LOS ANGELES – He's bigger than you think, Hanley Ramirez is. Broader. Thicker. He walks with that heaviness sometimes, in the later innings when his body is weary, especially heavy for a man who plays shortstop and twice stole more than 50 bases in this league.
He wears his jersey rakishly unbuttoned, like it can't hold him, not tonight it can't, that big chain and cross dangling, and he holds his bat high, and kicks his front leg high, and fellow ballplayers don't understand how all that doesn't kill his bat speed. But it doesn't. Never has.
Somewhere along the line, the world began to underestimate Hanley Ramirez. He was hurt. He didn't really want to play. He was tired of being a Florida Marlin. He had made his money. The perception of him had changed, and whether it was self-inflicted or not was a matter of where one stood in relation to an unflattering career arc. The Marlins, for one, unloaded him, happily, as they are prone to do.
He said Sunday night, after he'd hit three more line drives and the Los Angeles Dodgers had played to the brink of the NLCS, that those were terrible times, when a weak shoulder had made him half the player he expected of himself.
"I don't want to remember those moments," he said. "It was awful."
But, yeah, at 29, suddenly he's bigger than you thought he was. Wearing the white jersey and playing shortstop and batting third is who he is again, and in a place where they're suckers for stars. In a division series that means the world to the Dodgers, who are trying to make something of themselves again too, it is Ramirez who has never been better, and he'd been pretty damned good once before.
In three games against the Atlanta Braves, including Sunday's Game 3 won 13-6 by the Dodgers, Ramirez is batting .538. The Dodgers are a win away, with a full ballpark awaiting Monday night's Game 4, with Clayton Kershaw in reserve if that doesn't work out, and with Ramirez swinging the bat like there's not a pitch or a pitcher who could beat him. Against a pitching staff that was the finest in the National League over six months, Ramirez has seven hits in 13 at-bats. He's homered, tripled, doubled four times and driven in six runs.
Watch every pitch of those 13 at-bats, every subtle weight shift, the way he starts high and finishes higher, grander, and the way the ball leaves the bat, hard and backspun, and a greater question arises.
"Yeah," A.J. Ellis said, "I don't know how he got out six times."
After he'd doubled off Julio Teheran, tripled off Alex Wood and singled off Jordan Walden, all part of a 14-hit uprising by the Dodgers, Ramirez seemed touched by how wonderful the game could be again. He'd watched so many October baseball games from his home in Miami and never played in one himself. He'd sat through the San Francisco Giants' celebration last October, and he told himself often that next year would be the Dodgers and him playing for something like that. Not everybody wins, of course, but Ramirez wanted a shot at it.
"We're here now," he said.
He's still not whole. Every day, like the men on rosters all over the game, he trudges into the trainer's room and tends to his back and his hamstring and whatever else may have arisen. Don Mattingly, his manager, had rested him plenty in the season's final weeks, because of days like today. Ramirez fought him plenty, too. He wanted to play.
"I just kept telling him," Mattingly said, "'I want the whole world to see you. I want the world to see how good you are.'"
Ramirez would nod and report to the bench, waiting for the important games and the important at-bats, allowing his body to catch up to the time of season. Along came the fourth inning Sunday night. Ramirez laced a line drive into left-center field. He turned first and headed to second base, pulling up slightly as he arrived. Braves center fielder Jason Heyward noted Ramirez's deceleration and he, too, slowed. And then Ramirez dug for third base. He beat the throw easily. The Dodgers scored four runs that inning.
They are better for him. Since the trade two Julys ago, Ramirez has played 150 games as a Dodger and batted .312 with 30 home runs and 101 RBI. The three playoff games, you know about.
"When I got here, they changed everything around me and in my mind," he said. "From the first day, Donnie, I remember when I got to St. Louis and when I walked into his office, he just told me to just be you."
Part of that has been injuries. The rest has been production. And at a time the Dodgers are trying to become relevant again, so is Hanley Ramirez, and it seems to suit them both.
In fact, they're both a little bigger for it.