From Baní to The Land, J-Ram a giant among marginalized youth

Ramírez's legacy centered around providing opportunity, inspiration for next generation

September 18th, 2023

CLEVELAND -- The lost boy listened as the superstar spoke.

One day in the summer of 2022, José Ramírez was telling the kids in the local Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities program about the importance of education, of perseverance, of focus. And as Ramírez told his story of growing up in poverty and turning himself into an MLB superstar, something clicked inside of a teenager named Juan Figueroa.

“Hearing how he came up from the Dominican Republic and everything he went through and all he believes in and how you can turn your life around,” Figueroa said, “made me fall in love with the game again.”

You know Ramírez as the strutting, swatting soul of the Cleveland Guardians. A perennial All-Star, Silver Slugger and MVP candidate who hustles so much that he routinely loses his helmet, who wears a gold chain with a picture of himself holding a gold chain, who defended himself and his younger teammates in an altercation with White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson.

Photos courtesy of Lexie Teas

But to kids like Figueroa -- in the poorest sections of Ramírez’s adopted hometown and in his real one -- Ramírez is something more.

To these kids growing up in adverse circumstances -- kids for whom baseball is not a mere diversion but, rather, a driving force toward a better life -- this 5-foot-9, 190-pound third baseman is a giant.

“They come from backgrounds where they need any role models they can get,” said Megan Ganser, the Guardians’ manager for player engagement. “José uses baseball as the means to keep kids motivated to get good grades, to have friends and to have a safe space to go after school and continue to be engaged in a healthy social life.”

Against considerable odds, Ramírez has established himself as one of the most impactful players on the MLB diamond. Yet the Guardians’ 2023 Roberto Clemente Award nominee is arguably making an even bigger impact off of it. Not only is he the rare star who elected to stay in a small market, but he’s invested enough of himself and his salary into ensuring a legacy in that market that goes well beyond the various Cleveland franchise records he has begun to approach.

“Baseball,” he said, “is a disciplined way of [learning] how to respect each other.”

This is the story of how Ramírez learned and earned that respect. And how he pays it forward.

* * * * * * * *

The square of dirt, infiltrated by rocks and weeds, sat across the Rio Baní from José Ramírez’s humble home in Baní, the capital of the Peravia Province in the Dominican Republic. A young Ramírez would cross that physical divide to play the game that would one day lift him past metaphorical divides.

Because of his slight size, Ramírez’s only hope of attracting the attention of Latin American scouts was to punch above his weight, to be the best player on the field.

But doing so was no easy task, given the financial limitations Ramírez grew up with.

“It was difficult for my dad,” he said through interpreter Agustin Rivero. “He didn’t have much work, we didn’t have much money. I had to play with a glove that was too tight.”

In his formative years, Ramírez and the other neighborhood kids played “Vitilla,” using water jug caps as baseballs and sticks for bats. As he progressed to baseball proper, Ramírez was short, he was skinny, and, quite often, he was the youngest player in his league. He learned how to overcome the obstacles brought about by his height and how to surprise those who wrote him off.

Photos courtesy of Lexie Teas

As he grew older, Ramírez learned how to play under pressure. Not just the pressure that comes with being the smallest player on the field, but the pressure of using baseball to provide for your family. He’s told the story of how, at 13 years old, he played in an adult league rife with gambling. A machete sat menacingly behind home plate as a warning to those who did not perform.

That’s real pressure.

It was around that time that MLB shortstop -- and fellow Baní native -- Miguel Tejada held a clinic at a local stadium where he distributed food and equipment to kids in need. Ramírez still remembers rushing to the line.

“Look how old I am,” said Ramírez, who turned 31 on Sunday. “I never forgot it.”

* * * * * * * *

The bats, balls and gloves provided by Tejada were a lifeline to a kid like Ramírez, because baseball was his way out of poverty.

His only way.

Alas, by the time Ramírez turned 17, it seemed his chance of making real money playing baseball had passed him by. The elite prospects in the Dominican sign by the time they are 16. At the showcase events where scouts observed such prospects, Ramírez was nothing more than an extra man, a fill-in when somebody else was unable to play. No MLB teams showed interest in him.

Then, one day in 2009, at one such showcase, Ramírez happened to be playing second base with Cleveland scouting director John Mirabelli and scout Ramon Peña in attendance. Ramírez got three hits that day. Then three hits the next. Then five hits in a doubleheader the day after that.

Peña implored Mirabelli to sign the switch-hitting Ramírez. And so, he did.

