Hanley Ramirez models the Sox-intensive suit he planned to wear to Cleveland (photo by Gordon Edes)
He spotted coach Brian Butterfield headed his way from the other side of the Red Sox clubhouse.
“Here we go,’’ Hanley Ramirez said. “Look at that penguin walk.’’
Butterfield stopped in front of Ramirez, who was shirtless but wearing a suit he’d chosen especially for the team’s flight to Cleveland Tuesday night—every square inch of fabric covered by Red Sox logos—the familiar red “B,” the pair of matching socks, square block team lettering. Jacket and pants.
“You’re wearing that?’’ Butterfield said, incredulous.
Ramirez reached into the box behind him and handed Butterfield a package wrapped in plastic. A suit cut from the same cloth.
“I got yours,’’ Ramirez said, smile spreading across his face.
“No way,’’ Butterfield said. “I don’t think I’ll wear it, though I’d love to. At home? I’ll wear it at home. You (kidding) me? You got this for me?’’
So maybe they’re not quite to the point where they wear matching outfits on the road, but if Ramirez and Butterfield had not chosen to become traveling companions back in the spring, this Red Sox journey back to the postseason might never have taken place.
“I don’t know how to explain how much we love each other, how much we like to be around each other,’’ Ramirez said.
That bond began in February on a back field in Fort Myers, where Butterfield was tasked with making a first baseman out of Ramirez, who had been sorely miscast as a left fielder in 2015 and roundly vilified for his failure to make the switch after being a shortstop for most of his career. By the end of the season, there were folks openly lobbying for the Sox to punch Ramirez’s ticket out of town.
Sox president Dave Dombrowski opted to chart a different course, asking Ramirez in September to switch positions yet again, this time back to the infield. Butterfield admitted to having some reservations about how Ramirez would take to the idea.
“Hanley’s the type of guy, I don’t think I’m missing the boat when I say this, I think Hanley might take a little while for him to let people in,’’ Butterfield said. “I know a lot of people like that. Some of my best friends, the people I’m most fond of, at first it was tough to get in there.
“I think he was guarded initially, but as we got to working, I saw a lot of things come out. I saw a great personality. I saw a humorous guy, highly intelligent. Being able to spend every day with the guy, I found out what a good man he was, what a good worker, what a respectful guy he is. I got to know the man a lot better, and it was fun.’’
Ramirez’s mornings took on a familiar pattern.
“Before I got to my locker, he’d be waiting for me with his fungo bat and he’d be whistling,’’ Ramirez said. “Like he was looking around, letting me know he was ready. The first thing he let me know is that it was going to be fun. That was good. He didn’t try to put a lot of pressure on my mind. He just wanted me to relax at the same time we were working hard. He wanted us to have fun.’’
There were few moments in 2015 that qualified as good times for Ramirez, who spent much of the season hurt and became increasingly remote and withdrawn as time went on. It was reasonable to wonder whether Ramirez would prove to be one of those players ill-suited for Boston and its demanding media and fan base, wearing his resentments on his sleeve.
Ramirez said he decided to go a different route after a conversation he had with a woman he respected in the Red Sox front office.
“I won’t tell you her name,’’ he said, “but she told me, I remember this, ‘Hanley you’ve got to let people know that what they’re saying is not you. You’ve got a great personality and you’ve got to let people know.’
“I went home that night and I was like, ‘You know, that’s interesting.’ After that it was like I started to talk more and just be more open.’’
Raquel Ferreira, the team’s vice president of baseball administration, has known Ramirez since he was 18 years old and the team’s top prospect in 2005, before being traded to the Florida Marlins.
“We all make mistakes when we are young,’’ she said. “The Hanley who had the bad rap is not the Hanley I know. Hanley has a good heart and means well.”
Ramirez also chose to be accountable for what had gone wrong, instead of turning on his critics.
“The thing I say, it was my fault what they say, it was my fault,’’ Ramirez said. “I needed to let people know I’m not that kind of player. I’m a different person. Everybody was telling me, people in the Dominican, what’s that, and I said, it’s OK, it was my fault, I’ve got to come back next year and prove people wrong, do the work and be me.’’
He found a willing ally in Butterfield, who had some practice in transitioning players to a new position. Former catcher Mike Napoli, now the Cleveland first baseman, had adopted Butterfield as mentor when he was with the Sox, as had Mookie Betts, when he switched from the outfield to second base. He also discovered first base was a much better fit.
“You could tell right away he was going to catch on,’’ Butterfield said. “There’s no panic in his hands. He had been underhand feeding at shortstop on the 6-4-3 double play for a long time, so he’s good as an underhand shoveler. He was quick to make the 3-6 (throw to second) with a strong, accurate arm. The thing you worry most about a guy making the transition is his ability to anchor on base and adjust to throws, because he has three other infielders he has to take care of.’’
What Butterfield found especially gratifying was to find a veteran who had been around as long as Ramirez receptive to being coached. “I told my sons, who were here the other day, what a pleasure it was and an honor to work with a guy like that, to watch him grow as a defender,’’ he said. “He’s done a fantastic job.
“He’s tremendously attentive during games. The last month and a half, he’s been unbelievably engaged with everything we do. When you’re a major league coach and have the honor of coaching ‘up’ a guy who is north of 30 and he’s receptive to everything you do, it’s just exhilarating.’’
No one should be alarmed if they come across Butterfield and Ramirez yelling at each other. It’s what they do. “We know each guy is full of it,’’ Butterfield said, “but we’re getting on each other because we like each other.’’
The change in Ramirez has not gone unnoticed by his teammates. A player who carried baggage from Miami and Los Angeles has emerged this season as a fully engaged part of the team.
“My teammates, after they saw I was committed to win, they had my back,’’ he said. “Even in the tough times this year, when I wasn’t hitting home runs, I never gave up. I stayed the same. I knew my time was going to come. Just stay patient and keep working. Everybody stuck together.
“I’m getting goose bumps right now. It’s not just about good players, it’s about how tight we are. I’m not going to cry, but I want to cry because of the love we got.’’
Hard not to love a guy who has put up the kind of numbers Ramirez has this season—30 home runs, a level he had not reached since 2008, a career-high 111 RBIs, an .866 OPS. He also may have provided the season’s most electrifying moment, a walkoff three-run home run against the Yankees in a September game in which they had trailed 5-1.
His reward? Among other things, a heartfelt embrace from the coach with the penguin walk when the Sox clinched the division title in New York last week.
“A thing Hanley and I spoke about for a long time is that the people in this town, this is the most passionate city in the world, the most passionate sports town, passionate people, blue collar,’’ Butterfield said. “He understands if he does things right and he plays hard and he competes on a daily basis, these people will love him.
“I think he’s reaping the dividends.’’