PORT CHARLOTTE — After a winter of departures, Rays players and manager Joe Maddon liked hearing that Manny Ramirez had been added to their roster.
They were even more excited Thursday by the sounds of Ramirez's first morning in camp.
First, that he was in the batting cage by 8 a.m. for an extended session with hitting coach Derek Shelton four days before he had to be here.
Then, that he talked about how motivated he is to produce this season.
"I've just got a chip on my shoulder that I want to be here and I want to get my stuff right and show people that I can play," Ramirez said. "That's just me. I want to go and get that feel back that I've still got it."
Said Maddon, "It means it could be a very exciting year for the Rays. I just see, for me, a guy that is focused, that is driven right now. And I love the idea that he feels as though he needs to go out there, wants to go out there and prove something."
Ramirez, who turns 39 in May, has compiled a Hall of Fame-caliber resume with 555 home runs, 1,830 RBIs, 2,573 hits and a career .313 average. But he hasn't been as productive the past two seasons — or at least not since a May-July 2009 steroids-related suspension (hitting .284 with 22 homers and 85 RBIs in 167 games). He also missed time in 2010 due to three stints on the disabled list.
Ramirez stopped short of making any predictions, saying he'd give his all and see where he was at the end of the year.
"I just want to stay healthy. That's my main course," he said. "If I do that, I think everything is going to take care of itself."
The Rays hope that is their only concern.
They repeat stories about how good of a teammate Ramirez can be, how much he prepares and hard he works, and how much fun he can be.
"I think he's just living in his own world," third baseman Evan Longoria said, in a nice way. "I really just think he has fun playing the game and doesn't really care what the perception is outside of his own."
But they are also well-versed in the tales of the turbulence he can cause, whether from flakiness, ambivalence or, albeit occasional, defiance and confrontation.
Maddon said he will go only by what he sees and hears — "To this point, (Ramirez is) saying all the right things to me. I believe it to be sincere." — and is looking forward to the experience, though with one caveat.
"The only expectation is to become absorbent into our program and to play the game the way we play the game here," Maddon said. "That's it. And we've talked about that already."
Longoria, who worked out with Ramirez in Arizona during the offseason, is so excited, he said his No. 1 priority for the spring is to "follow Manny around a little bit" to see what he can learn from him about hitting.
Catcher Kelly Shoppach, who played briefly with Ramirez in Boston in 2005, said there is a lot to pick up, starting with how intently he works at his craft.
"He doesn't get credit for that because he is goofy, and he is silly, and he seems like he is never focused and he's constantly playing," he said. "But it is something to watch and take notice of because you learn a lot from him."
Ramirez came across as serious — even low-key, and at times reflective — during a 20-minute chat with reporters after his morning workout.
He said he has had no regrets along the way, appreciates the opportunity to continue his career ("to still have a job") and — somewhat longingly — how excited he is to be around the Rays' young stars such as Longoria.
"Longo, he's the man," Ramirez said. "He's the captain of this team."
Ramirez also turned practically philosophical, including dismissing the significance of reaching 600 home runs (which only seven players have).
"It don't matter — 600, 500, 800 — because when you die, none of that matters," he said. "They could make you a statue or whatever. It don't matter when you die."
What does most, he said, is family. And he instantly switched from somber to smiling and animated in talking about the oldest of his three sons, a 15-year-old who is bigger than he is (at 6 feet 2) and playing high school baseball
All three boys, Ramirez boasted, are in some incarnation named Manny. Yet in his authorized biography, Becoming Manny, it says his youngest son's name is Lucas.
"He's so much fun," Shoppach said of Ramirez.
"I can't wait to see what's going to happen."
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]