That relatively meager investment earned Ramírez no favors as he ventured into the professional ranks.

“He’s not the guy that came in with a lot of acclaim,” said Guardians president Chris Antonetti. “He wasn’t afforded a ton of extra opportunities because of an investment.”

As had always been the case for Ramírez, he had to earn each and every at-bat. In the Dominican Summer League. In the Arizona Rookie League. In the New York-Penn League. In the Midwest League. And every step up the organizational ladder.

“He was never written up as one of the best prospects in the Minor Leagues,” Antonetti continued. “He never got caught up in any of that. He was just focused on being a good baseball player.”

Ramírez reached the big leagues in 2013, at age 20. That alone was an incredible achievement for a player with his background. Some in the Cleveland clubhouse rolled their eyes at this kid walking around with a cocksure George Jefferson strut on his first day in the Majors.

Then they’d watch him work, watch his approach, hear his story.

Over time, everybody came to understand this was not a flash-in-the-pan, happy-to-be-here utilityman. This was a real Major League piece, an everyday player.

Ramírez turned out to be a vital cog of Cleveland’s 2016 AL pennant-winner. Then he exploded into another stratosphere with 85 extra-base hits, including a Major League-leading 56 doubles, in 2017. Over the past seven seasons, the only players to accumulate more FanGraphs-calculated Wins Above Replacement than Ramírez (39) are Mookie Betts (43.6) and Aaron Judge (40.6).

That Betts signed a 12-year, $365 million deal with the Dodgers in 2020 and Judge signed a nine-year, $360 million contract with the Yankees this past winter gives a window into what a player like Ramírez might be worth on the open market. That’s why so many were stunned when Ramírez, two seasons away from free agency, agreed last year to a seven-year, $141 million extension to stay with the Guardians.

He left significant money on the table to stay in his adopted home.

“I’m like anyone in Cleveland,” he said. “I have my family here, and I plan to retire here. I will stay here all my life with my family, because my two children were born here. I see it as my home, too.”

What we’ve learned, though, in the time since that pact, is how serious Ramírez is about making his home -- both of his homes -- a better place.

* * * * * * * *

In a jubilant Cleveland clubhouse on the night of June 8, a Guardians staffer asked Ramírez for his hat.

The hat was loosely tied to one of the best performances of Ramírez’s great career. That night, he had hit a solo homer in the first inning, a two-run shot in the third and another solo blast in the sixth to power his club to a 10-3 win over the Red Sox. It was his first three-homer game, and the Guardians’ Community Impact department wanted to capitalize on it by auctioning off his hat from that evening for charity.

Ordinarily eager to assist in such circumstances, Ramírez removed his cap from his head, looked at it pensively, and then explained that he could not part with it.

“I would give this to you,” he explained, “but I wrote my grandmother’s name on the brim.”

His grandmother was Santa Ramírez. She had passed away less than a month earlier. Her death was gutting for Ramírez, who credits his grandmother as the foundation of his life. The one who raised him, and the one who taught him to share his riches.

“She taught me the values of helping the community,” he said. “That came from her.”

Santa’s influence can be felt in Baní, on that unassuming field where Ramírez got his start.

It’s called El Play de Villa Majega, and, in partnership with the Guardians, Ramírez is refurbishing it to make it a safe space for the kids in his hometown to compete and escape the threats and temptations that lurk on the exterior streets.

An outfield wall is being erected to prevent garbage from blowing onto the playing field. Bases and a proper pitching rubber are being installed to replace the lead pipes and tires that were once used in their place.

Having lived the struggle to assert yourself and be seen when learning the game on a bedraggled ballfield, Ramírez wants more credible conditions for El Play de Villa Majega.

Photos courtesy of Lexie Teas

“The reality,” he said, “is that those kids in the D.R. have no alternative. That’s why I feel it’s really important to help.”

When Guardians staffers visited the field with a camera crew from Bally Sports in January, they came across a group of kids playing nearby, including a young girl riding a scooter.

“They asked about the camera crew, and I explained that we were there for José Ramírez,” Guardians assistant director of player development Anna Bolton wrote in an e-mail. “All the kids’ faces lit up, and one little girl said, ‘He gave me this scooter!’”

Ramírez had just staged a community event for Three Kings Day -- the Christian holiday during which people in the Dominican Republic traditionally exchange gifts. The kids excitedly told Bolton about all the gifts Ramírez had brought them. Turns out, the grandson of a woman named Santa had acted the part of a different Santa, showing up with a truck full of toys that he dispensed to children living in abject poverty.

