Jose Ramirez: The Infectious Swagger of MLB's New Hitting Machine

Danny KnoblerMLB Lead WriterFebruary 27, 2018

SEATTLE, WA - SEPTEMBER 24: Jose Ramirez #11 of the Cleveland Indians is congratulated by teammates in the dugout after hitting a solo home run off of starting pitcher Mike Leake #8 of the Seattle Mariners during the sixth inning of a game at Safeco Field on September 24, 2017 in Seattle, Washington. The Indians won the game 4-2. (Photo by Stephen Brashear/Getty Images)
Stephen Brashear/Getty Images

It's more of a strut than a walk.

Jose Ramirez's shoulders bounce. His arms pump. His legs shuffle forward. His head nods.

And that's just as he's leaving the dugout to head to the on-deck circle.

There are so many things that make Ramirez special, so many things that make his Cleveland Indians teammates love him. But it's the walk they all try to imitate.

"No one can do it like him," Indians catcher Roberto Perez said.

They all try.

"It's difficult to imitate," Ramirez said. "But it's natural for me. I've been doing it all my life."

So much seems to come naturally for Ramirez, a likable 25-year-old who stands out in a crowd despite being just 5'9". He plays second base or third base, whatever the Indians need. He's a shortstop, too. And when the Indians needed a left fielder in 2016, Ramirez stepped in and started 47 games there, no problem. He was back at third base when the Indians went to the World Series for the first time in 19 years later that fall, split time between second and third in 2017 and is pencilled in as the third baseman this spring.

He batted third for the Indians in last week's first exhibition game, just as he did through an American League-record 22-game winning streak in August and September of 2017. Ramirez was in a 1-for-24 slump before the streak, but he had two hits the night it began, two home runs in a win at Yankee Stadium a week later, a five-hit game with two home runs and three doubles a few days after that in Detroit and a 4-for-4 night in the 22nd straight win. Altogether, he hit .423 with eight home runs and 11 doubles while the Indians were streaking.

He can play everywhere. He can hit anywhere. Last year, manager Terry Francona used Ramirez at each of the nine spots in his batting order at least once.

"Regardless of where you put him, he's going to get the job done," shortstop Francisco Lindor said. "That's impressive."

Lindor was always the prize of the Indians' farm system, when he and Ramirez were both in the minor leagues. He was a first-round draft pick out of Puerto Rico in 2011, signed for $2.9 million a year-and-a-half after the Indians spent just $50,000 to sign Ramirez as a 17-year-old lottery ticket from the Dominican Republic.

Lindor has become every bit the star the Indians hoped he would be, already a two-time All-Star at age 24. But when the American League All-Stars took the field in Miami last July, the one Indians player in the starting lineup was Ramirez.

Despite playing for a team that ranked 22nd among the 30 major league teams in home attendance this season, Ramirez received nearly 2 million votes.

Maybe it was the walk. Or maybe it was the coffee.


Yes, the coffee. The Jose! Jose! coffee, on sale for $13.50 per pound from the Cleveland Coffee Company. It comes with his picture on the package, and it comes with his endorsement.

If you showed up at the Indians' final home game before the All-Star break, you may have gotten a free pack which Ramirez handed out himself.

"He told us he wanted to buy 500 bags and hand them out to thank the fans for voting for him," said Brendan Walton, who owns the company.

Walton said that since then, orders for Jose! Jose! coffee have come in from 10 states, from as far away as Vermont and California. He figures that most of them must be displaced Clevelanders, but he also insists it's a tasty blend.

Ramirez does, too.

He has worked coffee into interviews, including the time in July when he had a little trouble getting thrown out on the bases and explained he had been drinking too much coffee.

Ramirez even stopped by the warehouse one day to see the coffee being roasted.

Ramirez went to the warehouse to check out his Jose! Jose! coffee.
Ramirez went to the warehouse to check out his Jose! Jose! coffee.Thom Sivo

"I asked him if he spoke English," said Walton, who gave the tour. "He said he could understand some of it."

He doesn't speak much. While many of his Spanish-speaking Indians teammates will try to do interviews in English, Ramirez relies on a team interpreter. Even Francona said the language barrier has kept him from getting to know Ramirez well, although the manager loves what Ramirez does for his team.

Indians fans certainly don't seem to mind. They gave him all those votes for the All-Star team, they buy his coffee and they buy any number of quirky Ramirez T-shirts.

"When the boogeyman goes to sleep, he checks the closet for Jose Ramirez," one of them reads.

"Unless he pukes, faints or dies, Jose Ramirez will keep going," reads another.

And then there's the one Ramirez calls his favorite.

"The red one," he said, before clarifying to say it's the one his teammates like to wear around the clubhouse.

It's the one that has a drawing of Ramirez with nothing colored in except his blond hair.

"Yes way Jose," that one reads.

"I like that," he said.

He liked the yarn ball, too.

