center of the Red Sox's universe yesterday. Wearing a red shirt and khaki pants, he stood on the City of Palms Park field playing the part of an innocent bystander very nicely.
But Gill, perhaps more than anybody, was responsible for the afternoon's big news.
The Red Sox's medical director was, in one way, the ultimate decision-maker when it came to affixing the starting pitcher tag on Jonathan Papelbon, who took to the mound yesterday against the Phillies.
Papelbon began his progression from a lock-down closer to potential top-of-the-rotation starter with a two-inning stint. He came in during the third inning, faced six batters, struck out four of them and left looking to his next outing.
The image of the righty wasn't any different than before he suffered a transient subluxation (separation of the joint) in his pitching shoulder, throwing exploding 95 mph fastballs.
But he is different.
Gill, on the advice of other medical people as well, determined starting would be more beneficial to Papelbon than relieving. That's why the Red Sox have been searching for another closer.
"You can't go to the literature and look at 200 pitchers who have had transient subluxations and say half are starters and half are relievers and this half did better than that half," Gill said. "That's where my job comes into play. Whether it's for baseball or something else, I have to figure out what physically and biologically makes the most sense."
The Red Sox clearly value the opinion of Gill, considering they are heading into 2007 leaving behind the security of Papelbon's 35-save season and replacing it with the uncertainty of various closing candidates.
The reality of the situation hasn't been painted any more clearly than yesterday, when one of the top competitors for the closing job, Joel Pineiro, came in after Papelbon's domination and surrendered four runs in 11/3 innings.
But, because of the uneasiness regarding Papelbon's loose shoulder joint, Boston is sticking to its plan ... for now.
"The question they asked me was which makes the most sense, pitching as a starter or as a reliever," Gill explained. "Obviously, as a starter you have five days, you have time to strengthen during the season and you have a routine. We have a great pitching program for the starters. Josh Beckett pitched 200 innings and that was because he followed the program. ... It's a routine that gives a guy time to recover.
"Nothing has been ruled in or ruled out, although we have had some internal discussions. I think we're just going to wait and see how things go right now."
One of the primary reasons for heading into the regular season with Papelbon in the rotation is the team's desire to monitor just how effective his strengthening exercises are progressing. The subluxation is something which has to consistently be kept track of, which the 26-year-old has done diligently thus far.
"He's done a phenomenal job," Gill said of Papelbon. "There's a couple of experiences that we can point to (involving other pitchers with similar injuries), but it was more of his anatomy, how the shoulder works, how the stability works and the dynamic stabilizers. You can put together a pretty good puzzle to make the whole picture and, based on scientific evidence, this makes the most sense."