Alexei grateful for mentor Contreras' influence
Shortstop's path to Majors was made smoother by veteran hurler
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- The question for Alexei Ramirez, translated from English to Spanish, dealt with the influence fellow Cuban Jose Contreras had on him when he first joined the White Sox.
Ramirez's opening word in response needed no explanation.
"Mucho," said Ramirez with a smile.
Contreras, who is now 40 and relieving for the Phillies, arguably is the greatest pitcher to ever practice his craft in Cuba and quite possibly one of the greatest all-time players overall to come from that baseball-rich country. The right-hander certainly has made his presence felt in the United States, posting a 77-67 career record with nine saves and taking part in the postseason with the Yankees, White Sox, Rockies and Phillies.
During the White Sox historic run to the 2005 World Series championship, Contreras started the first game of the American League Division Series against the Red Sox, started the first game of the ALCS against the Angels and started the first game of the World Series against the Astros. He threw the team's fourth straight complete game against the Angels to send the White Sox to the Fall Classic, and to this day, Contreras holds the franchise record for most consecutive winning regular-season decisions with 17 straight over the course of the 2005 and '06 seasons.
As Ramirez explained with one word above, and then many more to follow, Contreras also held an importance greater than just exceptional mound work. He always conducted himself with a high level of class, and despite the language barrier, teammates referred to Contreras as one of the funniest players on the team.
And he served as a true mentor to the White Sox shortstop and outfielder Dayan Viciedo, relating to the trials and tribulations of taking on a new high-profile job and doing so in a new country. He made their path to the Majors quite a bit smoother.
"Just an inspiration to me while he was here," said Ramirez of Contreras through translator and White Sox director of cultural development Jackson Miranda. "Coming over here, he kind of showed me the ropes."
These two played together for three seasons with Pinar Del Rio in Cuba, and Ramirez admitted to being personally conflicted when Contreras defected and eventually signed with the Yankees. Contreras' big league opportunity eventually outweighed Ramirez losing contact with a friend for a short time.
When Ramirez was in the Dominican Republic with his wife Mildred, preparing for his 2008 move to the White Sox, Contreras reached out and said he would help Ramirez any way he could. According to Ramirez, Contreras "surely stuck to what he said."
"Really, he helped me mentally on the field and off the field, especially on the field," Ramirez said. "It's one of those things where he talked about how I had to be very disciplined and had to work extremely hard.
"You can get up here, but staying up here is something else was something he told me. I took that advice to heart."
Those words rang true for Ramirez when he began his career as a center fielder on Opening Day '08 in Cleveland and finished just 4-for-33 at the plate over March and April. Contreras' support stayed steady as Ramirez moved to second and then shortstop, all the while becoming one of the best clutch hitters on the White Sox roster.
Along their White Sox timeline together, the student began to help the teacher. Ramirez still remembers a particularly rough moment in the second inning of a home game against the Red Sox on Aug. 9, 2008, when Contreras ruptured his Achilles tendon while covering first base.
"I was playing second base and I remember at one point that he told me, 'I don't even feel my foot,'" said Ramirez. "So I really took that to heart, because I thought that might have been the end of his career."
A svelte Contreras came back to the White Sox in record recovery time, starting the season as part of the 2009 rotation. He struggled mightily in losing his first five starts with an 8.19 ERA, with the jeers and the weight of failure falling upon an emotional Contreras' broad shoulders. Ramirez conveyed a message to Contreras that he had what it took to come back.
After voluntarily going to Triple-A Charlotte, Contreras returned on June 8 and won four of his next six decisions. Contreras ended up with the Rockies via trade in September of that season, but Ramirez was simply glad to see his friend on the field.
"There's no doubt I was saddened," said Ramirez of Contreras' exit from Chicago. "But he said, 'Hey, this is a business, and I'm still going to be playing. We'll still be in touch.'"
That mentor role has been passed to Ramirez, but he tries to use this position for not just Viciedo, but all Cuban players making the transition. Ramirez was one of the first players to extol the on-field virtues of Oakland's Yoenis Cespedes, as an example, almost guaranteeing the outfielder's success.
In regard to his bond with Contreras, it remains strong. Strong enough, actually, that Contreras walked Ramirez's wife down the aisle this past offseason when Ramirez and his bride were officially married in the United States. Contreras' help still falls under the "mucho" category as far as Ramirez is concerned.
"Even now, he still does," Ramirez said. "When we go down to Tampa, [Fla.], he tells me the good places to go and the places not to go. And one of the things he says is also kind of be careful of some people that are out there not for your best interests. I've always taken that to heart."