BOSTON – Manny Ramirez reached for the doorknob that would send him into the cement concourse at Fenway Park on Monday afternoon, but paused when he heard footsteps behind him.
He'd arrived early on the voluntary workout day, the last voluntary anything, the Boston Red Sox hope, until late October. He'd done his thing, kicked around for a few hours, hit some, and maybe thought a little about the Los Angeles Angels.
While a handful of his teammates slashed at batting-practice fastballs, Ramirez showered, dressed, tied back his dreads and was just that doorknob from an afternoon away. He turned, almost shyly, and smiled. He gave a see-you-later flick of his wrist, and moments later was steering his silver Mercedes through the puddles and around the concrete posts where the beer lines normally run.
We don't really know Manny that well, even after 15 seasons, 490 home runs and regular MVP consideration, and not even after the last seven of those seasons were spent in a major baseball market.
We know he can be flighty. We know the bus to spring training doesn't always run on time. We know he's a regular conversation topic come winter meetings and trading deadline, usually because he has asked to be.
And we know he can hit.
But, mostly, we see him as he was Monday afternoon; smiling but eager to leave, there but behind darkened windows.
Back in the postseason after slowly retreating from their 2004 World Series championship (swept in the division series in 2005, missed the playoffs in 2006), the Red Sox returned with 96 wins, their first division title in 12 years and home-field advantage for as long as they last.
Ramirez, compared to recent seasons, and even from the cleanup spot in one of the game's most productive offenses, played a somewhat complementary role. He had another creaky April, then helped drive the offense for three months, tailed off in August and spent a month recovering from a strained oblique.
He batted .296 with 20 home runs and 88 RBI, a nice output for 133 games, except he batted .321 with 35 home runs and 102 RBI last season … in 130 games. He batted .276 with runners in scoring position, more than 50 points below his career average in those situations. His on-base plus slugging was its lowest since 1994, his first full season.
An American League scout who saw Ramirez before he was injured said Ramirez (who turned 35 in May) appeared to be "still an above-average power hitter, if not quite as dominant a bat as he'd been in his career."
"I'm just wondering how much was the oblique, and how much was just being an older guy," the scout said. "The bat was not quite as lightning quick as it had been, but he still has plus bat speed. I think he is one of the most overlooked and underrated players of his era, as he is truly a great right-handed hitter. He reminds me a little bit of Jim Rice; when he slipped he went backwards quickly, and I wonder if he will have the same plight."
And yet, outside of the one dustup in spring training – the Red Sox figured maybe he'd like to take batting practice; he wanted top dollar for his 1967 Lincoln Continental – Ramirez has generally hit and then lived the life of the 25th man. When the attention turned to Daisuke Matsuzaka's arrival, Dustin Pedroia's breakout, Josh Beckett's pitching, David Ortiz's resilience, Curt Schilling's recovery, Mike Lowell's production, J.D. Drew's lack thereof, Eric Gagne's landing, the big lead over the New York Yankees and then the small one, Ramirez basically reported to work and did his thing.
No leaked trade demands. Pretty much ran everything out. Opted for the clubhouse urinal.
"I think from an effort standpoint it was his most consistent season, at least since I've been here," said Terry Francona, who has managed the Red Sox since 2004. "He's in a real good place. He seems real happy. … I don't know if he cares where the radar is."
He later amended that slightly.
"I just think he likes to play baseball and kind of go under the radar," he said.
The oblique injury cost Ramirez 25 games from Aug. 28 to Sept. 25. But otherwise, Francona said, Ramirez comes in, works out, enjoys himself and, really, what more can he ask?
So inspired, Francona even deflected a question about Ortiz's knack for clutch hits to the man who bats fourth.
"Some of the situations David has been put in because of Manny," he said. "With Manny standing back there all these years, David's going to be pitched to."
Therein lies the Angels' issue: Ramirez is a career .435 hitter against Angels right-hander and Game 1 starter John Lackey, and that's a hard .435 – four home runs and three doubles among 10 hits. Then there's this: Ortiz hits Lackey nearly as well.
Ramirez has been back for 21 plate appearances, and has one extra-base hit in them. With the postseason approaching, Francona force-fed him at-bats from the two hole. Come Wednesday night, however, Ramirez should be back hitting cleanup, seeking out hitters' counts and fastballs – just being, you know, Manny.
"I've witnessed some of the hiccups along the way," Francona said, "but there's a side of him we're very proud of."