The Florida Marlins have a knack for unearthing young pitching talent, not to mention a flair for making astute roster changes out of economic necessity. They're overachieving, underfunded masters in the art of baseball guerrilla warfare.
Except for the front office, where president of baseball operations Larry Beinfest and several of his lieutenants are signed through 2015, the word "continuity" rarely applies. But the view up the middle is as predictable as thunderstorms during batting practice.
Shortstop Hanley Ramirez and second baseman Dan Uggla have been together since 2005, when disparate circumstances brought them to South Florida in a two-week span around Thanksgiving. Ramirez, a highly regarded prospect in the Boston system, arrived in Miami as part of a seven-player trade that sent Josh Beckett and Mike Lowell to the Red Sox. Uggla, 25 years old and still kicking around Double-A ball with the Arizona organization, joined the Marlins shortly thereafter through the Rule 5 draft.
Five Opening Days later, they've combined for four All-Star appearances and have the third-longest-running tenure of any double-play combination in the majors behind New York's Derek Jeter and Robinson Cano and Philadelphia's Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley. Factor in Alex Gonzalez and Luis Castillo, who played in seven straight Opening Days together, and the Marlins have been a monument to stability around the second-base bag since 1999.
Another go-round seemed unlikely last winter, when Uggla sweated out three months of Internet chatter as Florida's resident Human Trade Rumor. Although the Marlins actively shopped him, rumored deals to the Giants and Orioles failed to materialize, and Uggla signed a one-year, $7.8 million contract in January. He'll bat fifth this summer behind Jorge Cantu and steel himself for a new round of speculation in November as he prepares to enter his free-agent "walk" year.
Part of the attraction of returning was playing alongside Ramirez, and perpetuating the mental telepathy they've developed through 561 games together in the Florida infield.
"Hanley's so smart baseball-wise, and we're constantly talking throughout the game," Uggla said. "If we need to switch coverages on a stolen base, we're pretty much on the same page. If I'm going to take the double play [throw] from the pitcher on a comebacker, we pretty much have it locked down. There's not one thing defensively that we don't agree on. We're always on the same page."
That image runs counter to the fallout from a testy clubhouse exchange last September, which created the impression that Uggla and Ramirez were barely on the same planet.
In four years with Florida, Ramirez has evolved from a callow bundle of potential to a one-man Wins Above Replacement factory. He's a two-time All-Star with a Rookie of the Year award, two Silver Sluggers and a batting title in his portfolio. He signed a six-year, $70 million contract in May 2008, assuring he'll be a lineup fixture when the Marlins move into their new ballpark in 2012. And when his teammates assess his skill set, it's with the same sense of reverence that the Cardinals reserve for Albert Pujols.
But like some other young Latin stars who have to deal with a language barrier and a new culture (Jose Reyes springs to mind), Ramirez was thrust into a leadership vacuum that he was unequipped to handle. He has variously come across as moody, self-centered and content to let his natural ability carry him through a season. Stat worshippers and fantasy devotees have no reason to complain, but when Ramirez's teammates began to perceive him as a diva, it was destined to cause friction in the clubhouse.
The emotional disconnect came to a head in September. After Ramirez left a game with Atlanta because of a tight hamstring, Uggla openly questioned his commitment to the cause. "You got your $70 million, and [expletive] winning," Uggla said. The mood deteriorated from there, until manager Fredi Gonzalez cleared the clubhouse for a closed-door meeting.
In one respect, Ramirez found himself in elite company; Tony Gwynn, Ichiro Suzuki and other star players have been derided as selfish for being obsessed with getting their three or four hits a night. "Baseball is an individual game wrapped up in a team concept, so you have to be selfish a little bit," said Marlins outfielder Cody Ross.
The difference, in this case, is that Marlins beat reporters provided a blow-by-blow account of the exchange for public consumption. That raised the perceived tension to red-alert level.
"It happened around the media, so it kind of got blown up," Ross said. "But everybody needs a reality check at some point. I've been through it. Uggla's been through it. We've all been called out at some point, whether it's another player, a coach or somebody holding you accountable.
"We're all like brothers in here. We argue and fight and talk smack to each other, and it happens a lot more than people know, because we hold each other accountable and we want each individual to be the best he can to help the team."
If the confrontation produced any residual animosity, it quickly passed. The Marlins posted a 19-12 record in September and October and finished a surprising second in the National League East with 87 victories. In hindsight, the incident might have been therapeutic for all involved.
"It's over and done with," Uggla said. "Every once in a while everybody needs a kick in the butt. If I need a kick in the butt, I want him to give it to me, too. It was all out of love. It's all behind us, and I think we're better from it.
"People are going to take from it what they read in the paper, on the Internet and magazines, and we can't control that. The bottom line is, we're great friends and we always will be. If Hanley called me up and said, 'I need you to come to the Dominican,' I would be there within a 24-hour period. And if I called him and needed him in Tennessee in the offseason, he would be there in a 24-hour period. That's how you know who your friends are."
Ramirez never made it to Uggla's home in Columbia, Tenn. -- the self-proclaimed "Mule Capital of the World" -- but his offseason was eventful nevertheless. He spent the winter at home in the Dominican Republic overseeing construction of the H2R Ranch, so named in honor of his initials and his jersey number. The complex reportedly includes a five-bedroom house, a swimming pool and a gazebo.
We're all like brothers in here. We argue and fight and talk smack to each other, and it happens a lot more than people know, because we hold each other accountable and we want each individual to be the best he can to help the team.
”-- Marlins OF Cody Ross
Ramirez also concentrated on strengthening his lower body to help him better endure the rigors of a long season at short. He made only 10 errors last year after committing 26, 24 and 22 in the previous three seasons, and a stable base is only going to help him become more consistent and reliable in the field.
Beyond that, there are signs that Ramirez took Uggla's criticism and the lack of public support from his teammates to heart. Tony Perez, a special assistant with the Marlins, said Ramirez seemed more vocal this spring and more emotionally invested in the performance of his fellow Marlins.
"I see him come here every day and really share with the guys in the clubhouse and on the bench," Perez said. "He's moving around. He's talking. I see a lot of improvement in everything. He's working on that, and the other players see it. It's different from a couple of years ago."
Veteran infielder Wes Helms, who also reportedly clashed with Ramirez last season, saw a more committed and focused player in the batting cage and the weight room. Ramirez spent more time talking to young players in Florida's spring training camp, and assumed more of a veteran mentor role than he had in the past.
"Hanley's one of those guys who's so good, sometimes they can get by with how good they are," Helms said. "But now I think he's matured a little and it's made him realize, 'Hey, I do need to work and be that team guy so that we can win.'
"I'll never forget what Greg Maddux told me one time in Atlanta. He said, 'The difference between a great player and a good player is, the great player's mind is in every pitch for 162 games. That's what separates the crowd.' I'm starting to see Hanley get that now."
It's a frightening thought -- that Ramirez actually has room to improve. But he doesn't dispute the notion that he's a different player and teammate at age 26 than he was at 23 or 24.
"I just want to have a good relationship with everybody and be me," Ramirez said. "You grow up [in this game] and you mature."
And if harsh words occasionally pass between teammates who know each other almost too well, it sure beats the alternative -- sitting idly by and watching that same teammate leave town because of dollars and cents. Nobody understands that better than the Marlins.