Draft prospect Manny Jr. being ... Manny Jr.
Ramirez shares similarities with father while making a name for himself on diamond
BRADENTON, Fla. -- Inside the baseball offices at IMG Academy, there's a piece of paper with the details of a 17-year-old high school senior's final season. You'll see his .365 average, the fact that he walked more than he struck out and, toward the bottom, a few comments from his coach.
Those handwritten words laud his natural ability as a hitter, his defensive skills at first base and his strong arm that could play in the outfield. But first comes this: "... an amazing athlete that has made a name for himself."
But that's not easy to do when your name is Manny Ramirez Jr.
His name will be called at some point in this week's First-Year Player Draft. He's not a top prospect, not listed in MLB.com's Top 100 or Baseball America's Top 500. He laughs as he says he's "not one of those Clint Frazier, Austin Meadows guys." But eventually, some team will select him.
At that point, Manny Jr. will be given a chance to begin his professional baseball career, the one he's been thinking about since he started playing at 5 or 6 years old. And he'll inevitably draw even more comparisons to his father, Manny Ramirez Sr., the Hall of Fame-caliber hitter with an equally quirky personality, the same comparisons that have followed him like so many "Manny being Manny" jokes.
"It used to come up a lot, yeah," he said, shrugging at the mention of the line so often used to describe his father's eccentricities. "It just comes with the name, I guess."
That's why, when he came here to IMG Academy in the summer of 2010, he sat down to talk with Ken Bolek, IMG's baseball director, and Jason Elias, who would go on to coach him for 3 1/2 years. Manny Jr. admitted that, as a freshman, he might have thought about what other people said about him and the expectations that came along with his name.
But the crux of that initial conversation with Bolek and Elias, boiled down in Manny Jr.'s somewhat soft-spoken way, was this: "Basically, just do you."
"You can't base yourself, your performance, your life, upon who your father is. You have to create your own identity," Elias recalled saying. "And he bought into that early on. It's gotten to the point now where they share the name, they share some of the looks, but he's his own individual. He's a quality human being."
Manny Jr. comes across as very laid-back but thoughtful, as Manny Sr. was when he chose to speak. But Manny Jr. is very open with people, from his coaches and teammates to reporters. He'll look you in the eye and smile as he talks about something as personal as family.
He's closer with his mother, Celia Fernandez, but he still has a relationship with his father, who's currently playing in Taiwan for the EDA Rhinos, his latest attempt to keep his career alive. Manny Sr. will be home to see his son in September, and they'll continue to speak quite often until then.
Manny Sr. relays plenty of things about his career to his son. He says he loves playing there, that it's a much more relaxed environment than Major League Baseball was for him.
They've always talked about baseball. Manny Jr. grew up around it. He remembered being there during the Red Sox's World Series run in 2007, and a smile crept across his face as he talked about traveling with the 2010 Dodgers and getting to know Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier in their younger days.
Manny Jr. spent Opening Weekend in 2011 at Tropicana Field, less than an hour north of IMG's campus. When IMG's team headed to Arizona last summer for a tournament, he spent most of that time with Manny Sr., who was attempting another comeback with the A's. But now, he says, their conversations are a little different -- and not in the "Manny being Manny" sense of the word.
"I've seen him grow a lot, not only as a person, but also as like a father. We talk a lot more about other personal stuff than we used to. We just came together a lot more," Manny Jr. said. "He's been finding God. That's been great for him. I think leaving MLB was a big wake-up call for him, and he realized what he missed. But now, he knows this stuff happened for a reason."
His name certainly is not the only thing Manny Jr. shares with his father, however.
Take it from Bolek. He was an outfield coach for the Indians in 1993, when Manny Sr. broke into the Majors. Bolek remembers that he was a different player then, not nearly as unique, carefree or unpredictable as his current reputation suggests. He was just another September callup, best seen and not heard, but Bolek noticed something special: the unusual amount of extra time he put into hitting.
