ESPNChicago.com Cubs beat reporter Jesse Rogers is following the Iowa Cubs this week as they take on the Omaha Storm Chasers. He reports on several of the Cubs' top prospects and their player-coach, Manny Ramirez.
OMAHA, Nebraska – If you’re still thinking the Manny Ramirez-to-Triple-A experiment is some sort of gimmick, you need to see Ramirez after two eight-hour bus rides in three days. The luxury of the major leagues -- with its chartered flights and five-star hotels -- is a distant memory. And he’s just fine with it.
“I know how to enjoy myself when I have a lot, and I know how to enjoy myself when I have less,” Ramirez said before the Iowa Cubs played the Omaha Storm Chasers on Monday after an all-night trip from Oklahoma City.
Ramirez has settled into his new gig as part-time player and full-time coach for Triple-A Iowa, and all he wants to do –- he says –- is have a positive effect.
“When you help somebody and see them grow up and maybe down the road you’re going to be in your house and say, ‘Wow, I worked with this kid. Look at him now. He’s doing it.’ -- I think that’s great satisfaction,” Ramirez said.
So is he helping? You won’t find a player or coach with the Iowa Cubs who says he isn’t. A tangible example came in a game against Colorado Springs, when third base slugger Kris Bryant was getting ready to hit.
“[Manny] knew what the pitcher wanted to do,” Bryant recalled. “He told me to look for a two-seamer middle away on the first pitch. It’s exactly what he threw, and I singled to right. It was cool to see results right after what he told me.”
It’s exactly what Theo Epstein envisioned when he hired Ramirez, much to the surprise of everyone in the baseball world, including Ramirez himself.
“It was a big surprise for me and my family,” Ramirez said. “He was honest. ‘We’re not going to have playing time for you or a spot in the big leagues, but if you want to come and help out, you can.’”
More than anything, the Cubs are hoping Ramirez’s work ethic rubs off. Iowa manager Marty Pevey says the hitter with 555 career home runs is at the ballpark by 11 a.m. for night games. His routine involves plenty of swings and sometimes just watching pitches from a machine, be it 100 mph or offspeed stuff.
“Every swing he takes in the cage has a purpose behind it,” Bryant said. “It’s cool to see how he goes about it.”
Ramirez has just as much praise for his prodigies as they do for him. He says Bryant reminds him of former player Richie Sexson -- at least in stature. He says Baez has more power at 21 years old than he or even Alex Rodriguez did.
“I’ve been telling him to go up the middle,” Ramirez said. “He’s only 21. He’s starting to figure it out. And Bryant? Oh my god. He’s unbelievable. He’s a classy guy.”
After taking a moment to recall the name -- after all, he’s only been with the Iowa Cubs a short while -- Ramirez says Arismendy Alcantara is going to be a “special player.”
Ramirez cites former players such as Dave Winfield and Robbie Alomar for helping him when he was coming up. Now he’s doing the same for the Cubs’ prospects.
“I think it’s a blessing to have someone with more experiences than you go about his business,” Ramirez said. “I’ve been telling them to watch the pitcher during the game, the situation in the game. Men on base, the count. They’re not going to pitch everyone the same, but you have to be ready and have a plan.”
Ramirez has shown he has at least some life left in his bat; he’s hit a home run and collected five hits in 19 at-bats. That’s not bad for a 42-year-old who just wants to be “one of the guys.”
“It feels great to have him here,” Baez said. “We learn a lot from him. He wants to be another player -- no different. That’s how he is. He’s been a nice guy just trying to help everybody.”
Bryant added: “He’s here really early to the park, in the cage working with us. He wants to be treated like everyone else.”
Ramirez has implored the players to stay away from the performance-enhancing drugs that got him in trouble -- or anything else that might trigger a positive drug test.
“Don’t take anything that is over the counter,” he said. “There are consequences. They are all professional. They know the testing is more painful [intense] than before.”
Will they listen? Will it help if they do? Only time will tell, but one thing is certain after those long, infamous, minor league bus rides: Ramirez is here to help and be one of the guys, above all else.
“Man, I’m just like a kid here,” he said. “They don’t care about [his status]. We just joke around all day. I enjoy every day, on the bus or at the stadium. That’s what I do.”