FORT MYERS, Fla. — A young, playful and skinny Hanley Ramirez played baseball at Hadlock Field in 2004 and 2005.

Ramirez didn’t play his best baseball in Portland but he was, shall we say, entertaining.

During a rain delay, he rode a bicycle through the stadium concourse. He would run through the clubhouse with a football, pretending to be breaking tackles.

And Ramirez signed countless autographs, always bypassing an adult’s request to sign a kid’s.

Nowadays, Ramirez is 26, his muscles developed and toned. And before games, like the one Thursday at City of Palms Park, Ramirez has no football or bike. But he does chum around with people like David Ortiz and Victor Martinez.

Just another All-Star. Or as Red Sox Manager Terry Francona put it, “one of the elite players in the game.”

But he isn’t on the Red Sox.

Boston traded Ramirez in 2005 in a brilliant deal — even if Ramirez hit .342 with 106 RBI for the Florida Marlins last year.

“I hear every once in a while from (Red Sox fans),” Marlins Manager Fredi Gonzalez said with a laugh. “They say: ‘We’d love to have Hanley back.’

“Hey, timeout. You got a World Series out of it. I guess people are greedy.”

The Red Sox got Josh Beckett and Mike Lowell, and without them Boston doesn’t reach let alone win the 2007 World Series.

Think about that. Without the 2007 title, the angst-driven Red Sox fans would be bemoaning 2004 as a one-time wonder, while hearing about the Yankees winning two titles in the past decade.

But thanks to Beckett’s two key victories in the ALCS and Lowell’s World Series MVP-winning performance, Boston added another title.

And the Marlins added Ramirez to their roster. He joined the major league team right away and has a .313 career average with 103 home runs, 313 RBI and 164 stolen bases.

Would Ramirez have had the same success with Boston?

I doubt it.

First of all, Ramirez would not have begun the 2006 season in the majors, not after a so-so season in Portland (.271, six home runs, 52 RBI).

“I would have been in Pawtucket,” Ramirez said before Thursday’s game, in which he did not play.

Ramirez laughed. “I’d still be in Pawtucket right now.”

No, he eventually would have made it out of Triple-A. But the Red Sox didn’t think he was ready in 2006.

“I don’t think it’s saying it incorrectly — he got good quick,” Francona said. “He was certainly on our radar as a huge prospect. Maybe he got his chance quicker because he was with the Marlins. He took advantage of it.”

But if and when Ramirez got to Fenway Park, would he have been able to handle the pressure-cooker and expectations of Boston?

“You can’t just send a kid out there and hope,” Francona said. “In our market that just doesn’t work. We’ve been fortunate we’ve had some special young players.”

Francona listed players like Kevin Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia, Jonathan Papelbon, Jon Lester and Jacoby Ellsbury; all former Sea Dogs who found themselves in the majors shortly after their stay in Portland.

All of those players possess a maturity that made them ready for the Boston market. Ramirez is the first to admit that maturity was a work in progress for him.

“I was a little kid when I was with Boston,” Ramirez said. “I think I matured in Florida.”

Ramirez came to Portland as a 20-year-old at the end of the 2004 season. He came with a reputation as one of the most promising prospects in the minors, and as an ill-tempered prodigy who had been suspended twice for hot-headed incidents.

In his time in Portland, Ramirez showed a few flashes of his temper but for the most part behaved himself and became a fan favorite.

When Ramirez was traded to Florida, he joined an organization that has less media, far fewer fans, and expectations that don’t depend on yearly success.

In other words, Ramirez had time to grow.

While he batted .292 his rookie year in 2006, he also made 26 errors at shortstop. Fenway fans might not have been so forgiving, and how would a young Ramirez react to being booed?

Because of the trade, we don’t have to wonder for long.

“It was a good trade for everybody,” Francona said.

Ramirez keeps improving as a hitter. And after three seasons of 20-something errors, he cut the number to 10 last year.

Ramirez still gets some bad press — he and teammate Dan Uggla got into a shouting match in front of reporters last September after Uggla questioned why Ramirez left a game with a tight hamstring.

Still, Gonzalez believes Ramirez is changed from only a few years ago.

“I’ve seen the difference in his growth, on the field and in the locker room,” Gonzalez said.

Ramirez agrees. He’s a veteran at the age of 26.

“You mature, you grow up,” Ramirez said. “I’ve got a long way to go. I’ve got to keep growing every day.”

And for now (his $70 million contract runs through 2014), Ramirez will grow with the Marlins. Florida got a superstar from the Red Sox.

And Boston got another ring.

 

Staff Writer Kevin Thomas can be reached at 791-6411 or at:

[email protected]