FORT MYERS, Fla. — To liven the mood before a late-night cross-country flight during a three-city slog last September, Boston Red Sox players were encouraged to wear their favorite replica jersey from any sport. Predictably, blue-and-gold Steph Curry tank tops and Tom Brady’s No. 12 were all the rage.
Even with Big Papi’s shirt, Ramirez isn’t Ortiz. While Ortiz was adored by teammates and rivals alike, Ramirez forged a reputation with the Marlins and Dodgers that was somewhere between diva and clubhouse malcontent. And he has never lived down a 2010 incident in which he jogged after a ball in shallow left field, then publicly blasted his manager, Fredi Gonzalez.
But Ramirez always regarded Ortiz as the older brother he never had. Ortiz was his equilibrium, the calming voice in his head and often in his ear. Early in Ramirez’s career, they talked almost every day, either by phone or text message, before teaming up for the past two seasons with the Red Sox. Even in retirement, Ortiz checks in regularly to make sure Ramirez is OK.
“David’s had a huge influence on him. Huge,” said Raquel Ferreira, the Red Sox’s vice president of major and minor league operations, who has known Ramirez for nearly half of his life, since he was a 17-year-old top prospect in Boston’s farm system. “Hanley’s an only child, so he really does truly look up to David as a big brother, as a mentor, as somebody to follow.”
And now, as Ramirez enters his 12th big-league season, he would be wise to follow Ortiz’s example yet again.
“The difference between me and David [Ortiz] is David, he can talk. I don’t like to talk a lot. I’m more quiet. David always finds a way to get to know you, to talk to you. He tries to make everybody happy around him. If he had a tough day, he would not let anybody know. That’s a good thing. I learned that from him and that’s one of the things I’m going to try to do this year, too.”
Few players had a better second act of their career than Ortiz, who played until he was 40 and hit 252 home runs in his final eight seasons to finish with 541 total. There’s a never-ending line of skeptics who doubt Ramirez, at age 33 and transitioning to become primarily a designated hitter, has really grown up enough to have similar staying power, and their cynicism is well-founded. But from purely a numbers standpoint, he has put himself in good position.
Consider this: Ramirez has 240 career home runs, making him only the 129th player ever to reach that mark through his age-32 season (Ortiz had 289). Of those hitters, only 10, including Ortiz, played until they were at least 40 and hit 200 or more additional homers.
Ortiz owes much of his longevity to his role, one that Ramirez is poised to inherit. As a DH, Ortiz was better able to cope with the searing pain in his feet and heels that still required the almost undivided attention of physical therapist Dan Dyrek, who also helped prolong Larry Bird’s career.
Ramirez has never been a picture of health either. He has gone on the disabled list with lower back, shoulder, thumb and hamstring injuries, a product of playing shortstop for 10 years and stumbling around left field in 2015. Being a DH figures to lessen the physical toll as Ramirez ages.
But Ramirez also will need to take better care of his body, which has thickened since he made his major league debut as a skinny 21-year-old in 2005. And Ortiz has already warned him about the mental gymnastics associated with being a DH.
“Do you really want to know what he told me?” Ramirez said. “[He said] some days you’re going to get crazy because all you can do is hit, and when things are not going good, what can you do? I’ve just got to find a way to separate between these at-bats and cheer from the dugout.”
Ramirez became a decidedly better cheerleader last season, another example of Ortiz’s influence.
Two years ago, the Red Sox signed Ramirez to play left field, a terrible judgment. He crashed into the wall in foul territory at Fenway Park and sprained his left shoulder in early May, and his season spiraled out of control. He ranked among the worst defenders at any position and spent the summer as a mostly disgruntled slugger whose power was zapped by a sore shoulder.
Ortiz, meanwhile, was batting .219 with six homers and a .670 OPS on June 10, giving him enough to worry about without propping up Ramirez too. And by the time Ortiz turned around his season, Ramirez’s was a lost cause.
Ramirez doesn’t like talking about 2015. But Ferreira has known him long enough to understand how miserable he was. She encouraged him to come back in 2016 and be himself, which was easier once the Red Sox moved him to first base. And if he lost his way, Ortiz would be there to help.
Sure enough, Ramirez had one of his best seasons, batting .286 with 30 homers and an .866 OPS and emerging as a more pleasant presence in the clubhouse.
“He wants to win, and he’s very passionate about winning, and when you’re passionate about something, sometimes your passion comes out in different ways,” Ferreira said. “I think Hanley has owned up to his mistakes. He’s definitely learned from everything that’s happened in the past. He’ll be the first person to say that he was wrong, or he did something wrong, or he went about something the wrong way. And that’s really where it shows how much he’s grown up.”
Not everyone is sold. One talent evaluator from a National League team contended that Ramirez remains high-maintenance.
“The key is structuring an environment that makes him ‘The Guy,’ to an extent, but yes, I think he can be productive through his 30s,” the evaluator said. “Keeping him motivated is the key to it all.”
Ramirez insists he’s motivated by the elusive quest to win a World Series. He was called up after the Red Sox won it all in 2004 and was traded to Florida before they did it again in 2007. He has been to the playoffs three times, never advancing beyond the NLCS in 2013 with the Dodgers.
If that doesn’t do the trick, there’s always the prospect of one more big payday. Ramirez is halfway through his four-year, $ 88 million deal with the Red Sox and has a $ 22 million option for 2019 that will vest if he makes at least 1,050 plate appearances in the next two seasons. Even if the option is exercised, he will be 36 at the end of the deal, young enough to sign another contract.
Ramirez’s ability to improve his reputation as a teammate will go as far as solid production and good health toward getting that next deal.
And Ortiz won’t be around every day to help.
“The difference between me and David is David, he can talk. I don’t like to talk a lot. I’m more quiet,” Ramirez said. “David always finds a way to get to know you, to talk to you. He tries to make everybody happy around him. If he had a tough day, he would not let anybody know. That’s a good thing. I learned that from him and that’s one of the things I’m going to try to do this year, too.”
For Ramirez, the second act starts now.