ST. PETERSBURG -- As he does before every game, reliever Matt Wisler cleared a space on the bench in the home bullpen at Tropicana Field and laid down the No. 98 “RAMIREZ” jersey he’d carried from the clubhouse. On the back of the bench, the Rays had taped up two letters: “JR.”
None of Tampa Bay’s relievers sit there, because that spot belonged -- and still belongs -- to Jean Ramirez.
The Rays remembered Ramirez, their former bullpen catcher who died by suicide in January, with a pregame moment of silence and continued to honor him during their 9-3 loss to the Twins. His number, 98, was stenciled onto the mound. Tampa Bay’s players wore “98” stickers on their batting helmets and green ribbons -- the symbol for mental health awareness -- on their chests in support of mental health awareness, and they will continue to do so throughout May as part of the club’s efforts for Mental Health Awareness Month.
“It's something that we all learned, and I think we learned the hard way,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “The organization has done such a tremendous job of honoring Jean. His family has been remarkable. … We all put our heads together and said, 'We need to do everything we can to pay attention to this, being mental health awareness, and then also do right by Jean and what he meant to us.'”
Ramirez’s parents, Carlos and Toni, were in attendance Sunday. Carlos wore his son’s jersey as the family stood alongside the Rays for the moment of silence. They hugged each of Tampa Bay’s relievers on their way to the bullpen before first pitch. They embraced center fielder Kevin Kiermaier, catcher Mike Zunino, third-base coach Rodney Linares, Cash and many others just before the game began.
Perhaps fittingly, the Rays will see them again at the end of the month, as the team wraps up its May slate with a series against the Rangers, near Ramirez’s home in Fort Worth, Texas. Their strength in the face of tragedy, their willingness to speak openly about their son’s passing and their passion for bringing awareness to mental health issues have helped inspire the Rays to promote the cause as well.
“I hope we can all be as strong as his parents have been,” said second baseman Brandon Lowe, whose Home Runs for Hope campaign donates $100 to the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay for each homer he hits. “There's just no selfishness in anything they want to do. They've come in, they've talked to our Minor Leaguers, they've talked to the big leaguers, they talked with everybody. They're spreading awareness and being very active in this whole process to essentially make sure there are no parents that are like them.”
Ramirez was beloved by Rays players, coaches and staff, who wore black shirts with “JR” printed in blue on them before Sunday’s game. The native of Bayamón, Puerto Rico, spent three seasons in Tampa Bay’s Minor League system before becoming a big league bullpen catcher in 2019.
Ask about Ramirez around the Rays’ clubhouse, and you’ll hear nothing but warm words about his generosity and humility, his kindness and joyful spirit, his sense of humor and contagious smile.
“He was someone I always felt comfortable talking to about anything. I knew he had my back, no matter what,” said lefty reliever Colin Poche, who was Ramirez’s roommate on the road during their season together at the University of Arkansas. “He was just a really special person, and we miss his presence down there a lot.”
“It’s just an honor to honor his memory, the memories we all have of him. … It's bigger than the game that we're playing,” said left-hander Jalen Beeks, who also knew Ramirez dating back to their time together at Arkansas. “It's not just about what we're going to do on the field, but it's about everybody who's dealt with the things that Jean dealt with in his life.”
When news of his death surfaced, the Rays were shaken. Beeks described it as a “gut punch” followed by a “sickening feeling.” Ramirez wasn’t part of the roster, but as veteran reliever Andrew Kittredge said, “He was as much a part of this team as anybody.”
“That was such a devastating blow for us and his family and everybody,” Kittredge added. “Hopefully this can just shine some light on what a great person Jean was.”
During the game, the Rays Baseball Foundation announced a $5,000 donation to Keeper of the Game, Ramirez’s charity of choice, which seeks to provide unique baseball experiences for children and young adults with special needs and disabilities. Additionally, the club will auction the No. 98 jerseys the Rays starting lineup wore during a March 25 Spring Training game -- along with a pair of cleats designed by Ramirez and worn by Lowe, plus other packages and memorabilia -- with all proceeds benefiting the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay.
At the end of the day, hours after the last out of an otherwise forgettable game for the Rays, the domed roof at Tropicana Field began to glow green for mental health awareness.
“I thought the Rays did a really nice job, a special job set up by many people to honor Jean and raise awareness,” Cash said.