“He is a celebrity in his community,” wrote Bolton, “and has stepped into the position of role model with dignity and mindfulness.”

* * * * * * * *

Ramírez has done that in his adopted hometown, too.

The Guardians fund all the baseball and softball programs in the city of Cleveland, including recreation leagues, the Nike RBI program and the Cleveland Metro School District. As part of that initiative, they are the only MLB team that recruits its players as baseball and softball ambassadors -- signing autographs, recording video messages, surprising kids at practices and games, etc.

Naturally, Ramírez is one such ambassador. But when he signed his extension with the club last year, Ramírez made it clear that he wanted to take his ambassadorial role to another level.

The result was the recent unveiling of José Ramírez Field. The $2.7 million project, funded by Ramírez and Cleveland Guardians Charities, is an all-turf field that now serves as the home park for the RBI program and the Lincoln-West High School baseball team.

It resides in the Clark-Fulton neighborhood -- the largest Hispanic neighborhood in Ohio -- and it could prove to be Ramírez’s most important legacy.

“I’m so proud of him,” Guardians manager Terry Francona said. “I love this kid, but this might have been the most proud I’ve been of him. He’s put his money where his mouth is.”

With Ramírez’s involvement, the Guardians have expanded MLB’s leaguewide Fun At Bat program, which teaches a baseball curriculum to students from kindergarten through fifth grade, from just 50 registered students in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District one year ago to more than 3,000 now. 

“José allows us to take this to every school, because we now have a curriculum in both English and Spanish,” said Raphael Collins, the Guardians’ assistant director of community impact and diversity initiatives. “José getting behind it has just blown this thing away.”

And because his words carry so much weight in the Cleveland clubhouse, Ramírez influences his teammates to get involved, too. At a recent team meeting, Ramírez implored the club’s younger players to assist with the RBI program.

The very next day, rookies Bo Naylor and Xzavion Curry showed up at an RBI softball practice.

“One of the big things he was sharing,” Naylor said of Ramírez, “was how important it is that we use our position for good, to give back and to make sure that this game is continuously growing and being shared with all groups.”

And if you want an example of the impact those visits can have, there is the story of Juan Figueroa.

* * * * * * * *

Baseball was Figueroa’s first love, from his earliest upbringing in his native Puerto Rico to his high school years when his family had settled on the south side of Cleveland. He joined the city’s RBI program at a young age.

But while Figueroa had the talent to play baseball, he didn’t have the grades. His GPA after his sophomore year was just 1.2. He was spiraling.

“My ADHD makes it harder to concentrate in school,” Figueroa explained. “I put my whole passion into baseball. When I started to feel like things weren’t working out, I didn’t know what to do.”

Then, at an RBI event in the summer of 2022, Figueroa listened to Ramírez talk about Baní, about El Play de Villa Majega, about the dedication it took to play himself out of poverty.

And he listened to Ramírez’s central message.

“Every time we put José in front of kids,” Collins said, “his message is about education. It’s not surface-level. He understands that education can change people’s lives. Some of the opportunities we provide, he wishes he had growing up. Now that he has his own kids, his own family, he understands baseball is a tool to keep kids in school longer.”

Though Figueroa has had coaches and teachers who have taken a vested interest in him and given him priceless support, that message from a Major League star helped put all the pieces together. From that day, his focus improved, and so have his grades. He had a 3.0 GPA his junior year and was named the Senate Athletic League’s baseball Player of the Year.

Now in his senior year at James F. Rhodes High School and approaching his 18th birthday, Figueroa is hoping that his improved grades and his baseball talent can earn him a college scholarship and a chance to better his life.

“Baseball is my getaway from everything,” he said. “When you live where I live, trouble is everywhere. You can get in trouble in two seconds. I rely on baseball. I put my hard work into it and try to better myself. I leave my pain and anything I’m going through out on the field and let my game speak for me.”

It’s not hard to find echoes of Ramírez’s story in Figueroa’s words. Baseball as an escape from trouble. Baseball as a motivating force. Baseball as a form of personal expression.

A kid like Figueroa sees himself in Ramírez, and Ramírez sees himself in kids like Figueroa.

That’s why Ramírez’s words connect and why Figueroa remembers them.

“Don’t take your eyes off the prize,” Figueroa said. “The whole world could be crashing down, but, if you’re focused, nothing’s going to knock you down.”