July 8, 2013

Manny Ramirez faces the heat, gets single in Express debut

On his first night in Round Rock, Ramirez shows the jury is still out.

Standing on the mound for the Omaha Storm Chasers was heralded pitching prospect Yordano Ventura.

Armed with 100 mph heat — his fastball, not just the evening’s temperature — Ventura was born in June of 1991.

At the other end of this second-inning vignette was Manny Ramirez, laden with baggage from here to Santo Domingo. In June of 1991, Manny was drafted in the first round by the Cleveland Indians.

The Kansas City Royals, parent club of the Storm Chasers, are convinced that Ventura has a bright future ahead of him.

The Texas Rangers, meanwhile, parent club of the Round Rock Express, have no expectations for Ramirez at all. If he shows that he can still swing the bat, there could well be a place for him in Arlington.

If not … well, nothing ventured and nothing lost.

Manny said Sunday that he doesn’t want to think about that.

“I’m really not putting that on my mind,” said Ramirez, who hit 555 home runs over 19 big-league seasons. “I don’t have anything to lose. I have everything to gain.”

He’s mostly right. It’s not as if the Rangers invested many man-hours and frequent-flier miles to scout Ramirez during his brief exile in Taiwan. It was club special assistant Tony Fernandez who pushed for the Rangers to give 41-year-old Manny one last chance.

Show us, the Rangers told Ramirez. And the next thing they knew, Manny had obliged and cut off the thick locks that had draped down to his shoulders.

“You like my haircut?” he asked Sunday, staring into a TV camera.

“It feels good, actually. It was getting, like, too heavy. So that was a good thing that I cut it.”

The Rangers just want to see. They want to see if Manny still knows how to discipline himself like a big-leaguer. They want to see if he can still swing the bat.

In that regard, fireballing young Ventura was the perfect foil for Ramirez’s Round Rock debut.

But when Manny was asked before Sunday’s game about any lingering bat-speed issues, he fouled the question off.

“To be honest, I don’t even think about that,” he said. “I just go out there and practice and try to have fun and enjoy it.”

If there’s a timetable, Ramirez said he isn’t aware of one. It’s possible, though, that his shelf life may have been extended a little longer after the Rangers put Lance Berkman on the disabled list.

In his 16 seasons with the Indians and Red Sox, Ramirez was known for his plate discipline.

But in Triple-A, Manny reminded us Sunday, he is here to show he can still hit. He took Ventura’s first pitch in the second inning — a 93 mph fastball in on the fists — and looped it into right field for a single.

Batting in the third inning, Ramirez again didn’t waste any time. Ventura fed him a change-up, and Manny grounded out slowly to shortstop.

In the fifth inning, after missing with a 100-mph fastball early in the count, Ventura struck him out swinging on a 98-mph heater.

Ramirez batted once more, walking against reliever Michael Mariot in the eighth inning, to finish the night 1 for 3. He was removed for a pinch runner, and the crowd of 8,910 rose to give him an appreciative ovation. Some even headed for the exits as Manny jogged back into the dugout.

He just wants a chance, Ramirez said. And while he shrugged away all questions about expectations, Manny admitted that he was excited that the Rangers were giving him that chance.

“It was awesome, unbelievable,” he said of the phone call from Texas. “My wife and I were crying, saying God is good.

“And I’m here…”

For now, he’s right. His eventual destination, though, is another matter. To be called up to the big club, Ramirez will have to show that he can still hit quality pitching -- and hit it better, perhaps, than the Rangers’ other options, among them Mike Olt, who had two solid hits Sunday.

“I have to make some adjustments,” he assessed after Sunday’s game. “I haven't played in two weeks, and you face a guy that throws 100. I just went up there and tried to get comfortable and get a good pitch to hit.”

The Express clearly enjoyed being in the presence of a 12-time All-Star. Fans chanted Ramirez’s name. And in the Express’ version of the Dot Race -- The Great Texas Chicken Race, as named by the sponsor -- the winner turned out to be the guy in a poultry suit who was wearing a curly dark wig that was styled to look like Manny’s new hairdo.

Ramirez appreciated the applause and the chants. “It was awesome,” he said. “When you get all the fans cheering for you, you're just trying to get a good at-bat.”

He has a new attitude, Ramirez said. A new outlook on baseball. A new haircut. A new chance.

It may be his last one. The Rangers want to see.

Nothing ventured, nothing lost.

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