BOSTON -- Manny Ramirez stood in the Red Sox clubhouse, chatting amiably with reporters.
He smiled and laughed while they surrounded him. Then, when there were no more questions, the usually silent slugger said, as if reluctant to leave, "OK? Thanks, guys."
The circle opened and he strolled away.
Before this season, Ramirez frequently shunned reporters. Now in his 12th major league season and fourth in front of Boston's demanding fans, Ramirez has changed.
"It's something that I want to do so people get to know me," Ramirez said. "I've been the same guy I was two years ago. I come in here, do my thing and mess around with the guys."
He's always been friendly with fans, but now he gets their questions on his new Web site www.mannyramirez.com. The opening screen says: "NOT JUST FAME ... LOVE THE GAME AND YOU SHALL TRIUMPH."
He talked politely about becoming a U.S. citizen last Monday and the turbulent offseason that almost included a trade to Texas for Alex Rodriguez.
"He's just a little happier than last year," center fielder Johnny Damon said. "I think he understands how awesome this place is to play."
In 2002, Ramirez reacted with silence to media criticism after he didn't run out a ground ball in Tampa Bay. Last year, he missed a game against the Yankees with a sore throat, then met with New York's Enrique Wilson, his friend, that night. Two days later, he refused to pinch hit in Philadelphia and was fined.
"You guys buried him over and over with the ground ball to the pitcher in Tampa," first baseman Kevin Millar told reporters. "Now he's basically decided to open up again."
Team management didn't push him to talk, said Charles Steinberg, executive vice president for public affairs.
Ramirez's concern about his ability to speak English, although he's easily understood, contributed to his reticence. "Even though my English is not that good they (the fans) see me try," he said. "They see I'm a good guy."
Teammates describe him as hardworking, softhearted and humble. "A big teddy bear," right fielder Trot Nixon said.
Ramirez, among baseball's best hitters, began the season with a .317 career batting average and 347 homers, and he is among the AL leaders in both this year. Put a bat in his hands, a pitcher on the mound and he's happy.
"He's not the most controversial person," said Red Sox reliever Alan Embree, Ramirez's teammate in Cleveland. "He doesn't like confrontation, whether it's with a coach or a teammate or somebody on the street."
Former manager Grady Little, let go after last season, once said "Manny's not a walk in the park." But this year, it appears Ramirez is a good fit in a relaxed clubhouse.
"I think the guys that our team brought in have really made him feel at home for the first time in four years," Damon said.
David Ortiz, a fellow native of the Dominican Republic, and Millar brought their motor mouths and frat-house humor in 2003. Curt Schilling and Ellis Burks added professionalism this year. And Terry Francona is a players' manager.
"Everybody here is great," Ramirez said.
In Cleveland, Roberto Alomar, Omar Vizquel and other veterans answered reporters' questions. The Indians let Ramirez leave through the back door of the clubhouse.
Ramirez moved to the Red Sox on Dec. 13, 2000, when he agreed to a $160 million, eight-year contract.
Boston's large media corps "is an overwhelming thing," Embree said. "I think he felt intimidated by them then and so, at that point, he decided to distance himself as far as he could."
In 2002, the Red Sox brought in infielder Carlos Baerga, Ramirez's friend from Cleveland. Ramirez led the AL with a .349 batting average, despite missing 39 games with a broken finger, but declined to talk with reporters after the final game.
"He doesn't like to bother anybody," said Baerga, now with Arizona. "He's matured. He got married last year. He has a kid. Sometimes you need that to change your life, to stop and look with a different perspective. I think that helped him a lot."
After Baerga left, the Red Sox added Ortiz.
"I've talked to him a lot and he understands that we need to talk to (reporters) sometimes to let people know about some things," Ortiz said.
When he arrived at spring training in late February, Ramirez refused interview requests. Then, 11 days later on March 7, he was in a playful mood before a high-profile exhibition game against the Yankees.
He beckoned reporters to him, then went to the weight room and came back with Millar. They staged an impromptu comedy routine, with Millar repeating questions and Ramirez answering.
"I think that was the icebreaker," Millar said. "He said, 'Let's have some fun with it.' And ever since then he's been great."
Ramirez doesn't even avoid discussing Boston's efforts to dump him in the offseason.
"Everything that happened in the past, I just left it to God," he said. "Texas is doing well, but I'm comfortable here. I've been here for four years. I think it was going to be hard over there, trying to find a place, getting to know everybody."
Then he put his hand on a reporter's shoulder, leaned over with a playful grin and whispered, "The only problem is Millar. He doesn't let his wallet breathe. I've got to pay for everything."
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