Ramirez ultra-talented yet still immature

MIAMI -- Hours before the scheduled start of a Dominican League final game in Santo Domingo in January, Hanley Ramirez -- trailed by a couple of members of his entourage -- walked out of the dugout at Estadio Quisqueya and headed toward the batting cage that was planted on the field. The stadium was mostly empty except for a few workers who were cleaning the stands. One of those workers began shouting at Ramirez.

"Hey, Hanley, do you remember me?" the older man dressed in tattered clothes said.

Ramirez, wearing a designer pair of track pants, a white shirt and a pair of shiny new sneakers, began hitting in the cage and did not acknowledge the man.

"Hanley, we used to talk when you were very young," the man shouted.

Ramirez first made his fame in the Dominican at the Estadio Quisqueya as a star for the Tigres del Licey of the Dominican Winter League. Ramirez was a Licey regular until he signed a six-year, $70 million contract extension with the Florida Marlins last year. Now he says the Marlins forbid him from playing there, so he simply works out at the stadium.

The old man in tattered clothes spent the next 20 minutes trying to get Ramirez's attention, but Ramirez did not even flinch. It was not until Ramirez finished hitting that he walked over toward the man. After a quick hello, Ramirez went back into the dugout and was not seen again.

Here is the dichotomy of Ramirez: a player with admirable work habits, yet an almost displeasing demeanor. Ramirez as a person can be dismissive and distant, yet as a player he's dynamic and impossible to dislike.

Everything about Ramirez, 25, is big league -- his game and his attitude. This season, he's quarreled with teammates about the validity of an injury, argued with management about the team's hair policy, and bickered with reporters over their criticism -- something that would drive most fans, not to mention team executives, crazy.

Yet he may be baseball's most complete player, a combination of power, speed and hitting acumen, all things that he could not have mastered without a tremendous work ethic. Teammates and coaches still consider him a kid -- a well-liked but at times capricious one. But as he finishes his most productive season -- an MVP-caliber year -- and heads into his fifth full season in the majors in 2010, Ramirez is inching toward veteran status.

And while Ramirez's skills surely power the Marlins, the bigger question is whether he can lead them. Can he be the clubhouse presence to turn the Marlins -- a talented group of young players -- into World Series contenders, or will he be the petulant superstar whose mere individual statistics define his career?

"He's going to fall into that leadership role whether he likes it or not," said former NL MVP Andre Dawson, a special assistant for the Marlins. "That leadership role is something elite players have put upon them. Now whether he can grasp that role and do what he needs to do with it, well, that remains to be seen."

On the second-to-last weekend of the season, Ramirez sits in front of his locker at Land Shark Stadium only moments before a recent game against the New York Mets. During a short interview -- his representatives had promised at least 20 minutes, but Ramirez grew impatient after only eight minutes and ended the interview by saying, "You're finished, right?" -- Ramirez said he's uncomfortable taking a leadership role.

"I'm not the type of person who is very vocal, so when I lead I think it's more by example," Ramirez said.

Young Marlins players would be wise to imitate Ramirez's practice habits.

When told by manager Fredi Gonzalez at the end of last season that he would be switching from leadoff hitter to No. 3 in the lineup, Ramirez quickly began to strategize.

During the offseason, Ramirez gained almost 20 pounds of muscle to make sure he didn't wear out at the end of the year, as he said he had at the end of the 2008 season. With agility training and weightlifting, Ramirez transformed himself from a sleek middle infielder to a run-producing, power shortstop with the body of an NFL safety. Yet he knew even the extra muscle would not be enough.

"I had to change my approach," Ramirez said.

To do so, Ramirez had conversations with several players, including Albert Pujols, about how to hit in the third spot. Though he would not reveal specifics of the conversation with Pujols -- "We just spoke about stuff that baseball players talk about" -- Ramirez credits the slugger for helping him make the transition.

Ramirez has taken an aggressive approach at the plate. He does not walk as frequently as he did last year (he walked 92 times in 2008 compared to 61 times this season), and his home run numbers have dipped (33 in '08, 24 this year), but Ramirez's slugging percentage stands at .542, up slightly from last season.

His National League-leading .341 batting average is certainly a by-product of his fortuitous career-high average of balls he's put in play (his career BABIP is .355), meaning he's gotten some luck. But that extra muscle he's added has helped him become a complete hitter who can hit the ball into the gaps. His dip in stolen bases (35 stolen bases last season, 26 this year) is merely the result of his new place in the lineup.

