A.J. Ramos could have been mad, but wasn’t. He was sad.
All winter, as the Marlins were maneuvering to strip the closer’s role from Ramos and hand it to Aroldis Chapman or Kenley Jansen, Ramos traveled the globe burdened with grief. No matter where he went — Brazil, Israel, Greece, Romania, Spain and The Netherlands — he was consumed with thoughts of Jose Fernandez.
“Wherever we are, wherever we play, wherever we go, we’re always with him. That’s where we are,” Ramos said. “I’m never going to forget that kid.”
When Marlins pitchers and catchers begin spring training workouts in Jupiter on Tuesday, one pitcher will be missing: their ace. Fernandez and two companions were killed in a boating accident with a week to go in the season, leaving Ramos and the rest of his crestfallen teammates the long winter months to process the painful loss.
“At the end of the season, it was hard to get through the games,” Ramos said. “So it was kind of good to get away from everything and try to take your mind off it. But I never left the sad stage.”
And maybe that was a good thing.
Ramos had every right to fume, bitter over the Marlins’ attempts to reel in one of the elite closers on the free agent market. Ramos saved 40 games in 2016 and made his first All-Star team. But that didn’t stop the Marlins from going after Chapman and Jansen, bids that ended up failing when the two signed elsewhere.
“I’m not a guy who feels sorry for myself,” Ramos said. “I’m not a what-do-I-have-to-do kind of guy.”
So Ramos said he tried to ignore the rumors. He didn’t read the reports or watch MLB Network. Friends would call and question Ramos.
“I was in Los Angeles and people around me were more worried about it than I was,” Ramos said. “They’d say, ‘Hey, dude, what’s going on?’ I’m like, you know as much as I do.”
Ramos has been a backup plan — an afterthought — for much of his baseball life. He was a lowly 21st-round draft pick out of Texas Tech. He became a closer purely by accident during his first pro year at short-season Jamestown. During the ninth inning of a game, orders were sent to the bullpen to bring in a pitcher with the last name of Richards. Due to a language mix-up, it was Ramos — not Richards — who trotted out to the mound to nail down the save.
He was an understudy to Steve Cishek until May of 2015 when Cishek had one meltdown too many and lost the closer’s role. Ramos took over and finished with 32 saves.
Then came spring training of 2016 and, once again, Ramos found himself on the outside looking in. The Marlins were thinking of making hard-throwing Carter Capps their closer and returning Ramos to a setup role. But Capps injured his arm, underwent Tommy John surgery, and Ramos kept his job. Even last year, he lost the role to Fernando Rodney for a spell when Ramos landed on the disabled list with a finger injury. When Ramos came off the DL, the closer’s job remained Rodney’s. Ramos eventually won the job back when Rodney faltered.
After a winter in which his closer’s job was hanging by a thread as the Marlins pursued Chapman and Jansen, Ramos is still the man in the ninth for manager Don Mattingly. But he’s not taking his job for granted.
“My thinking is, you’re an All-Star once. Let’s see you do it again,” Ramos said. “Although I’ve been gradually getting better at the closer’s role, it’s only my second year of closing. I have to prove again why. I’ve just got to keep my head down, keep working, and prove why I should be closer. Once I hit that peak, then they’ll start realizing (Ramos) is one of the marquee guys, too.”
Meanwhile, Ramos said he will continue to think of Fernandez. When he, Giancarlo Stanton and former Marlins pitcher Ricky Nolasco traveled around the world after the season, they made sure to include Fernandez in their journey. They had an outdoor wall mural painted in Fernandez’s honor in Sao Paulo, while in Amsterdam listened with sadness as a DJ performed a music video depicting the late Marlins pitching star.
“I still get chills thinking about it,” Ramos said.