In shape and on time, Manny reports
Slugger ready for big '08, says future won't be distraction
FORT MYERS, FLA. -- This time, Manny Ramirez showed up to Spring Training on time and with a big smile on his face. This time, he even kicked the year off by speaking to the media, holding court in an entertaining five-minute session in which the left fielder reiterated his desire to spend the rest of his career with the Boston Red Sox.
The Sox hold $20 million options on Ramirez for both the 2009 and 2010 seasons, meaning there's at least a chance this will be his last year playing in front of the Fenway faithful.
"You know, I want to finish my career here, but that's up to them," Ramirez said. "If that doesn't happen, hey, I'll go play somewhere else. I know I can still play. What else can I say? It's up to them. I'm not the one who writes the checks."
There were "Manny being Manny" moments right out of the gate. The first was the way he opened up his session with the media.
"I'm always on time," said Ramirez. "I might be late two years in a row, but I'm always on time. I feel great, man. I'm looking forward for '08 and '09. I did my work like I always do every year and I'm excited to be here."
After taking a physical in the morning, Ramirez held his impromptu session with the media, which he initiated.
By the time position players started conditioning drills in the early afternoon, Ramirez had checked out for the day. Sox manager Terry Francona could only chuckle.
"I give Manny credit for being smart enough to sneak out of here," Francona said. "You know what, being on time, a half a day is better than no days. So we're making [significant] progress."
This marked the first time since 2005 that Ramirez arrived to camp on time.
"I'm not making any statement," Ramirez said. "It's just me. I'm here to work, and I'm here."
Though the Red Sox never got particularly worked up in the past when Ramirez arrived late, they were more than pleased that he arrived on schedule this time around.
"We've always had decent communication with him about when he's coming in," said Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein. "There always seems to be something that comes up that prevents him from being here on time. I'd be lying if I didn't say it's nice to see him. He's ready to go and on time with the rest of his teammates and that sends a great message."
Entering his eighth season with the Red Sox, it's apparent Ramirez has never been happier in his surroundings.
All those times that Ramirez reportedly requested to be traded from the Red Sox now seem like older news than the mythical Curse of the Bambino.
"You start growing up and maturing also, and now I know I'm here and I want to stay here -- but it's up to them," Ramirez said.
Thanks in large part to Ramirez's production from the cleanup spot, the Sox have won the World Series twice in the last four years.
"It's great, it's a blessing," Ramirez said. "A lot of people play and they never get one. What can I say? So many people played for the Red Sox. Ted Williams, so many guys, and such great players, and they didn't get a ring. I'm just happy to be here. I'm blessed."
"We're focused on 2008," Epstein said. "Obviously, Manny's contract provides for the first of his options to be decided upon at the end of the year. There's a time for that, but it's certainly after the season. We're looking forward to Manny continuing to work hard and have a great year."
About three or four years ago, Ramirez indicated that he would retire after his contract ran out. Now, he practically wants to play baseball until he's a grandfather. Go figure.
"Like I said, I want to be like Julio Franco and play until ... as long as I can," Ramirez said.
Apprised of the Franco reference, Epstein said, "I wouldn't put anything past Manny. He's certainly in great enough shape where he can play at a high level for a long time. When something like that is built into a contract, it makes sense just to be patient and wait for just the appropriate time to deal with it. That's well in the future. Right now, we're just focused on him having a great year."
Though Ramirez is coming off a below-par regular season (.296, 20 homers, 88 RBIs), rumors of his demise were proven wrong when he again became a hitting machine in October. In Boston's 14-game run to the World Series championship, Ramirez hit .348 with four homers and 16 RBIs.
"I think he produced at an elite level, to say the least, when it mattered most," Epstein said. "We certainly wouldn't do it over. He and David [Ortiz] were a force to be reckoned with in the middle of our order when the games mattered most. That's what I look back and think about with his work."
And long-term security or not, you can be sure that Ramirez -- who turns 36 on May 30 -- won't be doing any public lobbying regarding his contract.
"They're the ones who have my option," Ramirez said. "It's up to them to say, 'OK, we're going to take it.' It's not up to me to go into the office and demand a four-year deal or whatever. I'm going to come here to play the game and finish my year. If they want me to come back, I'll come back."
Ramirez will keep playing until, in his words, "the wheels fall off."
Life around the Red Sox wouldn't be nearly as entertaining without him.
"Boston is Boston. Boston is the same. I'm not going to change," Ramirez said. "This is a job that I have to do. I'm happy here, I want to finish my career as a Red Sox, but it's up to them."
Before any decisions are made on his contract, Ramirez hopes to earn another World Series ring.
"We're just going to go play the game and have fun, like we always do," Ramirez said. "It's a new year. What we did in '07 is over. We've got a great team. Let's go enjoy it and see what happens."
Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. Mike Petraglia contributed to this story. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.