|The Marlins hope Ramirez can return to his numbers from '09, when he won the NL batting title. (Getty Images)|
JUPITER, Fla. -- Thwack! ... Whop! ... Ka-boom!
You were expecting angry groans and pouting instead from Hanley Ramirez this spring?
The guy is absolutely happy, in one piece (finally) and positively crushing the baseball. He is the talk of Marlins camp. He is food for the Fish. He is. ...
"Excited," Hanley says.
"Healthy," hitting coach Eduardo Perez says.
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"What I see is 2009," Hall of Famer Tony Perez, special assistant to Marlins president David Samson.
Whoa, 2009. Ramirez won the NL batting title that summer at .342. Crushed 42 doubles, 24 homers, had 106 RBI and finished second in the NL MVP voting.
And yes, midway through spring training, the Marlins have a great feeling that that's the Hanley who's here this spring.
His left shoulder, surgically repaired last Sept. 15, is good. His lower back, which he strained early last season and attempted to play through, is great.
"Everybody was on him when I got here last year, and I think it was unfair," Eduardo Perez says. "He's healthy. Right now, he's just going out and playing.
"That's the key. He doesn't have to work at trying to play."
Granted, it's midway through spring training and a good portion of Ramirez's plate appearances have come against pitchers wearing No. 82 and 77. Through this week, he was hitting a blistering .409 with a .519 on-base percentage and a 1.291 OPS.
What the Marlins like more than those numbers, though, is his approach and his swing.
"You see a pretty big difference at the plate," outfielder Chris Coughlan says. "Last year, it was almost like he was finding himself at the plate. This year, he seems shorter to the ball, more confident."
That's what two good shoulders and one good back will do to a guy with All-Star skills and a lion's pride.
Ramirez says he started working out this year in November, at least a month earlier than usual.
"Before, when I was playing 150-some games, I'd get some rest because it was such a long season," Ramirez says. "But I didn't have the opportunity to play that much last season, so I needed that."
Ramirez played in at least 150 games for four consecutive seasons between 2006 and 2009, and played in 142 in 2010. Because of the back and shoulder, he only made it for 92 in 2011.
From the looks of it, he's making up for lost time. And best of all, he's enjoying it.
Not only is he swinging, but he's playing next to new shortstop Jose Reyes with a bounce in his step. Looking pretty stylish while doing so, too, in an orange undershirt that, when he leaves a couple of buttons open on the Marlins' new black jerseys, looks like he's wearing a scarf in the field. Or, as someone said, an orange ascot.
No small part of this (so far) great attitude stems from new manager Ozzie Guillen. It's no secret, handling Hanley is where Ozzie is going to earn a sizable portion of his salary. And so far, so good.
"I love him," Ramirez says, smiling broadly. "Love him.
"He's straight up. If he's got something to tell you, he tells you to your face. Sometimes, you do something and you don't even know it's wrong because nobody tells you."
Guillen, as you may have heard, is not shy in telling Hanley ... or Logan Morrison ... or Gaby Sanchez. And Ramirez appreciates it.
While other Marlins rave about how much shorter to the ball he is at the plate, Ramirez says he's changed nothing in his batting approach.
"Same swing as the other years before last year," he says. "Last year, I was slow. I couldn't perform.
"It's not fun. It's not fun when you see your team and you know they need you."
Tony Perez made it a point to tell Ramirez the other day that he's seeing flashbacks to 2009 in Ramirez's game.
"It's nice to see because that's what we need from him," Perez says. "He's the key to this ball club. He's the guy that can carry a team, especially the younger guys like Giancarlo Stanton and Logan Morrison."
"It's nice to be 100 percent," Ramirez says.
The way things stand right now, Guillen has slotted Ramirez into the three hole in the order after leadoff man Reyes and center fielder Emilio Bonifacio. Stanton, Morrison and Sanchez will follow Ramirez to the plate.
The way things also stand right now, with the health nightmares of '11 behind him, Ramirez again is quick enough to turn on inside fastballs and lithe enough to take outside fastballs the other way.
"It's good to be Hanley right now," Eduardo Perez says. "Are you kidding? Everybody talks about our three big free agents [Reyes, Mark Buehrle and Heath Bell], but it's like we've got a big-time free agent at third base, too.
"He's a game-changer."
Exiting the outdoor batting cage where Ramirez took his first steps toward what right now is shaping up to be a monster comeback season, Perez looks out at the Marlins as they stretch on an early Florida morning.
"This guy is hungry," he says. "Don't ever try to test a real good, talented player with a chip on his shoulder."