Ramírez had been invited in the past but said he could never make it work. This year, he was ready to accept the offer and was given the No. 5 seed, as he’s slated to face No. 4 seed Juan Soto in Round 1 on Monday night.
“It was a personal desire,” Ramírez said through team interpreter Agustin Rivero. “This year, it happened, and especially for my family. They want to cheer for me. Especially my mom. She wanted to see me there. I especially want to do it for my mom.”
Step 1: Get permission
Ramírez was sure to stop by manager Terry Francona’s office prior to making the decision, to double-check that his team was OK with his decision to enter the Home Run Derby.
"There's always a little bit of hesitancy on our part because of what he means to us,” Francona said. “But then when you sit back about five seconds later and you think about what this guy means to us, he has earned the right. And he asked, which I thought was really respectful. I told him if it's something you want to do, we support you."
Step 2: Who’s pitching?
Ramírez had a handful of options, but he didn’t hesitate once he considered his hitting coach from Rookie ball.
Ramírez was signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2009. When he played for Cleveland’s Arizona Rookie clubs in 2011, Junior Betances was there to help him begin his development as a hitter.
“It’s something that was a long time coming,” Ramírez said. “It feels like kind of a little reward to him for everything he helped me through my career in the Minors.”
Betances, who was serving his role as Double-A Akron hitting coach when he got the call, was not expecting the news.
“I was surprised,” Betances said. “I was so excited. I didn’t expect this. So, when he asked if I wanted to go to L.A., [I'm going to] enjoy the moment, enjoy with my family, enjoy with José’s family and see what happens.”
Betances has been in the Cleveland organization since 2000. He’s bounced around from Rookie ball hitting coach to Rookie ball manager to Dominican Academy director to hitting coach and bench coach for High-A Lake County to his current position as Akron hitting coach, which he’s held for two seasons.
“That's so cool,” Francona said. “I asked him if he was going to be nervous and he said, 'No!’ I said, ‘OK, I'm going to ask you again on Monday.’ I can't imagine throwing batting practice on that stage. Because all you can do is screw up. That would be hard. But he was really excited.”
Does Betances agree?
“I don’t think so,” Betances said, with a smile. “I have a lot of years in the sport. I think it’s the same as throwing BP. He’s the guy who has to put on the show.”
Step 3: Righty or lefty?
Ramírez has other decisions to make, as he’ll need to determine if he’ll bat right-handed or left-handed. As a righty this year, he’s hit just three homers as opposed to his 14 from the left side. In his career, 129 of his long balls have been as a left-handed hitter and 51 have been as a righty.
“Still haven’t [decided] yet,” Ramírez said. “I’ll see more how I feel when I get to the ballpark there in L.A. But for now, it’ll be from the right side.”
Ramírez will become the sixth player to represent Cleveland at the Home Run Derby. Albert Belle was part of the fun from 1993-95, Manny Ramirez joined Belle in ‘95, Jim Thome was there in ‘97 and ‘98, Grady Sizemore broke the 10-year spell without a Cleveland player in 2008 and Carlos Santana participated in ‘19.
No Cleveland player has won the competition, though Belle and Thome lost in the finals in ‘95 and ‘98, respectively. No switch-hitter has won the Derby outright (Rubén Sierra shared the title with Eric Davis in ’89). The only other switch-hitter to make it to the finals was Lance Berkman in ’04.
Ramírez’s first task will be taking down Soto in Round 1.
“He’s a good hitter, but in the end, it’s a competition and nobody can control what happens in the competition,” Ramírez said. “We’ll see what happens. This is a strange game, so a lot of things can happen.”