Any discussion of Wilson Ramos’ offensive breakthrough this season naturally begins with the obvious: his eyes.
Ramos had LASIK surgery in March after his annual spring training exam suggested his vision could be improved. And almost instantaneously, the 28-year-old catcher began seeing the ball like never before. Those sliders off the plate he used to flail helplessly at now are clear as day, so he just lets them go by, waiting instead for a pitch over the plate he can hit.
But ask Ramos the biggest reason for his breakthrough - a .330 batting average, .918 OPS and his first career All-Star selection - and you’ll get a different answer.
“I believe the biggest factor was the work I put in during the offseason,” he said through interpreter Octavio Martinez. “I really worked hard to make sure I was healthy. It’s one of those things I think I’m going to stay consistent with my work that I did this offseason because it’s helped tremendously to stay on the field. Obviously the LASIK surgery helped out quite a bit, helping me recognize pitches. But the work I did this offseason is the big thing.”
And the fact that work was done here in the United States, not Ramos’ native Venezuela, with his family staying with him throughout the offseason thanks to some behind-the-scenes work by the Nationals front office, may have played just as significant a role as anything.
Ramos used to spend most of his winters in Venezuela because family members weren’t free to come and go to the United States as they pleased. Given the violence and constant sense of uncertainty for those living there, the catcher couldn’t help but spend much of his time making sure they were safe and secure, not to mention making sure he was as well.
That’s not an ideal way to prepare for an upcoming baseball season, your time and attention split between work and family. So with the assistance of the Nationals, most notably Harolyn Cardozo (general manager Mike Rizzo’s longtime special assistant for major league administration), Ramos was able to secure visitors visas for several family members, a complex process that ultimately ensured he could spend his offseason with loved ones by his side.
“It definitely helped me out, especially emotionally I’ve been more relaxed and at peace in the offseason just focusing on what I had to do,” Ramos said. “The other offseasons, as soon as the season would finish, I would go back to Venezuela, try to spend time with my family. And the resources down there are obviously not the same as we have here. So it makes it a little more difficult to do the things I had to do to stay ready for the long season. But having them here, I’m able to do both, work and focus on my job at hand as well as enjoy time with my family, which has made a big difference. I just feel more relaxed and more comfortable having them around.”
“You know how much red tape that can be,” Rizzo said. “(Cardozo) got his family over here. He stayed all winter with us. That really put him over the edge.”
And that alone made a significant difference?
“I think so,” Rizzo said. “I think the feeling of security that your family is in the United States with you, I don’t know if you could quantify that. But I think it was really important.”
It was particularly important in this case, of course, because Ramos’ personal background is unlike any other in the majors. Four-and-a-half years ago, while standing outside his family’s house in Valencia, he was abducted by four armed men, whisked away in an SUV and held captive for more than two days before a successful rescue operation brought him back home.
Ramos was never physically harmed during the ordeal, but the emotional toll was significant. And it has never fully gone away, even though Ramos has made a concerted effort to move beyond it.
“I’ve surpassed that time in my life,” he said. “I thank God for that. There’s moments where I still reflect on it a little bit, just mainly asking myself why did things happen the way they did. But the fact I’ve spent so much time here working on what I have to do, in terms of getting ready to stay on the field, and off the field spending time with my family, it gives me very little time to think about what has happened. Every now and then, but for the most part it’s been out of my mind and I just focus on what I have to do.”
The incident remains fresh in the minds of the Nationals executives who found themselves thrust into the middle of an overseas kidnapping, with no protocols for dealing with an event that had never previously occurred. (Ramos was, and remains, the only active major league player to be kidnapped in Venezuela.)
“I think about it all the time. I still do,” Rizzo said. “It’s hard. He’s a quiet, introverted guy for the most part. I saw a lot of emotion, though. It’s easy to say: ‘Hey, forget about it. It’s in the past.’ But there had to be some harrowing moments. And I imagine he wakes up sometimes thinking about it.”
In the 4 1/2 years since the abduction, Ramos and the Nationals have maintained a particularly strong relationship. Rizzo has been among the catcher’s biggest supporters throughout, still recalling how highly he thought of him upon completing the July 2010 trade that brought Ramos to Washington from Minnesota for veteran closer Matt Capps.
Ramos has been through plenty in his big league career, suffering major injuries in 2012, 2013 and 2014 that limited him to a total of 191 games. He finally avoided the disabled list last season but regressed at the plate, hitting a scant .229 with a .616 OPS.
The manner in which Ramos has put it all together at last this season has been particularly meaningful to the organization that stuck with him all this time.
“It’s really gratifying, especially with all the trials and tribulations he’s gone through,” Rizzo said. “I’m glad it’s happened for him this year because he’s been on that precipice for a couple years, and then something always went wrong. It’s really good to see him putting everything together and becoming a great player.”
As thrilled as the Nationals have been to see Ramos thrive this season and earn his way into tonight’s All-Star Game in San Diego, they also know this could end up costing them a whole lot of money sometime soon. Or perhaps even cost them Ramos himself.
This just so happens to be Ramos’ contract year; he’ll be eligible for free agency come November. And he stands to make a pretty penny on the open market, which could lead to some mixed feelings from the Nationals.
“No, not mixed,” Rizzo insisted. “Love it. Love that he’s having this big year, anytime, but a contract year is fine with me. He deserves to make a lot of money. He’s going to make a lot of money. We like having him around. He and I have a personal relationship, and I know he’s got a relationship with the team. I know he’s happy to be here.”
Whether Ramos ultimately chooses happiness and familiarity or chooses to play elsewhere in 2017, his relationship with the Nationals organization won’t change. This is the franchise that went out of its way to acquire him when he was stuck in the Twins farm system, with little chance at the time to supplant Joe Mauer behind the plate at Target Field.
This is the franchise that worked with authorities to rescue him during his darkest hours. This is the franchise that stuck with him during that spate of injuries. And this is the organization that made sure his family could leave Venezuela last winter and join him in the United States, no small feat.
Ramos won’t soon forget that.
“I’m very thankful the way I’ve been treated here,” he said. “They gave me an opportunity, and I’ll always be thankful for the opportunity Mike Rizzo has given me. The front office has treated me great. They’ve always treated me great. ... Obviously I would enjoy staying here the rest of my career, if that was possible. I’m very grateful that I’ve been given this opportunity. And the way the organization has treated me, I appreciate that very much.”