NEW YORK -- When Harold Ramírez gazes into the crowd at Tropicana Field this Sunday, he’ll encounter a host of fans rocking blue wigs, a giveaway modeled on his own hair. The sea of blue will undoubtedly make for a striking visual, but the real significance is what inspired it.
A couple years ago, Ramírez’s son, Elian, was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder -- a neurodevelopmental disability characterized by a range of difficulties, including social interaction and communication. Shortly thereafter, Ramírez decided to dye his hair blue, a soothing color associated with autism, to honor his son. And on Sunday, during Autism Awareness Day at the Trop, a sizable contingent of Rays fans will visit their world.
“It’s going to make me feel very excited,” Ramírez said with a grin during a visit to MLB Headquarters on Monday. “It’s good for me, good for my son and good for everybody.”
According to a report from the CDC, one out of every 36 children is autistic. That’s up from 1 in 44 just two years ago, and 1 in 110 in 2006. This increase, in part, reflects a greater understanding of what autism entails. And, in turn, when children and adults are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, they can gain greater access to therapies to help with limited speech and other challenges.
Elian is a perfect example: When he was initially diagnosed at 2 years old, he wasn’t saying a whole lot. (25-30 percent of kids on the spectrum are mostly or completely nonverbal.) Now 6 years old, having enrolled in a school where they teach him both English and Spanish, Elian has made tremendous strides, and his dad couldn’t be happier.
“He surprises me with some new words every day,” Ramírez said proudly. “He’s very smart. It’s unbelievable how smart he is.”
Harold has come a long way, too. When he found out Elian was autistic, it was difficult for him to reconcile because he really didn’t know much about that. But he and his family did their research, developed a plan and quickly began seeing results. This led him to want to help other people learn about their experience, figuring that raising the level of understanding could only help Elian and others like him.
Any time someone has blue hair, it’s going to attract attention. And once word got out about the reason Harold had taken the plunge, plenty of people around the baseball community began to check in with him. That was music to his ears: Harold loves when people reach out to hear about Elian, and about autism in general.
That said, there’s a particular camaraderie built in for people who have already learned about autism first-hand. Once Ramírez found out my son, Jacob, is also on the spectrum, he pointed to the puzzle piece tattoo on his hand, a popular symbol for autism. “You have to [get one]!” he said. “And send me a picture when you do!” (In fact, I just might.)
In that vein, Astros jack of all trades Mauricio Dubón, whose nephew is on the spectrum, reached out to say that whatever Ramírez needs, he’s happy to help -- and, of course, that he loves the hair.
“It’s pretty cool. People that don’t know him and just see that, they think the guy is just wearing blue hair,” Dubón told MLB.com’s Brian McTaggart. “But when you have the meaning behind it, it’s something special.”
Might Dubón follow suit?
“You never know,” Dubón said, smiling. “Most people know, I’m flashy.”
Every bit of support helps. And it’s also been great for Ramírez and his family that after bouncing around to 5 other organizations, the slugger has seemingly found a home in Tampa Bay, which he compares to his native Cartagena because so many of his neighbors are Colombian.
That comfort level has translated on the field. After a strong 2022 season that was partially hampered by a hand injury, Ramírez -- who’s been dubbed “Barreled Ramírez” by his teammates, referring to how frequently he squares up on the ball -- has raked this season for the MLB-best Rays, entering Friday with a team-leading .328 average and six homers in 116 at-bats.
Meanwhile, his natural exuberance has made him one of the most well-liked players on the team.
“You see how fired up he gets. Harold is energy, day in and day out,” Rays ace Shane McClanahan told MLB.com’s Adam Berry last season. “He always gives everything he has 100 percent of the time, no matter what -- defensively, offensively, in the dugout -- and he's the same guy.”
When asked if he’d ever seen Ramírez in a bad mood, McClanahan considered that for a second.
“No,” McClanahan said. “I don’t think I actually have.”
Likewise, Elian has found his happy place. He spends a lot of time with his younger brother Ethan at the beach and the pool, and he likes running around and frolicking with Harold’s best friend, Luis Gabriel. Elian also loves animals, and the family’s visits to the zoo tend to turn into marathon affairs.
“He just wants to stay there all day,” Harold said with a chuckle. “He never wants to go home when we’re there.”
And of course, Elian watches a lot of Rays games -- at least when they play during the day, since he needs to get up early for school. He especially loves to go see his dad play live; sensory issues are common among people on the spectrum, but Elian has no trouble with the sound level at the stadium, or anywhere else for that matter.
“My son is very good with the noise,” Harold said. “He loves noise. He loves music, he loves everything loud. When he doesn’t feel like it’s loud, he doesn’t feel people [around him], it’s like … he doesn’t want to be there. He likes to be around people.”
Ultimately, Harold’s goal for Elian is simply to live the mantra he has tattooed next to the puzzle piece on his hand: “It’s okay to be different.” And just as Harold has developed more patience and understanding from working with Elian, he believes everyone else can learn from his son as well.
“[Autistic people] just think about love, doing good things and feeling happy,” Harold said. “In my opinion, if everyone sees the world like [Elian] sees it? The world is going to be very good.”
Adam Berry and Brian McTaggart contributed reporting to this story.