"I'm never going to steal bases like I did before," Ramirez said. "My body has changed, and I also know that if I get hurt on the bases, it really will affect the team."

Ramirez does not watch video -- something for which he's been criticized in Miami -- but he does study pitchers from the dugout. After each at-bat, backup infielder Andy Gonzalez said, he approaches Ramirez for advice.

"If he sees something bad with your swing or approach, he'll give you advice," Gonzalez said. "He'll sometimes tell me what pitch to look for."

Ramirez took it personally when people around the game suggested he'd have to switch positions after committing 26 errors in 2006 -- although the Marlins never considered a position switch for Ramirez, according to infield coach Andy Fox.

Early this spring, Ramirez worked with Fox on attacking the baseball. Often, Fox believed, Ramirez played too far back and allowed bad hops to eat him up. After several hours of infield practice, Ramirez learned to charge balls before they could take a bad hop.

Experience has also taught Ramirez where to position himself on the field for each particular batter. In addition, his maturity as a hitter has also helped his defense.

"Sometimes when he struggled at the plate, he carried it to the field," said Marlins infielder Emilio Bonifacio, also Ramirez's teammate with Licey. "Now I think he's been able to separate his offense from his defense."

After committing 22 errors last season, Ramirez has committed only 10 this year, which ranks fourth fewest among shortstops behind Jimmy Rollins (six), J.J. Hardy (eight) and Troy Tulowitzki (nine). His ultimate zone rating was a ghastly minus-19.2 in 2007. This year, it's a respectable 0.7. (Jack Wilson leads all shortstops with a 14.2 UZR.)

"I don't think anyone expected this type of improvement," Fox said, "but he did it because he has so much pride."

For all his bravado, there is still an innocence to Ramirez, a sweet sense of humor he often shows with teammates, and a touching display of affection he has when his two children are in the clubhouse. It may simply be that his difficult attitude may be a show of machismo, a front to appear tougher than he really is. In reality, Ramirez is incredibly sensitive.

"He's a guy that doesn't take well to criticism, be it constructive or whatever," Dawson said.

All of Ramirez's incidents of immaturity this season have come when someone has bruised his ego.

Andre Dawson [Hanley's] a guy that doesn't take well to criticism, be it constructive or whatever.

-- Andre Dawson, a special assistant for the Marlins

In the spring, the Marlins instituted a short-hair policy, which clearly most affected Ramirez, who used to wear his hair in dreadlocks. One day during the spring, Ramirez, in protest of the policy, wore a shirt that read, "I'm sick of this s---."

In September, Ramirez bristled when he was struck by a pitch in a game against the Toronto Blue Jays and nobody on the Marlins retaliated. Ramirez told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel that the Marlins had an "obligation" to retaliate.

Most famously, Ramirez and second baseman Dan Uggla argued after Ramirez -- who had a tight left hamstring -- pulled himself out of a game in early September against the Braves while the Marlins were in the middle of a pennant race. The two yelled at each other in front of reporters.

Infielder Wes Helms says he's tried to counsel Ramirez on how to behave.

"I might be a veteran, but if you lead, everyone will follow," Helms said he told Ramirez.

But obviously those lessons haven't always gone smoothly. Earlier this year, Yahoo! Sports reported that this year, Helms and Ramirez had a verbal altercation.

"Leaders sometimes have to go through that stuff," Gonzalez said. "You see leadership qualities [with Hanley] more often than you did last year and much more often than you saw them two years ago. He's getting better."

When asked what lessons he's taken from these incidents, Ramirez replied bluntly, "I learned I needed to keep my hair short."

Dawson said he's tried to remind Ramirez that baseball can be a humbling game. Imagine, Dawson wondered, what would happen if Ramirez played in a large-market city where some of his transgressions would have been more highly publicized. How would Ramirez have handled that? Already, Ramirez refuses to speak to local reporters who've written about his clubhouse problems. Yet, like the rest of the Marlins, Dawson can't help but like Ramirez.

Since Dawson has a front-office role with the Marlins, he appears on the field in uniform only sporadically. Last Saturday, Dawson walked onto the field at Land Shark Stadium while Ramirez took batting practice. After Ramirez had finished his session, Dawson called out to him. Almost immediately, Ramirez headed toward Dawson. Dawson then grabbed Ramirez and gave him a big bear hug. With a childish glee, Ramirez let out a big laugh. Soon, even Dawson was laughing, too.

Jorge Arangure Jr. is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.