The 2016 World Series champions weren’t built in a day. Kris Bryant’s near-errant throw to Anthony Rizzo capped off an assembly of parts that all needed to come together in order for a 108-year drought to end. There are the key parts, like new ownership, a new front office, a new manager, free agent additions like Jon Lester, homegrown stars like Kris Bryant, and acquisitions like Aroldis Chapman, and there were smaller parts that also needed to work, too.
Among those parts is a now seemingly forgotten one: Manny Ramirez—player/coach with the 2014 Iowa Cubs. His role in the winning of the World Series two seasons later is of course an indirect one, but it should not be missed. Ramirez shared the clubhouse that season with players like Javy Baez, Kris Bryant, and Kyle Hendricks, and his influence on them could be seen as each contributed in significant ways during the 2016 postseason.
In a recent phone interview, Iowa Cubs manager Marty Pevey shared his thoughts on that impact. Ramirez the major league player might not be remembered for leadership skills, at least not the ones the general populace sees, but Pevey mentioned Ramirez’s strength as a leader more than anything else.
While Ramirez was not signed to a minor league contract specifically to mentor players, the result was just that. Pevey said that the gravitation to Ramirez by the younger players was instant, and not just confined to the hitters, either.
“For these players to be in the presence of a guy with 500 home runs—a ‘been there, done that’ guy—they gained a lot by him being there.” Pevey said. He emphasized that Ramirez came without ego and worked harder than anyone he had ever seen.
“They saw the amount of preparation he put into his performance. On game days, he had already taken 200 swings off of the tee before most of us had even gotten to the ballpark.” Pevey said. The effect on the rest of the roster was clear.
“With Manny on the team, nobody was going to be late.” Pevey said.
No particular players were expected to seek out his tutelage, but one especially attached himself to Ramirez almost immediately: Javy Baez.
“It evolved into a mentorship for a couple of guys. I saw Javy gravitate toward him in particular.” Pevey said. “They were on the field together, before and after games, and then I saw Javy doing that extra work on his own.”
Pevey then added, “I hadn’t seen that prior to Manny showing up.”
Baez had been no stranger to hard work before then, but he saw another level of preparation from a player of Ramirez’s caliber and took it upon himself to augment his routine.
As a part of a separate interview, Baez took a minute to share about his work with Ramirez, and he echoed much of what Pevey shared.
“He is a mentor and a friend. He was a good mentor for me because he just loves hitting. All he wants to do is it. All I want to do is hit. I love playing good defense, but I love hitting. He never, ever stops thinking about hitting. That was a great example.” Baez said.
Baez went on to credit Ramirez with the help in his own growth and adjustment at the plate, something that would be needed after his shaky 2014 major league debut.
The emphasis on Ramirez’s influence as a hitter is understandable, given his monstrous career numbers, but Pevey also cited the difference it made for his young players to watch his work on defense as well.
“He was out there shagging and playing balls off of the bat the way you are supposed to every day. All of those things helped guys like Javy.” Pevey said.
The Iowa Cubs manager talked about the reality of some young players in the minor leagues who come with an attitude of entitlement, an expectation that because the organization had invested so much in them, that they were now owed deferential treatment. But not so with Ramirez, who probably would have had more right to display such an attitude than anyone.
“With him, he showed that no matter what you do or what you have done, you still have to work hard. It helped a lot of young players to see how he worked.” Pevey said.
Pevey spoke specifically about the importance of the time that Ramirez spent in the lineup—he was active for 24 of the team’s games—and the opportunity he had to function as an on-the-field coach.
“When mistakes happened on the field, he was there to bridge the gap. Me telling the players is one thing, but he spent sixteen years in the big leagues.” Pevey said.
Pevey has thirteen years as a minor league player and a cup of coffee with the Montreal Expos in 1989 to his credit, but he knows the difference it made when Ramirez reinforced what he was telling his players.
“When he would tell them the same thing I was telling them, it was better etched into them.” Pevey said.
Two years later, what might have seemed like a publicity stunt should be seen for what it was: the Cubs organization’s recognition of Ramirez’s subtle leadership potential and the importance of instilling his values and approach to the game in some of their young players. To know specifically which of those players would prove important to an eventual championship is a tall order, but in hindsight, the relationship with Baez in particular was an important one.
Pevey could have filled pages with quotes about the impact Ramirez had on his entire clubhouse, and he finished by calling him an “outstanding teammate and an outstanding person.” The former leaders of the Boston Red Sox had obviously seen these qualities when Ramirez was with them and were ready to employ them a few years later with their new project, the Chicago Cubs.
Manny Ramirez has World Series rings from his days in Boston, and though he won’t get a ring from this World Series in Chicago, he still played a quietly key role in making that championship happen.
Lead photo courtesy Mark J. Rebilas—USA Today Sports