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Ramblin' Manny

On idle day for Sox, he gets geared up

CHICAGO -- Manny Ramirez is sleepless in Chicago. Last Thursday was the Red Sox' first day off in two weeks, but the six-time All-Star didn't get any shut-eye. Not even a nap. The Red Sox charter flew out of Boston last Wednesday night, after a victory over the Toronto Blue Jays at Fenway Park, and the team settled into its swank Chicago hotel in the wee hours. With a grueling 162-game schedule, a day off is rare. Most players cherish the time to sleep in. But at 10 a.m. -- exactly on time -- Manny arrives downstairs in the lobby.

He doesn't drink coffee but he's wide-eyed and smiling as he heads for his limousine wearing blue jeans, sneakers, a Ty Law No. 24 jersey, and carrying a stylish men's bag. Along for the ride is Ricky Gutierrez, a Red Sox utility man and former Cub.

Manny's adventure today concerns one of his passions, cars. He tells the limousine driver the destination is the tiny village of Manteno, Ill., population 6,414, The driver insists that the only thing in Manteno, 53 miles south, is a state mental institution, now closed. Manny just smiles and hands him computer-printed directions to Rad Rides By Troy, a custom car restoration shop where he's having a 1967 Lincoln Continental convertible totally restored as a surprise for his father's birthday, which is Oct. 25.

"I couldn't get no sleep, just thinking about it," he says giddily. "I'm going to pick a nice color and a nice top, He's going to love it. It's a big surprise for him. My dad is 65 years old and he'll be thrilled.

"Ricky's helping me pick the color. I've got to be careful picking out the color. He's 65. I don't want it to be too wild."

Manny ejects "U2's Greatest Hits" from the CD player and pulls out a homemade CD from a case. "I like Spanish reggae," he says.

Red Sox Nation knows little about its leading hitter. His personal info in the Red Sox media guide is just a few paragraphs. For most of last season, he didn't talk to the media. In the offseason, he was placed on waivers and unclaimed. But this year, everybody gets to go along on Manny's day off.

"I think it's going to be fun for the fans," he says. "They're going to love it."

Ramirez stretches out in the stretch limo.

"We get one day off a month," he says. "If I wasn't going out here I'd probably try to sleep in to 12. It depends when we get in."

At the hotel, he is registered under a movie character's name so he doesn't get disturbed. He says fans don't bother him on the road.

"You sign two or three autographs everywhere you go," he says. "It's fine. It's not a problem at all."

He says he's not a party animal anymore. He's older and he's married, he says. So what does he do on the road when there's no game?

"We walk around, go shopping," he says. "I have dinner with everybody. Sometimes [Kevin] Millar, sometimes [Gabe] Kapler. Tonight we're going to a Brazilian restaurant. We have a blast. We go to the movies."

A Manny Movie Festival has something for everyone.

"My favorite movie is `Matrix,' " he says. " `Rocky II,' `The Village,' that's an awesome movie. `Ice Age' was the greatest for the kids. `Finding Nemo' was good, too."

He also loves baseball movies.

" `The Rookie,' now that was good, but the best baseball movie is `Field of Dreams.' I liked `Major League,' too, about the Cleveland Indians. That was funny."

Conversational detours
Manny found the car surfing the Internet and bought it from a guy in Buffalo. It was $10,000, a bargain. He had the restoration work started in Florida, but when it went too slowly, Manny looked elsewhere. But how did that lead him to a town with more grain than people?

"I was in my house in Miami and I was watching the Discovery Channel, and I saw this guy on the show and I saw the kind of job that he did," says Manny. "So I got his number and I called.

"We're putting in a 500-horsepower engine. I'm probably going to have it shipped to him because we're going to be in the playoffs."

Manny says last year's loss to the Yankees in the seventh game of the American League Championship Series left him in shock.

"I woke up the next day and still couldn't believe it," he says. "I thought we were going [to the World Series]. But that's part of the game."

Ramirez says he'd rather be in Boston than anywhere else.

"Boston is the best city ever," he says. "The fans are great. They love me. Oh my God. You go out to eat, they don't let you pay for nothing. You win it there and people will go nuts. I'm going to party for a month."

Manny's two-handed point, delivered after a crucial play, is now being imitated all over New England. Last week, Ramirez made a leaping, over-the-shoulder catch near the Wall. A grateful Pedro Martinez did the Manny "double point" from the mound. Ramirez makes fun of himself when he recalls the play.

"I just jumped," he says. "I had my eyes closed."

Manny asks questions, too. He wants to know about pitchers Luis Tiant and Juan Marichal in their heyday. He talks about hitting the last home run off Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley. "I used to kill [that guy]."

Manny thinks Barry Bonds is going to break Hank Aaron's home run record ("He's amazing"). He also admires opponents like John Olerud, recently acquired by the Yankees, and Seattle's Ichiro Suzuki. "Olerud is so smooth," says Manny. "Ichiro places the ball wherever he wants. I don't know how he does it."

He also expresses doubt about the distance of Fenway's longest home run, the one by Ted Williams marked by the red seat in the bleachers 502 feet from home plate.

"What's up with the red seat?" he says. "I don't believe Williams hit one that far. I think they made that up."

Told that Sox legend Johnny Pesky vouches for it, Ramirez smiles.

"We tried to hit it and couldn't, even in batting practice," he says. "[David] Ortiz killed it and it still didn't go that far." He says his longest home run was probably 440 feet.

