TAMPA, Fla. — After 19 years as a Yankee-killer, and the team’s failed attempts to acquire the Washington Heights native, Manny Ramirez finally will do something this season that will be celebrated in the Bronx.
Thanks to his protégé, Starlin Castro.
If not for Ramirez, who serves as hitting consultant for the Cubs, Castro may never have become a Yankee. If Castro hadn’t pulled himself out of last season’s offensive tailspin — his promising career had been continuing to slide backward — he may have toiled in limbo on the North Side of Chicago.
Castro credits Ramirez, however, for helping to make sure that didn’t happen. Yes, the longtime Red Sox slugger, and Public Enemy No. 1 to the pinstripes, probably did as much as anyone to put Castro on the track that ultimately led him to the Bronx by reviving his bat and restoring his confidence. Those are two things that Castro says Ramirez will continue to do by proxy — even long-distance with the Cubs — during his first season with the Yankees.
“Oh yeah, for sure,” Castro said Wednesday after working out at Steinbrenner Field. “We always talk in the offseason, too. Believe it or not, he’s going to watch me every day, and he’s going to call me if he sees something, or I do something good.”
It was Ramirez whom Castro leaned on last year, when the bad times, early on, outnumbered the positive. By late July, with the Cubs looking for spots to play their bumper crop of even younger stars, Castro was in the midst of a 19-game funk that had dropped his batting average to .233 and torpedoed his trade value with the deadline looming.
The clubhouse can be a lonely place for a player battling such a slump, especially when a job may be on the line, as the Cubs pondered their glut of middle infielders. It was an uncomfortable stretch for Castro, until a friendly face intervened to lessen some of that pressure building around him.
“Manny told everyone that nobody says anything negative about Castro,” the second baseman recalled. “You want to talk to him? Tell him something positive. That made me keep my mind fresh. He’s always a positive guy, a really special guy.”
But it went beyond those clubhouse lectures. Every day, before the games, Ramirez would put on his gloves, grab his bat and take Castro out for hitting drills, doing the same ones alongside him. Eventually, Castro restored his confidence at the plate again, and after a four-game benching, he returned — this time as the Cubs’ regular second baseman.
At the same time, Castro became an offensive threat again, batting .353 (48-for-136) with a .961 OPS and six home runs over the final 31 games of the regular season. Even then, Ramirez stayed on Castro, pushing him, prodding the three-time All-Star to go harder, like an oversized jockey on the back of a thoroughbred.
“I’d be like 3-for-4, make an out in the last at-bat, and he’d say, ‘For real?’ ” Castro said, smiling. “You got three hits and then you make an out that easily? That’s all you got?”
The conversations always continued after work was over at Wrigley. At Castro’s house, or Ramirez’s apartment. The Yankees used to be Ramirez’s favorite punching bag. Ramirez hit 55 homers against them — the most of any opponent he faced — and batted .322 with a 1.030 OPS in those 203 career games.
To think such a Yankees nemesis is going to be now helping them remotely through Castro is a nifty twist in that dynamic. But also appropriate in some ways, given that Ramirez is a New York City kid who played for George Washington High and grew up a long home run from Yankee Stadium.
Castro won’t have Ramirez in the clubhouse this season, but he’s already seeking out advice from the senior Yankees, as he did with Carlos Beltran when the two showed up earlier this week to work out at the minor-league facility before Wednesday’s official report date.
“I told him he was very professional, the way he handled moving to second base,” Beltran said. “He’s going to be in a different environment now in New York, and now it’s our job, as veteran guys, like me and Alex [Rodriguez], to help him and give him some guidance.”
As for Manny, he’s still only a phone call away.