Hanley Ramirez now healthy, happy at third base

JUPITER, Fla. – The two faces of the Miami Marlins infield had become one, a tangle of smiles, twinkling eyes and orange hair. The tight curls of Hanley Ramirez and Jose Reyes were dyed the team color in a spring-silly display of spirit. Even their eyebrows were orange.

The goofy gesture, phone-photoed and tweeted, held a deeper meaning. The uber-talented Ramirez, for so long indifferent and unresponsive, has come around. He’s been warmed by Reyes’ sunbeam, humbled by manager Ozzie Guillen’s commanding presence, and honed by infield coach Joey Cora’s relentless personal instruction.

A pivotal question entering camp was whether the clubhouse would be ruled by the nonchalance of Ramirez or the joyfulness of newcomer Reyes. Thickening the plot was Reyes taking the shortstop job Ramirez held since winning rookie of the year in 2006. Reyes is making more money and Ramirez was told to move to third base.

Now hair this: Jose Reyes (left) and Hanley Ramirez have bonded during spring training.

Everyone was braced for a pouting Ramirez to poison the clubhouse. Every spoonful of sugar sprinkled by Reyes would be countered by sourness from the incumbent. After all, Ramirez had been all but called a dog by front-office special assistant and former Marlins World Series hero Jeff Conine, who said last season: “I would say if you define [not respecting the game] as not going out there and putting 100 percent on the field every day, yeah, I would say, no, he doesn’t.”

But with less than a week before the Marlins open the season in a new ballpark with new uniforms and new optimism, the about-face from Ramirez is perhaps the most heartening change of all. By all accounts, he has worked overtime to learn the intricacies of third base. He’s batting .378 with two home runs, including the first in the new stadium when the Marlins played an exhibition against the University of Miami two weeks ago.

And he’s Reyes’ mejor amigo, sharing video games, dinner and the left side of the infield with an easy manner not to be confused with nonchalance.

Ramirez was the last player to leave the clubhouse Thursday, sitting at his locker replying to text messages while a clubhouse attendant spray-washed catchers’ shin guards a few feet away. He took an interruption pleasantly, saying he is enjoying third base and sharing the credit for what so far has been a smooth transition.

“I’ve got to give credit to the coaches,” he said. “I think that Joey Cora, he’s been the key. A lot of work has gone into it. He’s made sure I’m comfortable at third.”

Ramirez said the position isn’t much different than shortstop – reacting to hard-hit balls and charging bunts is a close cousin to the way his body moved when it was stationed 15 feet to his left all those years. He’s a big man, 6-foot-3 and 230 pounds, and he hits with enough power to justify occupying a corner infield spot the rest of his career. Sort of like A-Rod.

Ramirez batted just .243 last season. His .712 OPS was nearly 200 points below his career average. If his first five seasons were a Hall of Fame blueprint, his sixth was a puzzling scribble of doubt and disappointment. Ramirez said it was all about poor health: His lower back hurt much of the season, and more than he let on. He couldn’t sleep. He couldn’t tie his shoes. Pain radiated down his leg.

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In early August, he went on the disabled list with a left shoulder injury that required surgery a month later. Ramirez’s season was over; he’d played only 92 games.

“My performance problems were because of my pain,” he said. “That’s what it was.”

Guillen and a posse of pals walked through the clubhouse on their way to the parking lot. The ebullient manager made a crack in Spanish and Ramirez laughed respectfully. Ramirez might be the big dog, but Guillen possesses a combination of bark and bite which makes him the unmistakable Alpha Marlin.

Reyes is another strong clubhouse presence. He shook everybody’s hand the first day he arrived and brightens the room the minute he walks in each day. He had his trademark dreadlocks lopped off on MLB Network and he is the fresh new face of a franchise in the midst of reinventing itself.

He’s also the reigning National League batting champion and a dynamic leadoff hitter. And Reyes knows that the guy batting third in the lineup – the guy whose move to third base enabled him to sign for $106 million over six years, the guy whose gap shots and bombs will enable him to touch home plate 100 or so times this season – is essential.

“I’m here for Hanley on and off the field,” Reyes said. “I appreciate what he’s done and I told him that. We’re the same. We’re like brothers.”

Both are 28. Both are Dominican. Their interests meld. Jealousy is the sole reason they wouldn’t get along. And, so far, none is apparent.

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Ramirez said he spent the offseason working out with Toronto Blue Jays slugger Jose Bautista and arrived at camp in the best shape of his life: “He inspires you to keep working even when you want to stop. I need that sometimes.”

He looked toward Reyes’ empty locker, rubbed his orange head and nodded.

“He’s that way too,” Ramirez said. “He inspires you.”

Inspiration works that way. Some need it, some provide it. All of a sudden, everybody has it. A productive Ramirez will inspire everyone associated with the Marlins, long after the orange has washed out of his hair.

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Steve Henson is a Senior Writer and Editor for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter.
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Updated Friday, Mar 30, 2012