IS HANLEY THE MARLINS’ FIRST FRANCHISE PLAYER?
- Updated: April 8, 2010
The most ominous reminder is right along the rafters of Sun Life Stadium.
Decorating the ballpark are tributes to countless athletes who’ve graced Miami with their greatness. There’s Dan Marino, Bob Griese, Paul Warfield, Dwight Stephenson, and on and on. They all have one thing in common.
Not a single one of them played for the Florida Marlins.
On my first visit, I was upset over what I perceived as mistreatment of their baseball tenants. Not only was the venue (at the time) called Dolphin Stadium, but even in the middle of baseball season there was nothing for the eye to explore except the names of old football players. To add insult to injury, I could make out hash marks on the field. I was half-expecting to find the goal posts still up.
I said to myself, “Why don’t these clowns put up any of the Marlins legends! You know, like… ”
And that’s when it dawned on me. Even though the Florida Marlins have two World Series titles (1997 and 2003), they still don’t have a franchise player.
I thought about players like third baseman Gary Sheffield and righthanded pitcher Kevin Brown. They were heroes of the 1997 team, but their Marlins days were just a blip in their careers and they were gone within a year of the crowning. Catcher Ivan Rodriguez was the heart and soul of the 2003 team, yet it was his only season wearing teal. Josh Beckett was the homegrown pitching hero that year and he was traded two seasons later (for a certain shortstop).
Charles Johnson and Jeff Conine spent the most time in Miami and are probably the only ones who’d identify themselves as Marlins above any other team. Both were dealt shortly after the 1997 World Series only to return to Miami where Jeff Conine received another ring with the 2003 Champs. Johnson and Conine were both very good ballplayers, each two-time all-stars, and probably the best candidates to have their numbers retired and displayed on the rafters.
But their longevity, numbers, and names don’t jump out the way a Stan Musial does in St. Louis or an Al Kaline in Detroit. They’re more like their respective Cardinals and TIgers teammates, third baseman Whitey Kurowski and centerfielder Jim Northrup; important contributors but not quite franchise icons.
Because of a perpetually fluctuating roster and bottom-feeding payroll, the Marlins have never developed an identity and this for me is a major reason they’ve yet to maintain a considerable fan following in south Florida.
That’s where Hanley Ramirez comes in.
THE HOPE OF HANLEY
The Marlins stepped up and signed both their superstar shortstop and their ace pitcher to long-term contracts in the last year. While righty Josh Johnson is signed through 2013, Ramirez’s deal goes another year to 2014.
With a retractable domed stadium opening up in Miami for the 2012 season, the Marlins anticipate an increase in revenue which fans dearly hope will be invested back into the roster. Major League Baseball has publically taken the Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria to task about hording their revenue gains. The signings of both Ramirez and Johnson are, if nothing else, a bold statement to their fans that the Marlins are serious about winning in the future.
As good as Josh Johnson is, a perennial Cy Young Award candidate, it is the everyday player who carries the franchise on his shoulder. Johnson can perform wonders every fifth day, but it’s Hanley Ramirez who can do something to affect the outcome of every single game.
Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright are awful good in St. Louis, but it’s Albert Pujols’s team. Johan Santana was outstanding in Minnesota, but the Twins dealt him and gave the money to catcher Joe Mauer. The New York Yankees have had a parade of standout pitchers over the years, but it’s the shortstop Derek Jeter who became the unquestioned leader.
I see it as the same in south Florida. For me, the fate of this franchise rests on Hanley Ramirez. If the Marlins are to became a stable franchise, win another championship, and gain a foothold of support among local sports fans, it will be because of Hanley Ramirez.
There’s no questioning Ramirez’s five-tool talent, he is perhaps the most athletically gifted player in the major leagues right now. He’s put together four very strong seasons for the Marlins culminating with the 2009 batting crown. Ramirez hit 24 home runs, 106 RBIs, and stole 27 bases to go with his league-leading .342 average. He has the ultra-quick feet and powerful arm to make the most difficult plays at shortstop and he’s even cut his errors from 26 to 24 to 22 to 10. To watch a 6’3” man perform acrobatics is plenty impressive, but now that he’s also making the routine plays, it’s downright scary. While I think highly of Jimmy Rollins, who’s won the National League shortstop gold glove the last three years, I believe the N.L. coaches will be forced to consider Hanley for the award in 2010.
