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Prodding Hanley Ramirez is a team effort

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MIAMI – They would have you believe it was overblown, this pregame flareup that occurred Wednesday between Hanley Ramirez(notes), the Florida Marlins' All-Star shortstop, and Dan Uggla(notes), his double-play partner, a verbal skirmish about Ramirez taking himself out of a game the night before because of a tight hamstring.

But this is not the first time a teammate has challenged Ramirez – a month ago veteran infielder third baseman Wes Helms(notes) confronted him in an altercation that turned, at least briefly, physical.

"It happens on any team,'' Helms said, without offering details but making it clear he has no lingering issues with Ramirez. "If you let things go as a team, sometimes that means you haven't bonded. It's just like raising your kid. You don't let things go. You correct them right there. It's just something that happened, we corrected it and then we forgot about it.''

When a player is young and rich and playing on a small-market team that would sooner run its roster through a shredder than dispense big contracts, and sometimes he gives the appearance that his effort does not match his immense talent, resentment is bound to result. Usually when it does, it happens behind closed doors.

The run-in with Uggla was noteworthy because it occurred in public, creating a potentially destructive distraction for a team desperately trying to remain in wild-card contention, and it blemished the reputation of Ramirez, the best player you never see. The Marlins have not appeared all season on a game televised nationally by ESPN or FOX. In the history of the franchise, which includes two World Series titles, the Marlins have never appeared on a Sunday night ESPN game, to the best of anyone's recollection.

On Tuesday night, Ramirez, in a 0 for 14 slump, his longest hitless streak in more than two seasons, removed himself after the fourth inning because of what he said was cramping in his left hamstring. When he showed up at the ballpark Wednesday, he told manager Fredi Gonzalez that he was OK, and Gonzalez put him in the lineup. But later, Ramirez told reporters that his hamstring was "only 10 percent" but he felt obligated to play because some teammates were unhappy with him.

"A couple of guys did like this when I came out,'' Ramirez said, throwing up his arms, according to Juan Rodriguez of the Sun-Sentinel.

Uggla, sitting at a nearby cubicle, overheard Ramirez and said, 'I was one of them.''

Ramirez turned to the reporters. "You got it,'' he said. "Showed me up.''

Uggla questioned Ramirez's commitment to winning and at one point said, "Yeah, you got your $70 million," referring to Ramirez's six-year contract.

Soon the argument escalated to shouting, causing Gonzalez to emerge from his office. Gonzalez removed Ramirez from the lineup, presumably after learning that the injury was bothering him more than he had let on earlier.

"Time will tell,'' Uggla said of how Ramirez will react to being challenged. "You never like for anything like that to come about, but it's also a situation [where] you don't want to leave anything unsaid. I'd do anything for anybody on this team, and I'd like to think everybody in here would do the same for me and everybody else.''

As a tension-defuser, nothing could have been better than the ninth-inning walkoff home run Helms delivered, giving the Marlins an 8-7 win over the Atlanta Braves with Ramirez watching from the bench.

Afterward, Uggla attempted to characterize the incident as akin giving a motivational prod to a wayward sibling, albeit one leading the National League with a .355 batting average.

"I love him like a brother,'' said Uggla, who hit a two-run home run while batting in Ramirez's usual No. 3 hole. "We got past it. We moved on.''

There is no quarreling with Ramirez's production. In addition to his batting average, he leads the NL with 170 hits and 37 doubles. Since 2007, his second full season in the majors, he leads the majors in runs (332), is fifth in batting average (.327) and has hit more home runs than any other shortstop (81).

After averaging 24 errors in each of the last three years, he has made just nine this season, and currently is on a career-best 47-game errorless streak. He has been the NL All-Star shortstop the last two seasons and would be an MVP choice in any league that didn't include Albert Pujols(notes).

While Ramirez, 25, has played at a very high level, there are those inside and outside the organization who wonder if he possesses the drive that separates the truly great from the merely gifted. Sometimes, the doubters include teammates, which evidently was the case in the last 24 hours.

Ramirez was one of the few position players on either side that did not play Wednesday night. His only appearance was in a pregame ceremony to receive a community service award and he was not available for comment after the game.

But without their superstar, the Marlins batted around in a five-run sixth, succumbed to a furious Braves' rally capped by Yuniel Escobar's game-tying home run off Leo Nunez's(notes) first pitch in the top of the ninth, then prevailed when Helms took Mike Gonzalez(notes) deep.

The Marlins remain five games behind the Colorado Rockies in the wild-card race, four behind the San Francisco Giants and one behind the Braves. With 29 games left, they still have a puncher's chance.

Especially if they choose, Ramirez in the lead, to take the fight to the other side. Helms said Ramirez has matured dramatically in the last three years, especially in terms of his preparation. He's taking ground balls, working in the weight room, understanding the importance of taking care of himself physically. Now, Helms said, there are times when Ramirez will turn to him in the infield and discuss game situations. That never happened before.

"I want him to understand he can become a leader,'' Helms said. "He's a guy with unbelievable talent. What we're seeing now, this is nothing. This is just half of it. This guy can be among the league leaders for the next 10 or 15 years.

"I want to explain to him, 'These guys are going to listen to you because you're good, and if you lead, they're going to follow.' He's beginning to take to that well.

"Two or three years from now, we're going to look back at this and laugh and say, 'You remember when you did this and this? Now you're a grown man.' ''

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