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04/18/08 7:20 PM ET

Manny one of best all-time hitters

Teammates praise slugger on his way to 500 career homers

BOSTON -- Everybody knows about Manny Ramirez the hitter. The back of a baseball card tells that story with the eye-popping numbers that opposing pitchers have been all too familiar with over the years.

But how about Manny Ramirez the person? That is a story far less known, mainly because Ramirez -- though chatty and friendly with the media in 2008 -- has kept his voice out of the public for the majority of his career.

Behind closed doors, however, there is a very different Ramirez, one that is finally coming to light as he closes in on home run No. 500.

Ask just about anyone who has played with Ramirez over the years and you will hear about a teammate who elicits awe, laughter, appreciation and respect.

Perhaps no teammate has ever bonded with Ramirez quite as much as David Ortiz. The two have had lockers next to each other for the past six seasons, all the while tormenting opponents.

Is it a coincidence that Ortiz -- a platoon player in Minnesota -- became "Big Papi" only after becoming teammates with Ramirez?

"The guy is a machine, man," Ortiz said. "I have learned so much from Manny since I got here, I can't even imagine. The guy, he gets prepared to play, bro. I don't care what people say. To be at the top of the league as a player doesn't come just because you're sleeping at home. You've got to work to get to it. That's why Manny's numbers have always been the way they have been. He has an amazing routine, every day."

The routine consists of Ramirez arriving at Fenway Park in the morning to lift weights. Then, going home for perhaps a lunch break and a nap. And then, Ramirez arrives back at Fenway a second time -- still, before just about all of his teammates have arrived for that night's game -- to take countless hacks in the cage and then dissect video.

Sure, Ramirez is as carefree a teammate as there is, constantly keeping the Red Sox loose with his "Manny being Manny" antics. But there is nobody in baseball who takes his craft more seriously than Ramirez, and therein lies a big chunk of his greatness.

"You know, he may be one of the smartest hitters I've ever seen," said Yankees outfielder Johnny Damon, a teammate of Ramirez's from 2002-05. "He works real hard to sustain that swing. Yeah, he's always been a great hitter, but the things you see him do -- if a pitch is called a few inches outside, he knows a pitcher is going to go out there in his next at-bat, so he'll grab a 35-, 36-inch bat and cover the plate and hit it out of the ballpark in his next at-bat.

"Sometimes, he sets the pitchers up. You strike him out on a pitch right down the middle and he pretty much says, 'Big deal. I'm going to get him the next time.'"

You don't have to tell veteran reliever Mike Timlin. Though he's been a teammate of Ramirez's since 2003, Timlin remembers well the type of hard labor it was to face him, and that challenge was every bit as mental as it was physical.

"I faced him in Cleveland years ago," Timlin said. "I threw him a 3-1 heater, I was just going to walk him. I gave him a 3-1 fastball about chest high away, and he hit it out to right field. At the time, I was like, 'You've got to be kidding me,' but he was looking for something out over the plate and I threw him four other pitches inside. He got his pitch and he didn't miss it. That's what sets him apart. He doesn't miss when he sets it in his head."

Jim Thome -- who hit his 500th homer last year for the White Sox -- was side-by-side with Ramirez during the Cleveland years.

"He was fun-loving, very easygoing," said Thome. "He was a tremendous worker. The one thing that stands out in my mind is I don't think the people who don't know Manny know how much he works and the time, effort and long hours he puts in. As a player and a teammate, you watch and respect that."

When Sean Casey arrived this spring as a new member of the Boston Red Sox, he was reunited with Ramirez. Back in the mid '90s, Casey was a prospect with the Cleveland Indians and Ramirez was a blossoming star. Seeing Ramirez up close again more than a decade later has been quite a revelation to Casey.

"You know what's amazing is seeing who he is now to who he was when I first met him -- he's the exact same guy," marveled Casey. "I think if you could correlate the whole thing and put it together on why he's been so good, [it's because] he's been consistent.

"He does the same stuff now that he did when he came up. It's the same stuff. He used to hit all the time. He used to be the first one there to hit. He used to work hard. He's doing the same stuff. It's like the consistency of that routine and his demeanor over the years is why he's nearing 500 home runs, and he'll get to 600 and then some. It's why he's one of the best hitters to ever play the game. I think so much of it is because of his work ethic and his routine every day and his demeanor."

That demeanor can make for some rather funny moments on the baseball field. While Ramirez is a hitting savant, he has had some spacey moments on the basepaths and in the field. Nobody knows this better than Damon.

The night was July 21, 2004, and the place was Fenway Park. David Newhan, then with the Orioles, belted one deep to center field and it took one of those bad bounces off the wall at Fenway. As Damon gathered himself and tried to nail Newhan at third, Ramirez literally made a move that came right out of left field. He dove and cut off Damon's throw before it could get back to the infield. Newhan scooted home with an inside-the-park home run and the Boston dugout was in a state of utter confusion over what they had just witnessed.

"I think I make a pretty strong throw, maybe a one-hopper to third and all of a sudden, I see him come out of nowhere and just dive and I mean ... I would have laughed if the guy hadn't hit an inside the parker," Damon said. "I got the heat for that, needing two cutoff men. I was like, 'Well, I really didn't need Manny there.' It definitely would have one-hopped third."

Four years later, Damon still gets a kick out of being part of one of the most bizarre defensive sequences in baseball history.

"Hopefully, one of these days we can see the overhead of that play and just kind of see how everything converged and happened. It's pretty funny," said Damon.

What did Damon say to Ramirez after the play unfolded?

"I just said, 'Nice catch,'" said Damon.

Just another piece of that all-encompassing three-word phrase known as "Manny being Manny."

By the way, nobody gets a bigger kick out of the "Manny being Manny" expression than Ramirez himself.

"I love it, I love it," Ramirez said. "That means I'm important. I love it. I don't know what it means, but I love it. If people are thinking about you, it means you're important."

When the Red Sox fell behind the Indians, 3-1, in the American League Championship Series last year, Ramirez took the attention away from his slumping team by holding an impromptu session with the media in the middle of the clubhouse before the off-day workout. At that time, it was highly unusual for Ramirez to talk, as he had been silent for most of the season.

"It doesn't matter how things go for you," Ramirez said that day. "We're not going to give up. We're just going to go and play the game, like I've said, and move on. If it doesn't happen, so who cares? There's always next year. It's not like the end of the world or something. Why should we panic?"

Perhaps taking the lead of their relaxed teammate, the Red Sox rallied back in that series and won it in seven games.

Then, they went on to win the World Series, not that it was complete until the final out was recorded.

After winning Game 3 to pin the Rockies in a 3-0 hole, Ramirez was asked about his team being in the drivers' seat.

"We don't want to eat the cake first, before your birthday," said Ramirez in another Manny-ism.

Now, the slugger closes in on a milestone that only 23 hitters in history have achieved.

"Manny just has God-given bat speed, and you can't teach that," said Orioles first baseman Kevin Millar, who teamed with Ramirez in Boston for three years. "There's no doubt in my mind that he has the prettiest right-handed swing in the history of the game, and I think he'll go down as the best right-handed hitter we've ever seen. People compare him to Albert Pujols, but let me get something straight: Pujols has to do it for around five or six more years. Straight. Manny had 10 straight years of 30 homers and 100 RBIs. That's a healthy body and consistency."

And all of it done with plenty of entertainment along the way.

Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.