By John Perrotto
Aramis Ramirez does not have the backstory of most Latin American players in the major leagues.
The Milwaukee Brewers third baseman did not need baseball as a means to leave the Dominican Republic and earn a living for his family. He did not grow up in poverty, living in a dirt-floor shack and playing in the streets with a rolled up sock for a ball and a broomstick for a bat.
Ramirez was quite the antithesis, actually, living a life of privilege in a poor nation as the son of a doctor and accountant. Though it seems like heresy for a young man growing up on an island that's most notable export is baseball players, Ramirez grew up loving basketball. His dreams were of being the next Michael Jordan rather than the next Ken Griffey Jr.
Put his background together with a nonchalant attitude towards the media and an on-field demeanor in which he has gained full control of his emotions as he has gotten older, and the 35-year-old Ramirez could be construed as being a little too laidback. But don't tell that to any pitcher who has to deal with Ramirez.
"He's a great hitter," said Brewers right-hander Kyle Lohse, who faced Ramirez for years in the National League Central before signing with Milwaukee as a free agent prior to last season. "I don't think people realize how good he really is, especially in RBI situations. It's amazing how he bears down with runners in scoring position. He's a tough out any time you face him but he's almost impossible to get out in big situations. He just battles you."
This season, batting cleanup in the Brewers' potent lineup, Ramirez has hit a ridiculous .733 with runners in scoring position going into Saturday's game, with 11 hits in 15 at-bats. That average rises to .750 (6-for-8) with two outs.
Granted, it is a small sample size and something Ramirez won't be able to sustain over the course of the season. That said, Ramirez' clutch hitting is one of the reasons why the Brewers have the best record in the major leagues at 12-5, prior to Saturday night's action, and is something he has been noted for throughout his career.
"He could always smell those RBIs," said Seattle Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon, who was the hitting coach with the Pittsburgh Pirates with whom the 19-year-old Ramirez made his major league debut in 1998.
Ramirez has hit .297 in 2,309 plate appearances with runners in scoring position during his 17-year career with a .373 on-base percentage and a .534 slugging percentage.
"He's as consistent as anyone I've seen in clutch situations and it's a huge to have someone like that in your lineup," Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said. "Reliable run producers are so hard to find and we're fortunate to have middle-of-the-order hitters who stack up with just about any team."
Batting in front of Ramirez is right fielder Ryan Braun, who has hit 214 home runs in his eight-year career, including a National League-leading 41 two seasons ago. Roenicke believes catcher Jonathan Lucroy, at age 27, is ready to blossom into a power hitter in the No. 5 spot of the batting order after hitting 18 home runs and driving in 82 runs last season.
Yet while Braun is a superstar and Lucroy is on the rise, Ramirez remains the fulcrum of the lineup. Roenicke admits he doesn't know the formula for successful clutch hitting -- he himself only batted just .234 with runners in scoring position during his eight-year career as a major league outfielder in the 80's. However, he believes Ramirez's ability to adapt within the course of an at-bat serves him well in RBI situations.
"The thing about Aramis is that he will be aggressive and he'll swing early in the count if he gets a pitch he feels he can hit," Roenicke said. "Yet he's not afraid to work the count and hit with two strikes. He's willing to be patient. You don't see too many hitters who can do both, especially in clutch situations. Guys are usually either aggressive or patient. I think that's a big key to his success."
Ramirez has refined his hitting approach greatly since arriving in the major leagues as a teenager. He was a chunky free swinger then and got on the wrong side of the umpires by constantly bickering about ball-strike calls. However, he matured over time, especially after being traded to the Cubs in July 2003 when the Pirates were in dire financial straits and needed to dump his contract.
Yet his ability to come through in big situations has always been there.
"He loved hitting with runners on base from the day he got to the major leagues," McClendon said. "You don't see many kids who really want to hit in pressure situations. It's something most players have to grow into, but he embraced it from the start."
Now he is embracing it even more in the twilight of his career, his batting average with runners in scoring position looking like something out of a co-ed church softball league.
"Coming through in RBI situations is how you win games," Ramirez said with a smile. "It's how you make your money in this game."
* * *
John Perrotto has covered professional baseball since 1988 for such outlets as USA Today, The Sports Xchange, Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus and the Beaver County (Pa.) Times. You can find more of his work on Facebook or follow him on Twitter.