The Cleveland Indians are riding a 6.5-game lead over Detroit for first place in the American League Central Division, and it’s happening with some once unknown players enjoying breakout seasons.
WKSU commentator Terry Pluto says Jose Ramirez has been one of the surprising stars for the team.
Out of nowhere
"Jose has come seemingly out of nowhere," Pluto says. The Indians signed him in 2009 and he's been a prospect for the last couple of seasons, hitting .300 in the minors. But he's been overshadowed by phenom infielder Francisco Lindor, a first-round draft choice who signed with the Indians for $2.9 million in 2011.
"For a couple years, they played together in the minors. Lindor played shortstop; Ramirez played second base."
A star is born among the donkeys in the Dominican
Ramirez is having a breakout season, batting .308 with 10 HR and 57 RBI. He has 20 stolen bases.
Still, Pluto says he knew nothing about him, so he decided to find out. He talked to Indians Senior Director of Scouting Operations John Mirabelli, who sent him a picture.
"It was of this field with weeds and a donkey grazing in short center field behind second base. You see a little kid with a glove. And [Mirabelli] said, 'This is not the exact field where we found Jose Ramirez, but it looks like it!'"
Pluto says top prospects in the Dominican Republic play on really nice fields and have buscons, Spanish for trainer, whose job is to help the players get signed.
"As far as the Indians know, Ramirez never had a buscon." He was small and stocky at 5-foot-9 and about 160 pounds.
And, Ramirez wasn't even regularly playing in a Dominican prospect league. He would sit on the bench and hope to play if someone didn't show up. One day, while Mirabelli and Latin American scout Ramon Pena were watching, he got to play. He got three hits.
"They liked him," Pluto says. "The next day, Ramirez gets three more hits and then five more hits during a double header the next day."
A $50,000 chance
The Indians decided to sign Ramirez, cheap, at $50,000.
"It sounds like a lot of money, but for many of these Dominican players, it's not. Indians starting pitcher Danny Salazar signed for $200,000. They gave a kid who most fans have not heard of, Dorssys Paulino, over $1 million. That was five years ago and he's still in Class A."
"Ramirez signs and at every level in the minors, he was hitting over .300. Did they think he would hit for power and all these 9th inning home runs? No. But they thought he could be a really good utility guy; hit .270/.280."
"It's fun for me is that even in this age of all the scouting and all the analytics and all the video tape, here's this little squat kid, Jose Ramirez, waiting to get into a game, playing on these dirt fields where the donkeys may or may not come!
"The fans love him. He has this Mohawk haircut and when he runs for these doubles his helmet flies off and body parts flying all over the place.
"You talk about defying the odds. I think what we've seen with Jose, too, is there is this dogged determination in him. "