BRADENTON, Fla. – The bat, long and thin and dipped in black paint, can’t weigh more than 34 ounces, but it is the name on the barrel – the one printed in gold – that makes the lumber so heavy. Manny Ramirez Jr. smiles as he touches the letters. For 17 years he’s lived with this name and the stares and looks and jokes that come with it until he can do nothing but shake his head. Son of Manny. That’s who he is.
What’s a name anyway?
“I think people might assume unrealistic things for now, but it doesn’t bother me,” he says.
Perhaps no recent baseball name other than Alex Rodriguez brings more baggage than the larger-than-life persona of Manuel Aristides Ramirez Onelcida – better known as Manny Ramirez. For almost 19 years Manny Sr. was one of baseball’s best hitting acts with a vicious swing, long home runs and a running clown show explained away as “Manny being Manny” until it wore old at each stop. Then the home runs disappeared and the suspensions for performance-enhancing drugs thundered down. When he finally walked away from the major leagues last year, Manny Sr.’s once-certain election to the Hall of Fame had become a near impossibility.
The son understands all this, perhaps better than anyone. He has lived it. The good. The bad. The roaring crowds. The darkest days. His parents broke up when he was five, but he spent chunks of summers and school vacations around his father. In 2009, when the Manny show was at its peak in Los Angeles, he traveled for two months with the Dodgers, making friends with players such as Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier and Orlando Hudson. He was 14 then, and if there were ever a doubt he would become a baseball player, it died that beautiful summer in the stadium on the hill above downtown L.A.
Now on the day of his final high school game, Manny Jr., a first baseman and outfielder, sits near the batting cages at the IMG Academy late last week. He came here three years ago with the blessing of his mother, Celia Fernandez, believing the concentration of school and baseball would better prepare him for a baseball life. He has grown to 6-foot-3, taller and lankier than Manny Sr. but also very much a mirror of his father when he first joined the Cleveland Indians in 1993. He is certain to be selected in the MLB First-Year Player Draft in June.
And maybe it is his own baseball life that has given him perspective on his father’s. He talks to Manny Sr. regularly, having just spoken to him via phone from Taiwan, where Manny Sr. is trying to revive his broken baseball career.
“I think with everything that has happened he has matured,” Manny Jr. says about Manny Sr. “It’s the reality that people make mistakes.”
His father has found God in the past couple of years. When they talk, Manny Sr. speaks about faith, the son says.
“He’s gotten really serious about it,” Manny Jr. says. “It started after he got the 50-game [suspension] in Los Angeles. People change as time goes on. He has put his faith into God. I think he was like that before, but he lost his way traveling in baseball.”
Manny Jr. is far more open than his father, who never seemed to care for public interaction. Even as a young star in Cleveland he rarely spoke to the media, something he continued through his years in Boston and Los Angeles. The father has only withdrawn more in recent years as his skills have declined and the suspensions have jackhammered his legacy.
“I think he knows people assume things. Let them say what they want,” Manny Jr. says, explaining Manny Sr.’s public silence.
“I think he may have been a little upset because some of the players he thought were with him at the time – just like friends – he lost many of them,” Manny Jr. continues. “I feel like everybody loved him. I think there were a lot of players that tried to protect their own rather than say they supported him. It’s a shame.”
Perhaps most damning to Manny Sr.’s legacy is the fact he will probably not be seriously considered for the Hall of Fame despite a career in which he hit .312 with 555 home runs and three times led the majors in slugging percentage. But given Manny Sr.’s ambivalence about publicity, it was often hard to tell how much he cared about such honors.
“It’s one of those things where he would have liked it, but it’s not that big a deal anymore,” Manny Jr. says. “I think he’d not like his career to end in Taiwan rather than in the major leagues.”
Still, Manny Jr. says he thinks his father is happy in Taiwan and seems to have rediscovered a love for baseball. He suggests his father might want to come back as a coach but isn’t sure how or when. The thought isn’t as preposterous as it might sound.
