Manny, Manuel hold uncommon bond
Off the field, they're buddies; on the field, all bets are off
PHILADELPHIA -- He pulled up in style that summer day, all 21 years of him, cruising carefree in a rented limousine. Manny Ramirez told his driver to stop at the old ballpark in Fort Mill, S.C., home of the Triple-A Charlotte Knights, and then hopped out to search for his new manager.
Charlie Manuel ran things pretty tight around there, leading his Knights toward the top of the International League. He had heard all about Ramirez -- read all about him, too -- but as a half-dozen big league managers would later discover, there's a fair bit more to Ramirez than any scouting report can relate.
Learning that more quickly than most, Manuel sized up his newest player and asked where his luggage was.
"He said he didn't know," Manuel recalled, still incredulous after all this time. "He said he left it at the airport."
So he sent a clubhouse attendant to retrieve it. And then Ramirez asked for money to pay his limo driver, still idling outside.
Fifteen years later, Ramirez claimed not to remember the details of that day. Yet Manuel, his folksy manner shrouding a sharp baseball mind, quite clearly recalls what happened next. Ramirez trotted out to batting practice, swinging so unimpressively that he caused his manager to lament, "Oh, no, there's another guy I'm going to have to work with."
Then Ramirez pulled on his game jersey, took the first Triple-A swings of his life and drilled two home runs to the deepest parts of the ballpark. After the second of them, Manuel turned to his pitching coach and spoke.
"I don't think I'm going to have to work with this kid," he said.
That prediction rang truer than Manuel could have known. Though teacher and student remained together for most of the decade, forging the unlikeliest of friendships along the way, they parted ways after Ramirez signed with the Red Sox prior to the 2001 season. Manuel went on to become manager of the Phillies, leading them to some of their finest seasons of this era. And Ramirez went on to be loved and then ostracized in Boston, departing this summer for Hollywood's glitz.
Now the two have been reunited as unwitting enemies, Manuel spending hours this week determining how to contain his most accomplished pupil. Ramirez has become the most primary organ of this Dodgers offense, quite possibly the lone reason why they're still playing in October. And Manuel is the man charged with minimizing his damage in this week's upcoming National League Championship Series.
"He's an extraordinary talent," Manuel said. "And he loves to hit."
There's no doubt that Ramirez has transformed the Dodgers, though it's difficult to peg the exact extent of his influence. Certainly, his .396 average and 17 homers in 187 at-bats have had an effect on a previously pedestrian offense. And his presence allowed the Dodgers to renovate their fading team into a decisive NL West championship.
There's equally no doubt that Manuel has simultaneously influenced the Phillies, steadily improving their position in the NL East. He has helped cultivate a team that relies heavily on homegrown talent, including its four most fearsome hitters and its top two starting pitchers.
|"He'll do some things sometimes that you don't understand. But if you get to know him, I guarantee you'll like him. You have to like him."|
|-- Phillies manager Charlie Manuel, on Manny Ramirez|
Yet perhaps it's because of each other that Manuel and Ramirez are in this situation. Lounging on a couch before Wednesday's scheduled workout, his dreadlocks flailing in haphazard directions, Ramirez lauded all that his former manager had done for him, first as a Minor League skipper, then as a big league hitting coach and manager.
"He was like a dad to me," Ramirez said. "And now he's on the other side."
Manuel, likewise, thanked Ramirez for advancing his career to unforeseen heights.
"Manny Ramirez can make you a good hitting coach," Manuel joked.
And a decent big league manager, too.
"It's great, man," Ramirez added. "I'm just happy for him."
Perhaps the two have more similarities than at first seems apparent. Manuel, behind his often-jumbled speech and West Virginia drawl, hides tomes of baseball knowledge under a head of white hair. He has helped mold Ryan Howard into one of the game's foremost power threats, Chase Utley into one of its best pure hitters and Cole Hamels into one of its brightest young pitching stars.
He has handled the pressure of managing amongst a Northeast media crunch, and he has led his Phillies to two consecutive playoff appearances.
Then there's Ramirez, who, beyond his quirky exterior, remains as one of the game's most knowledgeable hitters. Ramirez is not a hacker but a natural, one of the game's best at batting with two strikes. He makes adjustments and he thrives. And though Ramirez has endured some moments off the field that have marred his reputation -- most notably this summer's confrontation with a traveling secretary in Boston -- there is no denying his baseball ability.
"He'll do some things sometimes that you don't understand," Manuel said. "But if you get to know him, I guarantee you'll like him. You have to like him."
Perhaps Ramirez is finally attempting to shed his old reputation in Los Angeles, holding extended sessions with the media and helping his young teammates learn the nuances of the game. His heart may remain that of a child, but his mind is that of a 36-year-old man. And the Dodgers have seen more of the latter than the Red Sox did.
"Manny's influence with our young kids has been something that, unless you see it, you wouldn't believe it," Dodgers third-base coach and former Phillies manager Larry Bowa said. "They sort of migrate to him and talk about everything, from kidding around in between innings and what to look for in a certain situation. He's had a big influence on them."
"I've been growing up as a guy for a long time," Ramirez agreed.
It's a process that started years ago, minutes after the limousine zoomed away, after a folksy southern manager formed his unlikely bond with a talented young Dominican hitter. They became friends. And now they're enemies, if only for a series.
Baseball can do that. But it can do so much more than that, too.
"I've seen him grow up over the course of his career," Manuel said. "I kept up with him when he went to Boston. And Manny -- he's very close to me. I love Manny. I mean, he is like a son."
Anthony DiComo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.