More questions.

"What's up with this Babe Ruth curse?" he says, smiling and tickling a reporter in the side. "I don't believe in curses. I believe you control it."

Advice from father
Ramirez seemed oblivious to the slump he was enduring before the White Sox series. Since the All-Star break, he had hit just .236 with 5 homers and 14 RBIs. Then in the three games against Chicago, he went 6 for 12 with three homers and 11 RBIs.

"I don't worry about my numbers," he says. "I'm just going out there having fun. You only live one time. You want to make sure you go out there and play hard and have fun. That's what it's all about."

He said his father, a former New York City taxi driver, watches all the games on satellite television.

"He's got a dish in Fort Lauderdale," says Manny. "If I wasn't doing something right, he calls me. And he calls me all the time. He says, `What's wrong with you? Is somebody waiting for you after the game? Why are you swinging at the first pitch?' "

Ramirez was born in Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic and moved to the US when he was 13.

"My dad played softball when he was in the Dominican," says Manny. "He didn't play much baseball but he played with me. He told me he was good. I said, `Come on, you're not good at all.' "

The family settled in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan in 1985. Manny's father, Aristide, drove a taxi, and his mother, Onelcida, was a seamstress in a factory.

"He taught me a lot of things," says Manny. "How to be a man, and here I am."

Manny says his family was poor in the Dominican but not as poor as others, at least in baseball terms. "We always used a real bat and ball," he says.

In the offseason, he has returned to his homeland to visit teammates Martinez and Ortiz. "Those guys live like kings down there," he says.

Why does the Dominican Republic produce such great baseball players?

"In the Dominican, that's the main sport," he says. "It's not like here where you get five different sports. In the Dominican, everybody plays baseball."

Manny asks about the 1986 Series between the Sox and Mets. He was 14 when the infamous ground ball skipped between Bill Buckner's legs in Game 6.

"I didn't watch it," he says. "I don't remember what I was watching."

Ramirez liked to go to Yankees games in those days and he'd sit in right field with his father. He particularly enjoyed it when the Blue Jays were in town.

"They had all the Latin players, George Bell, Tony Fernandez," he says. "That was one of the best things ever."

Ramirez has two sons, a 9-year-old and a 1 1/2-year-old. The older boy, Manny, has been hanging out at Fenway.

"He can hit," Ramirez says proudly. "[But] I don't know if I want my son to play baseball. I don't push baseball on him. He can be whatever. I just want him to go to school."

Ramirez met his wife, Juliana, while he was working out at Bally's Gym in Boston. "I came up to her and started talking to her," he says. The future Mrs. Ramirez didn't know she was talking to one of baseball's premier sluggers. Manny liked that.

"She's from Brazil," he says. "They don't know nothing about baseball."

They've been married four years.

Sealing the deal
As the car passes cornfields, Ramirez spies a sign for a McDonald's just off the highway.

"Hey, how about Mickey D's? We're on a budget," he says, giggling.

The limo pulls up to the golden arches. Manny jokingly says he's going to order a Happy Meal (with a toy) but instead gets a Big Mac with fries, and a diet cola.

At Rad Rides By Troy, the car restoration garage, Manny hugs and huddles with company president Troy Trepanier and admires the work on various vehicles: a 1963 Corvette, a fire-red 1972 Chevy pickup, a 1962 Chevy, and most important, the striped, silverlike shell of Ramirez's 1967 Lincoln.

After consulting with Gutierrez, Ramirez selects a color that Trepanier calls "metallic celery." Ramirez laughs. Trepanier suggests a subtle two-tone color. Ramirez is firm.

"I want to do it one color," he says. "I hope I don't change my mind. They've got so many colors in there. It's not like before where they only had black, white, and blue. Now you got like 20 colors to decide."

Manny also is wired for sound for a television report. But he clicks off the microphone when money is discussed.

After more than an hour of talking car details, Ramirez asks about the stereo. The slugger sits in the '62 Chevy Biscayne as Trepanier blasts the Eagles' "Hotel California," on a top-of-the-line stereo.

Ramirez surprises people with his knowledge of woofers and tweeters and speaker names. He sounds like a music engineer, not someone billed as having trouble with English as a second language. Is his father that much of an audiophile?

"I'm going to drive it sometimes also," says Ramirez, possibly at a Red Sox World Series victory parade.

"This is a car you're going to keep for the rest of your life. You're not going to sell it. It is a big project. It is a car you're going to rebuild, new engine, new interior, brakes, suspension. You've got to be patient. I think he's going to love it."

Ramirez is worried that the car won't be ready in time for the birthday. He demands a promise. He tries to sweeten the deal, signing Sports Illustrated covers, a baseball, and offering tickets to Friday night's game against the White Sox. Anything to get the job done.

Trepanier, a Red Sox fan, has a request: "You've got to jack one out."

"I will," says Manny. "We're going to sweep them."

Trepanier asks for six tickets, but Manny, a man of the people, knows that nearly double that many work at the shop. "You want some more, 10 or 11, let me know." he says.

Manny offers tickets to all three games, and Trepanier starts asking for even more. Now he wants Manny to point, like Babe Ruth did against the Cubs in the World Series.

Manny crushes a grand slam Friday night, a three-run homer Saturday, and a game-tying homer Sunday. The Sox sweep the series. He points, too. But not the way the Babe did. He does the double-point trademark move of the sleep-deprived but happy league-leading home run hitter. 

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