Manny Jr. remembers that about his father's Major League career, too. When Manny Sr. was required to report to the clubhouse by 4 p.m., he'd bring his son to the ballpark around noon or 1 p.m. and spend those hours hitting in the batting cages or doing eye drills.
Like father, like son.
"The similarities are a fabulous work ethic devoted to the offensive side of the game," Bolek said. "He could live in a cage working on his swing and hitting balls. I guess that would be the similarity, that type of work ethic. Manny Jr. does have an advanced understanding of that part of the game. We could assume where that came from."
"I think I basically picked it up from him," agreed Manny Jr.
There are other shared traits, especially when it comes to their hitting, their strength as players. Manny Jr. says he learned from his dad's "up-the-middle approach" how to react to pitches, not guess at them. Though their batting stances are fairly different -- Manny Jr.'s is more open -- their swings are not entirely unfamiliar.
As Elias describes Manny Jr.'s hitting instincts, "That's a genetic thing."
At 6-foot-3 and about 200 pounds, Manny Jr. is taller and leaner than his 6-foot, 225-pound father. He's grown three inches since he came to IMG, and he dropped 25 pounds last summer. But he's still just 17, and he figures to fill out his frame in the coming years, whether he starts his professional career or opts to attend college. While Manny Sr. was exclusively a corner outfielder and designated hitter, Manny Jr. profiles as a future first baseman, with the potential to man an outfield spot down the road.
"He'd have success professionally at first base right now," Elias said. "[He's] very athletic over there."
Of course, if Manny Jr. can harness his natural ability at the plate, teams will find a spot for him in the field. There are moments where he'll flash his power potential, like when he crushed a 420-foot grand slam in the championship game of the Cleats Sports Classic in Mesa, Ariz., in March. That's when he looks most like the son of a man widely considered to be a hitting savant.
"He's really tried to learn his swing and learn what's going to give him the most success with his swing," Elias said. "He's been a student of the game."
Manny Jr.'s name isn't what brought him from South Florida to the Gulf Coast. In fact, it wasn't even his namesake.
"My mom found it, and she said that if I was going to get serious about it, I had to basically just eat, sleep and dream about baseball," he said. "So I came here."
He could do all that at IMG, a private academy that educates and trains student-athletes in seven sports. There are three full-size baseball fields and four practice fields, more like a Spring Training complex than a high school campus, along with a ProBatter simulator in the batting cage. There's a Gatorade Sports Science Institute on campus, one of three in the world. On the day of one of Manny Jr.'s final exams, Tim Tebow was working out in the campus gym.
When Manny Jr. sat down for an interview, he settled into a chair beneath a row of framed jerseys from current and former Major Leaguers who also trained at IMG.
"It's just amazing. All the coaches have worked their butts off to help me get to where I am, so I've been doing the same," he said. "They really just bought into everything, so I bought in. Everything's happened because of their hard work."
Along with his own natural ability and a work ethic toward hitting not unlike that of his father, their hard work got Manny Jr. to this point, at a crossroads as the Draft approaches. He's still young at 17, with plenty of time to develop and mature if he jumps into the pro ranks. He has committed to Central Arizona Community College, and he's perfectly willing to head there come fall.
Elias and Bolek are confident that Manny Jr. will hold his own at either level. They believe his willingness to work and his advanced, almost instinctual, knowledge of hitting and the pitcher-batter relationship will give him some sort of advantage wherever he plays.
They'll talk with him in greater detail about the Draft as the process unfolds, but a week before the first pick, his expectations were fairly straightforward.
"Just if I felt comfortable with the organization, that they'd take great care of me," Manny Jr. said. "I'd like to put myself where I could succeed."
Wherever that may be, odds are he always will be identified by his name. It's who he is, and it doesn't bother him. And yet, the bottom of that scouting report doesn't mention Manny Ramirez Sr.
Maybe Manny Ramirez Jr. will make a name for himself at the next level, too.
"At some point, people are going to look out on the field and not see his father," Bolek said. "And what they're going to see is what Manny Jr. has made of himself."