DES MOINES, Iowa -- It's not heaven, Manny Ramirez knows. Nor Boston. Nor L.A. Nor Chicago.
But it's baseball.
At Principal Park, situated an infield flyball from the Des Moines and Raccoon rivers, with the Iowa State Capitol shining in the distance beyond the center-field wall, big-league dreams are on the verge of being realized. Ramirez, the 2004 World Series MVP and newest coach for the Cubs' Class AAA team, is here to nurture, teach and mentor.
A part-time designated hitter for the I-Cubs, too, Ramirez takes batting practice wearing a Cubbie-blue Chris "Rusin 21" warm-up T-shirt. When he isn't displaying the swing that made him one of the most-feared hitters of his generation, he studies his teammates in the box, talks to them and anyone else who approaches the one-time star.
"He's a pretty remarkable human being to want to be here in Triple-A after living the lavish lifestyle that is the major leagues for so long," outfielder Ryan Kalish said of the man who made 12 all-star teams and slugged 555 big-league homers. "He has such a good head on his shoulders that it's really good for us to have him here."
Cubs president Theo Epstein, Ramirez's former boss in Boston, signed Ramirez to be a player/coach for the I-Cubs on May 25. Last month, Ramirez made his Iowa debut, homering in his first home game. In 27 at-bats, he's hit .222. Yet, despite having signed minor-league contracts with the A's and Rangers the last couple of years, Ramirez understands he's not here to work his way back to the big leagues.
When major-league rosters expand in September, he doesn't expect Epstein to toss Cubs fans a "cookie" by promoting him and telling him to pack a bat and glove.
"I know my role here," said Ramirez, sporting a pseudo Mohawk and goatee that are both sprinkled with gray. "I don't talk about (getting called up to the Cubs). I came here to help, and when they tell me to play, I try to do my best."
At 42, Ramirez is 20 years older than hotshot prospects Kris Bryant and Javier Baez, the latter of whom might benefit most from Ramirez's tutelage. A free swinger who sprays line drives from line to line with plus-power, Baez was born in Puerto Rico. Ramirez is from the Dominican Republic.
"I just talk to him about his approach -- to think about (hitting) a little more to the middle (of the field)," Ramirez said of Baez. "He's a grown man. He knows what he's got to do."
When Ramirez talks, Baez's ears perk.
"He's just told me I can stand in the batter's box and take pitches, and they're going to walk me almost all the time," Baez said.
Ramirez calls Bryant and Baez "great players" who are ready for the major leagues. For now, the two former No. 1 draft picks are teammates of Ramirez and -- like seemingly every player on the I-Cubs -- loving being in Ramirez's circle.
"He's Manny every day," Kalish said. "He's just another guy. You would think that he would have a routine in hand, but he likes to be around the guys and do what we do. For me, I do a lot of stretching on certain days. He'll ask me to take him through my stretching."
Too cool. Kalish smiles.
"It's just funny to have a guy that accomplished to want to ask me a question about what I'm doing," Kalish said. "That's Manny being Manny. It's awesome."
Ramirez is known for his prowess with the bat, quirky personality -- hence, "Manny being Manny" -- and, yes, for having twice tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs. Facing a possible 100-game suspension from MLB in 2011, he retired.
But that's history. All he wants now is to help future Cubs and be around the game he loves, even if it's under a hot sun at a minor-league park in the middle of Iowa.
"I knew how to have fun when I was in the big leagues, and I know how to have fun now that I'm here," Ramirez said. "I'm loving it. I'm doing something that I like. I'm changing lives. I'm helping people. So I'm just happy to be here."
"He was my favorite player (growing up)," Baez said of the I-Cubs' No. 99. "He's still my favorite player."
Whether Ramirez is in Iowa for only the remainder of the season is uncertain. Perhaps when Baez, in particular, is ready to graduate to the big leagues, Ramirez's work will be done.
In the meantime, Manny just keeps being Manny.
"I'm going to put it in God's hands," Ramirez said of his baseball future. "If I keep doing it, I keep doing it. If not, I know He's got something better for me."