Manny Jr. learned a lot about hitting in the time he spent with his father. It would have been hard not to. For all the pranks and the goofiness of Manny Sr., few players prepared as diligently for games. In that magical summer of 2009 as he traveled around the National League with the Dodgers, Manny Jr. was always struck by the number of hours his father put into hitting. They’d arrive at the park sometime around noon – 3 ½ to 4 hours before the time players are supposed to report. Manny Sr. would go to the clubhouse, change and immediately immerse himself into tapes of opposing pitchers. He would next go with then-Dodgers hitting coach Don Mattingly – now the team's manager – to the indoor batting cages where he would sometimes hit for two hours.
All of this Manny Jr. brought with him to IMG where he too became known as the player who spent longer than his teammates getting ready for games. For instance, he uses the wooden bat – an award from a tournament in Arizona – to take batting practice. Because the wood bat has a smaller “sweet spot” where the ball jumps off the bat, it gives him a better feel for the best place to make contact with the more forgiving aluminum bats he uses in games.
“He definitely mirrors his father’s approach when it comes to hitting,” says Ken Bolek, IMG’s baseball program director.
In a way, Bolek should know. Years ago, he was an outfield coach for the Cleveland Indians when a young slugger from Washington Heights in New York City named Manny Ramirez was promoted to the big leagues. Bolek only worked with Manny Sr. for about a month before the season ended and he left to take a job with the Cubs. But even then he got a sense of the intensity that belies the player’s outside reputation as a bit of a goofball.
Both he and IMG’s baseball coach, Jason Elias, sat down with Manny Jr. for long talks about the burden that comes with his father’s name. “Whether you like it or not, that is who you are,” Elias told him.
“You’re going to have to earn your own reputation and your chances in life,” Bolek said in a meeting with Manny Jr. a couple of years ago. “There is going to be a time when people come to see Manny Ramirez Jr. and not his father.”
Manny Jr. is easy-going. He has a quick smile, greets strangers with a handshake and makes eye contact with his interviewers. He has his father’s short, level swing, his father’s batting stance (only slightly more open) and is starting to develop some of his father’s power. What he doesn’t have is any of Manny Sr.'s eccentricities.
“There have been zero problems with Manny,” Elias says.
Manny Jr. describes himself as a “late bloomer” as a player. His coaches have always felt he had great potential but had to find the approach that worked best. He came to the academy about three inches shorter and was a little stockier than he is now. After last season, he lost around 25 pounds, and, combined with the growth spurt, his skills have improved.
Even though he is certain to be drafted, there is some uncertainty as to the round. He has committed to Central Arizona Community College, a top-ranked baseball school, and Bolek has urged him to go there for at least a year to grow stronger and further develop his power. This last year Manny Jr. hit .366 with two home runs and 27 RBI. Bolek thinks the home run and RBI numbers can increase significantly with a year of playing with bigger and older men.
The irony in all of this is that little of the push for baseball comes from Manny Sr. In fact, Manny Jr. says it’s his mother – probably the biggest influence on his life – who has encouraged him to play. She’s the one who sent him to IMG, he says. She’s the one the coaches have met, who checks on his progress, who gives him the most support.
“My father wants me to go to college and get a degree,” Manny Jr. says. “If baseball happens, it happens.”
Told that seems strange coming from a player who never went to college or gave a public indication that school was important, Manny Jr. smiles.
“He knows times have changed,” he says.
Soon it was time to hit and then get on a bus for a ride to the last game, which was being played at the Yankees' spring training stadium, Steinbrenner Field, in Tampa. It probably won’t be the last professional stadium in which he plays. A baseball future looms for the boy with a baseball name loaded with expectation and burden.
He picks up the wooden bat and heads toward the batting cage where he'll stand just like Manny Sr. and smack line drives for as long as anyone will let him. The son, in this case, just like the father.
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