The question almost made Ramon Ramirez laugh.
The Red Sox reliever had just walked into his apartment late Wednesday night, a couple of hours after giving up back-to-back home runs to Johnny Damon and Mark Teixeira. It was easily his worst outing of the season. The timing was terrible. It was the first time his mother and his wife, visiting from the Dominican Republic, had seen him pitch at Fenway Park.
“Are you mad?” his mother asked.
He almost laughed. Mad? How could he be mad?
Ten years ago, he was hauling boxes in a Coca-Cola warehouse by day and working on his pitching by night, throwing and running and watching Pedro Martinez pitch on TV as often as he possibly could. He was out of baseball. He wasn’t yet 20 years old.
Now, though, he’s perhaps the best relief pitcher in the American League. Acquired from Kansas City for outfielder Coco Crisp, his ERA is a career-best 2.10. Opponents are hitting a ridiculous .176 against him, and he gets more swings and misses than anyone on the staff.
He gave up two home runs in a game his team ended up winning. Mad? How could he possibly be mad?
“I said, ‘No, I’m not mad. This is a game, and this is going to happen sometimes,” said Ramirez, whose English has improved enough that he only occasionally speaks with the assistance of a team translator. “I said, ‘Don’t worry. Don’t worry. This happens in the game. I feel so happy because you are here and my wife is here. This is what makes me feel happy – no matter what happens in the game.’”
Ramirez signed with the Texas Rangers organization as a 16-year-old and played in the outfield for a team in Santiago, the city nearest his home, for a couple of months in 1997. But the Rangers sponsored two Dominican teams – the second was in Santo Domingo – and only needed one.
When they consolidated the two teams, Ramirez was left without a team. He didn’t play organized baseball for the next three years.
He had to take a job at a Coca-Cola factory nearby. The job paid 3,000 pesos a month – “about 50 bucks,” he said – but it was enough to support his wife and his growing family. His first daughter had been born just before he turned 16 years old; his second daughter had been born two years later.
All he could do was practice his baseball whenever he got a chance. Having decided he wanted to be a pitcher, he watched legends like Martinez and John Smoltz every time he got the chance and did everything he could to keep himself in shape for his next opportunity.
“I practiced for almost three years and a half,” Ramirez said. “The year has 365 days – and I run every day. It’s hard. It’s hard, but I love that.”
He couldn’t keep kidding himself forever, though. When he tried out for a spot at a baseball academy run by the Hiroshima Toyo Carp of Japan’s Central League, he told himself he’d hang up his spikes if this last effort didn’t work out.
Ramirez does one simple drill just about every time he throws. Instead of pitching off the top of the mound, he pitches off the back of the mound with the catcher a few feet in front of the plate. It’s a drill he learned from Kansas City pitching coach Bob McClure during his one season with the Royals; the idea is that he’ll keep the ball down better when he’s striding downhill if he can keep the ball down when he’s striding uphill.
“He did that drill relentlessly,” McClure said. “After a couple of weeks, we saw better results – he kept the ball down real well Once he started to keep the ball down and getting good results, he was sold on it. Keeping the ball down is No. 1.”
Learning to pitch still is a work in progress for Ramirez. When he tried out for the Carp Baseball Academy in August of 2000, he couldn’t even say he was a pitcher yet. Other than the extra attention he’d paid to pitchers both on television and in his games in the Rangers organization, he had no idea how to pitch.
“It’s not like pitching because I had never pitched in a game,” he said. “They wanted to see how fast I was throwing.”
(For the first half of his interview with the Union Leader, Ramirez spoke in Spanish through staff assistant Alex Ochoa – but for the second half of the interview, he spoke in English.)
Eighty players participated in the tryout. Ramirez was the only one to earn a spot at the academy – the same organization from which Alfonso Soriano launched his career. By the next spring, he’d been sent to Japan. That’s where he learned to pitch.
“He was throwing 100-pitch bullpens every day,” Ochoa said. “All the running they did, he would have never expected that. But it was a great experience because he got to learn how to pitch by throwing so much and staying in shape and how they run for long periods of time and get that stamina.”
Just prior to the 2003 season, he’d pitched well enough that the Yankees spent $300,000 to buy his rights from Hiroshima. Three years and a trade to Colorado later, he pitched in the major leagues for the first time. When he pitched at Fenway Park for the first time a year ago, he whiffed Dustin Pedroia and Manny Ramirez.
Ramirez quickly has become the linchpin of perhaps the best bullpen in baseball – and not just when he’s on the mound. He’s the only pitcher out in the bullpen who can communicate with everyone whether they speak English (Daniel Bard, Manny Delcarmen, Justin Masterson and Jonathan Papelbon), Spanish (Delcarmen), or Japanese-speakers (Hideki Okajima and Takashi Saito).
“He knows some simple phrases in Japanese, and he’s always joking with me and throwing these Japanese words at me,” Saito said through team interpreter Masa Hoshino. “You see him learning English from Masterson, you see him speaking Spanish sometimes with Manny, and Papelbon jumps in there every now and again and tells everybody to speak English.”
While Ramirez began the season as the quietest guy out in the bullpen, he’s certainly opened up. He swapped his first stories with Saito over lunch in spring training, and he’s gradually coming out of his shell with the rest of the guys on his side of the locker room.
They all know that his wife and mother have come to visit. They all know his children – he has four now, ranging in age from three years old to 12 – are coming to visit once they’re finished with school.
They all know that his oldest son, eight years old, so far has resisted playing baseball. They’ve heard all about how he gets enjoys going to school than he enjoys tagging along with his father on the baseball field.
That’s just fine by Ramirez. No one, after all, knows how important it is to find your own way than then best pitcher in the Red Sox bullpen this season.
“For me, I respect what my boy wants to do,” Ramirez said, speaking without the aid of a translator. “If he wants to play baseball, I try to help, but if he doesn’t want to, I don’t want to say, ‘OK, you’ve got to play baseball because I’m a baseball player.’ No. Do whatever you feel is comfortable for you. That’s what worked for my life.”