CLEVELAND (AP) — Start with his stocky, stubby body that’s out of place among the chiseled physiques in a major league clubhouse. Jose Ramirez is built like someone on your softball team.
Take his personality: boisterous, sometimes abrasive, usually the life of the party. And finally there’s his distinctive strut, arms swinging high at his sides, head cocked slightly — the swagger of a man on a mission.
Put it all together, and the Indians second baseman doesn’t look like a typical baseball star. He comes across as an average Jose. Just a guy. Nobody special.
Don’t be fooled.
“He’s a force,” manager Terry Francona said.
Packed with surprising power, Ramirez has become an All-Star, one of baseball’s most dangerous hitters, a cult figure in Cleveland and a major reason why the built-for-October, 102-win Indians, who will host the AL wild-card winner this week in the division series, are favored to get back to the World Series.
Switch-hitting and seemingly fearless, Ramirez has wedged himself into the MVP conversation following a regular season in which he led the majors with 59 doubles, tied Miami slugger Giancarlo Stanton for the lead in extra-base hits (91), and seemed to be in the middle of every Cleveland rally.
Ramirez has done anything — and everything — the Indians have asked.
While All-Star shortstop Francisco Lindor may be the fresh face of Cleveland’s franchise, Ramirez is its heart and soul.
“He’s hit third. He’s hit fourth. He’s hit fifth, actually probably sixth, seventh and eighth,” Francona said. “He’s been a run producer. He’s played left field, third base and second base. He’s turned himself through hard work into one of the best players in the game and we’re really proud of him. It wasn’t luck. It wasn’t handed to him. He did it.”
Ramirez appears to have dropped in from nowhere, but the 25-year-old’s journey from a tiny town in the Dominican Republic to the big leagues is wrenched right out of a Hollywood film script.
Quitting school at 14 to chase his baseball dream, Ramirez signed with the Indians as a 17-year-old for $50,000. He rose through their minor-league system, first breaking in with Cleveland in 2013. Two years later, he won the starting shortstop job in spring training, struggled and lost it to Lindor before he was demoted.
He was penciled in for a utility role in 2016, but when All-Star Michael Brantley wasn’t ready following shoulder surgery, the Indians sent Ramirez to left field, where he thrived before moving to third for the final two months after Juan Uribe was released.
Ramirez hit .312 in the regular season and .310 in the Series, and the Indians locked him up with a $26 million, five-year contract in March.
There has been no stopping him this season.
“He’s fantastic,” Kansas City Royals manager Ned Yost said last month. “I can’t think of another player that I’ve been more impressed with, from here he’s come, thinking that he was just a guy, to what he’s become today. I can’t even compare him to anybody in the league. He’s been unbelievable. It’s no fluke. He’s legit.”
Indians fans adore him.
As he strolls to the plate during a recent game with a plug of tobacco swelling his lower lip, the sing-a-long begins from the right-field corner of Progressive Field, an area where beers mix with baseball, and builds.
“Jose, Jose, Jose, Jose,” fans shout, mimicking soccer’s familiar “Ole, ole, ole, ole” chant.
After Ramirez rips a double into the gap in left-center and chugs into second base, “MVP! MVP! MVP!’ echoes through the ballpark.
There is a strong argument to be made for Ramirez and his consistency. He’ll likely finish behind Houston’s Jose Altuve, Yankees slugger Aaron Judge and probably Lindor, who has been happy to see his teammate get deserved recognition.
“It’s cool,” Lindor said. “There are times in the dugout where he’ll say, ‘I’m going to hit a home run’ and he walks up to the plate like he doesn’t care and swings and hits a home run or a double. You think he’s pretty happy with a double and he’s mad. It’s just funny watching him.”
It’s funny everywhere. Ramirez is the resident mayor of Cleveland’s clubhouse, where he can be found before a game challenging a teammate in the “Mario Kart” video game or at cards or wise-cracking at anyone in range.
No one is off limits or bothered.
“He doesn’t speak real good English, but you can tell how fond everybody is of him,” Francona said. “You don’t have to speak the language to watch and see that guys like him.”
For his recent birthday, Ramirez’s teammates decorated his locker and brought him a cake adorned with two candles — a 25 and 30 — a playful jab at his Dominican heritage, where the true age of players is sometimes suspicious.
Bursting through the door, Ramirez sees the cake and laughs as reliever Shawn Armstrong asks his correct age.
“Thirty-five,” Ramirez says with a wink. “Dominican.”
(© Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)