The Indians had a bunch of them by the end of last season, cut-up baseballs with a player's face drawn on and the yarn pulled out to resemble the player's hair. Yarn ball originator/starting pitcher Carlos Carrasco said he had versions for 17 Indians, with the goal of eventually having one for each player on the roster.

"We started with Jose," Carrasco said.

Of course they did.

With his hair, which can shoot out in all directions and show up in any color, Ramirez was a natural for a yarn ball. It takes Carrasco a couple of days to make one, in a process he shared last year with MLB.com, and the Ramirez one became so popular there's now a T-shirt showing that, too.

Ramirez sported a "Yes Way Jose" T-shirt during the 2016 World Series.
Ramirez sported a "Yes Way Jose" T-shirt during the 2016 World Series.Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

"It's entertaining," Ramirez said. "It's a long season, and you have to have diversions."

Ramirez is something of a diversion all by himself. It probably starts with his size, because as even his own mother once told him, short guys usually don't make it in the majors.

Then there's the way he acts.

"He's always messing around," Indians infielder Giovanny Urshela said. "If he says 'Hi,' he's going to punch you in the stomach or the head. That's the way he says 'Hi.' It's in a fun way."

His teammates laugh and say there's no one else like him.

"There's only one," Urshela said. "I hope he's the only one."

Others can try. They can do some of what Ramirez does. Take Lindor, who showed up for spring training this month with platinum blond hair.

But then check out Ramirez's response, courtesy of this tweet from Paul Hoynes of the Plain Dealer:

Catcher Yan Gomes remembers walking into a clubhouse in the winter of 2012-13, when he was playing for the Toros del Este in the Dominican Winter League and Ramirez was his teammate. Ramirez was just 20 years old, a kid coming off his first taste of Class-A (and headed to the big leagues by the end of the next season).

"He had the same walk he has now," Gomes said. "Full of swag. Full of confidence."

Oh yes. That walk.


"He walks around like he owns the place," Francona said.

That's the Jose Ramirez walk.

It's distinctive and fitting because if you're an undersized kid, you'd better have confidence in yourself and be prepared to show it.

He didn't get to play in the big prospect games set up for major league scouts who come to the Dominican Republic. He wasn't the subject of a bidding war when he turned 16, the way the high-profile prospects are.

"I don't think he had any other offers except the one from us," Indians senior director of scouting operations John Mirabelli told Terry Pluto of the Plain Dealer last year. "... He is an amazing story."

The top prospects got the big money. Ramirez was fortunate to even get a chance.

"He didn't look like a ballplayer," Mirabelli told Pluto. "He wasn't fluid. He didn't have a great arm. He didn't look that fast."

But Ramirez did get three hits the day Mirabelli was in the Dominican Republic to see him.

It was the same story after he signed. Ramirez hit .325 as an 18-year-old in the Arizona Rookie League and .354 as a 19-year-old at Single-A Lake County, but he never made it to MLB.com's list of baseball's top 100 prospects. Baseball America never ranked him in its top 100, either.

Even some in the Indians organization never believed he'd be more than a utility player in the big leagues.

Ramirez led the majors with 56 doubles last season, the most by an Indians player in more than a decade.
Ramirez led the majors with 56 doubles last season, the most by an Indians player in more than a decade.Lindsey Wasson/Getty Images

He hit enough and the Indians had enough of a need that he eventually did win a spot. When the 2015 season opened, Ramirez was 22 and was Cleveland's starting shortstop. By early June, when his slash line was a dreadful .180/.247/.240, Ramirez ended up back at Triple-A.

Not long after, the Indians called up Lindor and made him the shortstop.

When Ramirez made it back to the Indians later that season, he was a second baseman. And a left fielder. And a third baseman.

By the end of 2015, Ramirez had played in 180 major league games, but outside of Cleveland, he was still a relative unknown. His .644 career OPS at that point was nothing to get excited about. But he was still just 23, and the biggest decision-makers in the organization never lost faith in his ability to hit.

"We were cognizant that he was really young," Chris Antonetti, the Indians' president of baseball operations, said. "It takes young players time to transition to the major leagues."

For Ramirez, it took until 2016. He got a chance to play when the season began because Michael Brantley's shoulder injury left the Indians needing a left fielder. He hit so well and was able to handle so many positions that Francona found a place for him in the lineup nearly every day. His OPS soared to .825, and by the end of the year, he even made it onto one voter's Most Valuable Player ballot.

He led the majors last season with 56 doubles, the most by an Indian in 11 years. He also hit 29 home runs, making him one of just two major leaguers (along with Albert Pujols in 2012) in the last 10 years with 50-plus doubles and 29-plus homers. His OPS went up again, to .957, and he finished third in American League MVP voting.

He was so good, Francona and the Indians coaches couldn't stop saying nice things about him.

"Just an awesome individual," bench coach Brad Mills said.

And he has that walk. Yes, Mills admitted, he has tried to imitate it.

"We all have," he said.

They all have, and not one of them has yet succeeded in getting it right.

"Nobody can do that," Carrasco said. "No chance. No one else is like him."

    

Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

Follow Danny on Twitter and talk baseball.

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