Mariners pitching prospect Erasmo Ramirez caught a break eight years ago
A former baseball coach delivering needed equipment to Nicaragua spotted 14-year-old Erasmo Ramirez eight years ago. He helped Ramirez be accepted to a baseball academy in El Salvador, where he was spotted and signed by a Mariners scout.
Seattle Times staff reporter
PEORIA, Ariz. — Playing for a youth team with splintered bats, a frayed catcher's mitt and no protective cups to be found was the best thing that could have happened to Erasmo Ramirez's baseball career.
If not for the scarcity of equipment in his Nicaraguan hometown of Rivas, the most unheralded of a quartet of Mariners starting pitcher prospects would never have met the man who changed his life. It was eight years ago that Moises Santiago, a retired printing shop worker on a disability pension in Chicago, saw a television feature about a woman running an equipment-deprived baseball program in Nicaragua near where Ramirez lived.
Santiago, a onetime baseball coach for 25 years, used his savings to purchase new equipment and a plane ticket to the Central American nation. Once there, he visited the ramshackle playing fields, distributing the equipment to needy teams and players and offered coaching advice to anyone who asked for it.
And that's when he met Ramirez, who was 14 years old.
"He was there to look at some other players, but my mother told him, 'Take a look at my son, please!' " Ramirez recalled Sunday, a day after a stellar Cactus League debut in which he tossed three scoreless innings against the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Ramirez was a shortstop then and his mother, Maria, attended all of his games and workouts. Santiago remembers how she kept asking him to look at the teenage boy much smaller than most of the other players.
"I didn't see him play shortstop," Santiago said by phone from Chicago. "But the first time I met him there was a guy there trying to show him how to pitch and who had him throwing curveballs.
"The first thing I said was, 'Whatever that guy told you, don't listen to any of it because you're too young to throw a curveball — you're going to destroy your arm,' " Santiago said.
And that's the last thing Santiago was going to let happen once he got a good look at the youngster.
"He had a great arm," he said. "You could tell right away. But he had bad mechanics. If you don't have the mechanics, you can have all the talent in the world and it won't mean anything because your arm will be ruined."
That arm and Ramirez's mechanics became good enough that he is now the last of Seattle's four most touted pitching prospects to still be in Mariners camp. The team on Sunday sent Danny Hultzen, Taijuan Walker and James Paxton to minor-league camp the day after the trio and Ramirez held Arizona to a run on four hits with eight strikeouts over eight innings.
Ramirez is the only one of the four to have any Class AAA experience and is seen as the closest to the big leagues. Mariners manager Eric Wedge said Sunday that Ramirez remains in the mix for a rotation or even a bullpen job.
Baseball is the most popular sport in Nicaragua but only 11 players — the most famous being Ramirez's boyhood idol Dennis Martinez — have made the majors. A lack of proper coaching, equipment and scouting infrastructure are often cited as the reasons it lags behind other Latin American countries like the Dominican Republic and Venezuela at producing professional players.
Ramirez began playing baseball around the house at age 4 when his grandmother, Esperanza, a sports tomboy of sorts, taught him the game. By age 7, he was playing in a local league.
"She used to tell me, 'Don't be a wimp, go and play with the big boys,' " Ramirez said. "She told me, 'Don't be afraid of them even if they're bigger than you.' "
And Ramirez wasn't afraid. With Santiago's teaching, he began practicing how to wind up and pitch without hurting his arm. When his team began using him in games, he attacked the hitters aggressively.
Santiago left Nicaragua after his scheduled monthlong stay was up. But he kept in touch by telephone, making sure Ramirez's mechanics were sound and that he was doing the arm exercises he'd been shown.
"When I met him, he was throwing maybe 70 mph," said Santiago, who has made the Nicaragua trip every year since. "The next year, he was up to around 86 mph."
Santiago had played Class A-level baseball in his native Puerto Rico and had some baseball contacts from his time coaching. He tried to talk Pittsburgh Pirates scouts into eventually signing Ramirez, then 15, when he became age eligible.
But they refused, saying he was too small to make it as a pro pitcher. One of the scouts suggested sending Ramirez to a sports academy in neighboring El Salvador, where his schooling and living expenses would be paid for while he played.
Santiago made some calls and Ramirez was accepted into the Fundacion Educando a un Salvadoreno academy soon after. It was while pitching there that he was spotted by a Mariners scout and signed for $57,000 at age 17 in 2007.
"When a man at the school told me the Mariners wanted to sign me, I told them I'll do it for anything," Ramirez said. "I didn't care how much I got paid. I just wanted the opportunity."
The money seemed like a lottery win to Ramirez. He hadn't grown up in poverty, but the family home in his town of 28,000 was modest by American standards with four small rooms, including two that he and his sister, Jannis, slept in.
His father, Erasmo, had fought and been wounded in Nicaragua's civil war in the 1970s. Both he and Ramirez's mother were trained accountants, but he worked as a security guard on the side while she sold cosmetics in order to bring more money home for the family.
"They did whatever they could for us," Ramirez said.
Ramirez went 15-1 in two years of Venezuelan Summer League ball for Seattle's affiliate club.
"He worked so hard at everything he did," Santiago said. "He never stopped working."
And now, even at a size that seems less than his officially listed 5 feet 11, 205 pounds, he's starting to stand out from the crowd.
Mariners pitching coach Carl Willis said Ramirez's ability to throw four different pitches — a four-seam fastball, two-seam (sinking) fastball, changeup and slider — for strikes is what should differentiate him from similar-style pitchers lacking strikeout ability.
"When I first met Erasmo when I was coordinating (in 2010) it was his first year in the States and I'll never forget, his first batting practice session he threw four different changeups," Willis said. "And I said, 'Let's pick the best one, the one you're most comfortable with, and establish that one.' "
Willis was raving Sunday about a Ramirez strikeout of Arizona veteran Lyle Overbay the night before, when Ramirez deployed all of the pitches in his repertoire with equal effectiveness.
"You're always trying to disrupt timing," Willis said. "And he has the ability to do that."
Just how far Ramirez can take that ability remains to be seen. He won't turn 22 until May, but he led all Mariners farmhands with 10 wins in Class AA and AAA last season, then had a 1.48 earned-run average in six starts for Lara in the Venezuelan Winter League.
That was enough to get him named the 2011 Nicaragua Athlete of the Year. Ramirez received the award at a February banquet in Managua where the guest of honor was none other than his boyhood idol Martinez.
"They showed a video of his perfect game," Ramirez said. "And all I could think about was how great it would be to have one game where everything is perfect."
Until that happens, he'll have to settle for becoming Nicaragua's 12th big-leaguer at some point very soon.
• Besides cutting Hultzen, Walker and Paxton, the Mariners optioned or reassigned 12 other players to minor-league camp — left-handed pitcher Mauricio Robles; right-handers Forrest Snow, Scott Patterson and Yoervis Medina; infielders Nick Franklin, Francisco Martinez and Carlos Triunfel; DH Luis Jimenez; outfielders Johermyn Chavez, Chih-Hsien Chiang and Darren Ford; and catcher Ralph Henriquez.
• Felix Hernandez allowed two runs in four innings Sunday, taking the loss in a 7-5 defeat to the San Francisco Giants in Scottsdale, Ariz. Michael Saunders went 2 for 4 with an RBI to improve his spring average to .389. Vinnie Catricala had a double and a run scored for Seattle in a 2-for-4 day. Shawn Kelley gave up a solo homer in the ninth, his first run allowed in four outings this spring.
Geoff Baker: 206-464-8286 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @gbakermariners.
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