HOUSTON -- Three more outs and the Indians could have called it a day. The Astros were up by five runs in the ninth inning, and this was only a late May contest. Jose Ramirez strutted to the plate, his hands wrapped in pink batting gloves to honor his mom and he did not intend on going through the motions.
Stretched across his right forearm is a tattoo with his mother's name, Xiomara. Earlier on that Mother's Day morning, she asked her boy to hit a home run and help the Indians win. Ramirez came through with that first present in the first inning with a blast off Gerrit Cole. Now, the Indians' slugger was going to try to put a bow on the second gift.
The hard-throwing Ken Giles, who was with the Astros at the time, crouched, shifted into his delivery and then unleashed a 97-mph fastball up and in. The pitch was effective in moving Ramirez's feet and getting him to retreat from the batter's box momentarily. Ramirez stepped back in, hoisted his bat and readied himself for the next pitch.
No one could have predicted what came next.
Inside the library of Thomas Jefferson Elementary School on Cleveland's west side, while the clamor of children could be heard from the playground outside, Ramirez sat in front of a crowd of students. The moderator of the August visit asked how many in the room spoke Spanish.
One by one, every single hand went up.
:: ALDS schedule and results ::
There were kids from Puerto Rico and Venezuela. Others from Cuba, Guatemala, El Savador, Honduras and Mexico. And, there were children originally from the Dominican Republic. For them, Ramirez needed no introduction. Not only was this the Indians' American League Most Valuable Player candidate, he was one of them, once a kid from Bani on the southern coast of the D.R.
Ramirez was not like them, though. He looked around the pristine library filled with books and thought back to the decision he made in his youth. Ramirez was so focused on his dream of playing baseball that he stopped attending school by the time he was 13 years old. Now, sitting in front of students who can see his designer clothes and view him as a star, Ramirez explained that he made a mistake.
"Never drop out of school. Never stop your studies like I did," Ramirez said in Spanish. "It turned out fine for me -- one in a million. I was that [one in a million]. Thank God, because not everyone gets there. I got here. I'm here, thank God. But, your studies, never stop them."
Ramirez spoke for roughly 45 minutes with the students, telling his story, expressing the importance of staying in school and fielding questions. These particular students were part of the International Newcomers Academy, which helps ease children from other countries into Cleveland's public school system. He urged them to learn English and not be afraid to say something wrong.
Ramirez said that when he arrived to the United States at 17 years old, he would often go 12 or more hours without eating due to not knowing the language.
"Everybody in the world knows how to say that word, 'Hi,'" Ramirez said. "I got here, I didn't even know what 'Hi' was. But you know, I kept moving forward, because I knew what I wanted in my heart. I wanted a better life. I wanted to help my family. I wanted to be big in life, you know what I mean? No obstacle can stop the dream that you have."
During the discussion, Ramirez was asked what career he would have pursued had he stayed in school.
"I could have been a good engineer," Ramirez said.
Some of the children laughed.
Ramirez then mentioned that he has a younger sister who is an architect.
"My little sister is always joking with me," Ramirez said. "[She says], 'You have money, but I'm a professional. I'm a professional.' You know, I laugh and everything, but that hits me, because in reality, she's telling the [truth]. She is a professional. What I am is an athlete. I'm an athlete. Now, that's a profession. It's a profession, because that's what we've chosen, but she's the real professional."
The count finally ran full on the ninth pitch of the battle with Giles, who sent a slider bouncing into the dirt.
With the Indians stuck in an 8-3 hole, Ramirez continued to fight through this leadoff at-bat in the ninth inning. To that point, he had seen pitches up and in, down and away, elevated, over the middle and painted on both edges. After two more foul balls, bringing the pitch count to 11 in this particular at-bat, Ramirez finally cracked a smile.
Foul ball. Foul ball.
Now, Ramirez allowed himself to let out a laugh. The Progressive Field's crowd -- stunned quiet after the Tribe bullpen allowed six runs in the eighth -- was buzzing again. Over in the third-base dugout, Ramirez's teammates were starting to smile along with him.
Foul, foul, foul.
The plate appearance was now 16 pitches deep. At shortstop, Houston's Carlos Correa said something to second baseman Jose Altuve, and they both smiled. Ramirez got back into the batter's box, feeding off the energy that the dozen foul balls had generated inside the stadium.
"I wasn't really tired," Ramirez said. "I was so concentrated on looking for a pitch and getting a pitch that I could drive."
When Ramirez walks the streets of Bani in the offseasons these days, he usually has a pack of kids trailing behind him. He loves when they try to copy the strut that Ramirez has brought to Cleveland. Whether he is walking over to the Mario Kart machine to take on a teammate in the clubhouse, or heading to the plate, Ramirez has his chest out, chin up and arms swinging.
In his hometown, he hears shouts of his name.
"That's the name that they've called me over there since I was a kid," Ramirez said. "They still call me that -- Enriquito. That's a nickname that they call me around the neighborhood."
It means "Little Enrique," which is in reference to the name of Ramirez's father. When Ramirez was growing up, his dad instilled in him the belief that anything was possible for his son. Ramirez was always viewed as the runt of the litter, but that did not stop him from taking the baseball field with kids who were much bigger, stronger and older than him.
While men from the neighborhood would place bets in the stands, Ramirez would take the field with the attitude that he was better than everyone else. Then, he would go out there and prove it, helping some of the onlookers fill their pockets.
"I believed that no one was better than me, even though I was small," Ramirez said. "I always felt like that -- like a little man -- when I was young."
It still proved daunting to overcome the "too small" opinions of evaluators.
Ramirez went unsigned at 16, when the bulk of the international talent is scooped up. In November 2009, he was invited to a three-game showcase, along with some other unsigned players, at the Indians' facility in Boca Chica. Ramon Pena, who used to head the Indians' Latin American operations, got a look at Ramirez, negotiated with his trainer and completed a handshake deal to sign the scrawny infielder for $50,000.
That deal was fine by Ramirez. Surprising people was a specialty.
Ramirez again lifted his bat, rocking it back and forth behind his head. Giles again crouched and came set, planning where to place the 17th pitch of this draining, seemingly never-ending plate appearance.
The pitch came in at 99 mph -- a fastball to the lower portion of the strike zone. Ramirez finally got the one he wanted, swung and shot the baseball off his barrel and into right field. The Progressive Field crowd erupted as Ramirez sprinted up the line, and then grew louder when the ball struck the padding of the wall. Ramirez slid headfirst into second base with a double.
"That was an incredible at-bat," Indians manager Terry Francona said. "It changed the whole inning."
That double sparked a five-run outburst for the Indians, who went on to win, 10-9, thanks to a walk-off home run by rookie Greg Allen in the 14th inning. Even though the deficit seemed too big, Cleveland clawed back and emerged victorious. Even though Ramirez has always been viewed as too small, he has emerged as one of baseball's elite players.
That at-bat on May 27 embodied Ramirez's abilities as a player. The switch-hitting infielder boasts one of the best contact rates in the Majors and has blossomed into an extra-base machine in the middle of the order for the AL Central champions. Come Friday, Ramirez will look to inflict more damage against the Astros in Game 1 of the ALDS.
This season -- even with a six-week offensive slump at the end of the year -- Ramirez finished with 39 home runs, 38 doubles, 34 stolen bases, 105 RBIs, 106 walks, 110 runs scored and a .939 OPS. He started at third base for the AL All-Star team for the second consecutive season and will once again be in the conversation for the AL Most Valuable Player Award.
"I'm not surprised by anything that is happening with my career," Ramirez said. "I've always been like that, since I was a little kid, always doing things that no one was expecting of me."