When, at 13, Aramis Ramirez gave up his dream of NBA stardom and took up baseball, he was instantly popular with the neighborhood kids in his native Santo Domingo. He couldn't hit, but his father, Victor, a physician, had the means to buy him three baseball gloves. "I was really bad," says Aramis, now the Pirates' thud baseman, "but if they didn't let me play, they wouldn't have enough gloves."
Cash-strapped though it may be, Pittsburgh has other reasons for keeping Ramirez around. Through Sunday he was hitting .268, including .350 with runners in scoring position, and leading the Pirates with 10 home runs and 29 RBIs. He burst onto the scene as a big league regular-on April 8, when he hit three homers in a 9-3 win over the Astros. In the eyes of some Pittsburgh fans, however, that arrival was three years late.
The Pirates haven't had a potent hitter at third since Jeff King drove in 98 runs in 1993, and in the first eight weeks of the '98 season the five players Pittsburgh used at the position batted a combined .176. That's why Ramirez, who had signed with the Pirates in '94 as a 16-year-old undrafted free agent and three years later hit 29 home runs for the Class A Lynchburg (Va.) Hillcats, was called up, from the Triple A Nashville Sounds, in May '98. "His pitch recognition was always well beyond his years," says Trent Jewett, Ramirez's manager at Nashville and now a Pirates coach. "He's very wise."
Recognizing a curve is one thing; hitting it is another. Ramirez went 0 for his first 24 at bats. "[Pitchers] don't make mistakes up here the way they do in the minors," says Ramirez, who finished his rookie year batting .235 with six homers and 24 RBIs in 72 games. "Down there, whether they threw a slider, curve, whatever—you just hit it hard."
Pittsburgh signed free agent Ed Sprague to a one-year contract in 1999 to give Ramirez a year of seasoning at Nashville (.328, 21 homers, 74 RBIs in 131 games). Ramirez entered 2000 as the Pirates' stalling third baseman, but after he batted .167 in the first 18 games, they sent him back to Nashville. He was recalled in June but struggled defensively (10 errors) while hitting .284 with five homers and 31 RBIs before a partially dislocated left shoulder ended his season in August.
Cocky and prone to concentration lapses last season, Ramirez this year has shown an improved attitude. He has cut down on his pull-hitter swing and is using more of the field. At third, though he had made nine errors in 40 games through Sunday, he is working on positioning his feet and body properly rather than relying so much on his arm. He often speaks to veterans about preparation, and at 6'1", 215 pounds, he's in better playing shape than ever.
Pittsburgh manager Lloyd McClendon, who worked with Ramirez when he was the Pirates' minor league hitting coordinator in 1996 and as Pittsburgh's hitting coach from '97 through 2000, suggests Ramirez's early difficulties in the majors may have benefited him. "As a kid he had more of me, me, me on his mind," McClendon says. "Now he thinks more about the team's success."
McClendon has plugged Ramirez into the No. 4 spot in the batting order, behind outfielder Brian Giles. Having scored or driven in 25% of Pittsburgh's runs last year, Giles was intentionally walked four times in his first 121 plate appearances this season. Three times Ramirez followed with a hit.
"This year I know what the team expects of me," Ramirez says. "I don't feel like going back to Triple A Everything I have to prove is up here."