When, at 13, Aramis Ramirez gave up his dream of NBA stardom and
took up baseball, he was instantly popular with the neighborhood
kids in his native Santo Domingo. He couldn't hit, but his
father, Victor, a physician, had the means to buy him three
baseball gloves. "I was really bad," says Aramis, now the
Pirates' third baseman, "but if they didn't let me play, they
wouldn't have enough gloves."
Cash-strapped though it may be, Pittsburgh has other reasons for
keeping Ramirez around. Through Sunday he was hitting .268,
including .350 with runners in scoring position, and leading the
Pirates with 10 home runs and 29 RBIs. He burst onto the scene as
a big league regular on April 8, when he hit three homers in a
9-3 win over the Astros. In the eyes of some Pittsburgh fans,
however, that arrival was three years late.
The Pirates haven't had a potent hitter at third since Jeff King
drove in 98 runs in 1993, and in the first eight weeks of the '98
season the five players Pittsburgh used at the position batted a
combined .176. That's why Ramirez, who had signed with the
Pirates in '94 as a 16-year-old undrafted free agent and three
years later hit 29 home runs for the Class A Lynchburg (Va.)
Hillcats, was called up, from the Triple A Nashville Sounds, in
May '98. "His pitch recognition was always well beyond his
years," says Trent Jewett, Ramirez's manager at Nashville and now
a Pirates coach. "He's very wise."
Recognizing a curve is one thing; hitting it is another. Ramirez
went 0 for his first 24 at bats. "[Pitchers] don't make mistakes
up here the way they do in the minors," says Ramirez, who
finished his rookie year batting .235 with six homers and 24 RBIs
in 72 games. "Down there, whether they threw a slider, curve,
whatever--you just hit it hard."
Pittsburgh signed free agent Ed Sprague to a one-year contract in
1999 to give Ramirez a year of seasoning at Nashville (.328, 21
homers, 74 RBIs in 131 games). Ramirez entered 2000 as the
Pirates' starting third baseman, but after he batted .167 in the
first 18 games, they sent him back to Nashville. He was recalled
in June but struggled defensively (10 errors) while hitting .284
with five homers and 31 RBIs before a partially dislocated left
shoulder ended his season in August.
Cocky and prone to concentration lapses last season, Ramirez this
year has shown an improved attitude. He has cut down on his
pull-hitter swing and is using more of the field. At third,
though he had made nine errors in 40 games through Sunday, he is
working on positioning his feet and body properly rather than
relying so much on his arm. He often speaks to veterans about
preparation, and at 6'1", 215 pounds, he's in better playing
shape than ever.
Pittsburgh manager Lloyd McClendon, who worked with Ramirez when
he was the Pirates' minor league hitting coordinator in 1996 and
as Pittsburgh's hitting coach from '97 through 2000, suggests
Ramirez's early difficulties in the majors may have benefited
him. "As a kid he had more of me, me, me on his mind," McClendon
says. "Now he thinks more about the team's success."
McClendon has plugged Ramirez into the No. 4 spot in the batting
order, behind outfielder Brian Giles. Having scored or driven in
25% of Pittsburgh's runs last year, Giles was intentionally
walked four times in his first 121 plate appearances this season.
Three times Ramirez followed with a hit.
"This year I know what the team expects of me," Ramirez says. "I
don't feel like going back to Triple A. Everything I have to
prove is up here."
COLOR PHOTO: PAUL JASIENSKI