In terms of pure talent, pure athletic talent, I’d put Ramirez just a hair below Alex Rodriguez among major league shortstops over the last 30 years I’ve watched baseball. I’d put him just over multi-dimensional greats like Robin Yount and Barry Larkin and believe he’s capable of enjoying every bit the careers they had. At age 27, there’s plenty more to come if he wants it.
IT TAKES MORE THAN JUST TALENT AND NUMBERS TO BE A FRANCHISE PLAYER
I praise Hanley Ramirez as a player now but I was probably his harshest critic just three years ago when I scouted him on my pro coverage for the St. Louis Cardinals.
While I thought the same of his abilities then as now and his numbers were indisputable, Ramirez struck me as a “rotisserie player” when I watched him on a daily basis. I use that term to describe players who are not as good as their stats indicate because they make better fantasy league players than they do flesh-and-blood ballplayers.
I believed that simply because Ramirez choked up in pressure situations. I have no statistic to give you, only that when a key double play needed to be turned, or he needed to put the bat on the ball to get in the go-ahead run from third, Ramirez was a different ballplayer, noticeably uncomfortable and unable to deliver. I questioned his teamwork because he wouldn’t adjust his swing to the situation. The annual 20+ errors always came in the worst situations.
They’re the kinds of things you don’t notice unless you watch the team everyday. Having seen Hanley struggle in those situations during the regular season, I’d feared that he would not be an impact player in the playoffs. I just didn’t see that Reggie Jackson/Kirk Gibson killer mentality to thrive under the hottest spotlight, I didn’t see a franchise player in the truest sense.
I still have my share of doubts in that direction, but I will say Ramirez has improved in the last year. I see a team player today, and a more confident player in the clutch. The defensive improvement is particularly commendable.
So the question remains, can Hanley Ramirez lead the Marlins to another World Series? Is he that kind of player?
A great player not only puts up great numbers, but he makes his teammates better and wins championships. For some reason, you hear that more in other professional sports leagues, like the NBA where Bill Russell’s and Michael Jordan’s worth are measured in rings, not statistics. I believe it should be the same the same in baseball. It’s more of an individual sport in many aspects, but it’s still important for the baseball superstar to have leadership qualities in the clubhouse and the ability to make his teammates better on the field.
I’m not around the clubhouse to say if Ramirez is like that, or if he’s capable of such a presence, but that’s what it’s going to take for it all to come together in every way for the Florida Marlins franchise.
WHEN WILL HANLEY BE APPRECIATED?
For Hanley Ramirez to reach the local pantheon of Dan Marino and Miami Heat superstar Dwyane Wade, it’s going to take more than just putting up great numbers.
In terms of talent and ability, Hanley Ramirez may very well be the baseball equivalent of Wade and Marino. It’s no stretch at all, though you would never guess it by his lack of media attention. Hanley doesn’t do T-Mobile commercials with Charles Barkley or movies with Jim Carrey.
However the national baseball audience did show some level of appreciation last summer. Ramirez decisively defeated Jimmy Rollins in the National League All-Star shortstop vote, 3.2 Million to 2.2 Million, despite the much bigger crowds drawn by the Phillies at Citizens Bank Park.
The advent of internet voting has a leveling effect, but players of teams who draw well at home will always have an advantage. The fact that Ramirez got so much of the national vote is an indication that true baseball fans know all about him even though the local and casual sports fan is less aware.
Though Hanley Ramirez is much less recognizable on the local sports scene than Dwyane Wade, he has the potential to become much more. His Dominican, Spanish-speaking upbringing should have made him even more of a smash hit in Miami, where the populace is largely Cuban and Hispanic. His English is conversant enough that I’m shocked he hasn’t received more local endorsements.
It’s going to take a championship and it’s going to take Hanley at the forefront, as a long-term Marlin and the face of the franchise.
First the Marlins have to hang onto him throughout the remaining five years of his contract. Signing him is one thing, keeping him is another. The way it’s back-loaded and absent of a no-trade clause, the Marlins can still back out of their deal.
Ramirez gets paid $7 Million this year, then $11 Million in 2011. It bumps up to $15M, $15.5M, and $16M the last three years. There’s nothing to stop the Marlins from dumping his contract in the meantime.
Second, Ramirez will simply have to deliver both on the field and in the clubhouse, seize control as the team’s superstar, and take them to new heights. He’s in a unique situation with great pressure but a tremendous reward if he comes through.
As the Florida Marlins embark on 2010, here’s one local baseball fan who wants to see it all happen. Hanley Ramirez needs to become the much-needed face of the franchise and the Marlins must finally stake their claim to a passionate baseball city and become a National League force for years to come.
The two are inseparable.