A.J. Ramos emerged from the dugout in highlighter-pink cleats and began his steady hop to the bullpen just as he does before every game. But suddenly, he stopped.
The Marlins closer looked to his right, toward the seats behind home plate. Toward the saltwater fish tanks. Toward his mother, Cynthia.
She rarely made it to games in Miami, but today was different. It was Mother’s Day 2016, and A.J. had flown his whole family — mom, dad, brother, sister and grandmother — in from Texas to have the chance to see him pitch. He looked at them, smiled, waved and continued his trot to right field.
For Cynthia, it was important to be there. Not only because A.J. might pitch but because her own mom never could be there. Nieves Cortez, mother to Cynthia and 12 other children, died from leukemia at 45. Cynthia was just 12.
But on Sunday against the Braves, Cynthia, 52, will be in Miami for Mother’s Day again. She’ll be able to sit with her husband, Alejandro, and watch A.J. — her Little League starter turned major-league All-Star — trot onto the field clad in pink for the second consecutive year. She’ll be able to soak in the success again that her own mother never could.
And she’ll be forced to reflect on her relationship with A.J. now that they’re 1,500 miles apart.
But, boy, do they have memories. So many memories. Memories of success and failure, of argument and elation, all providing support for a son whose mom can do no wrong and a mom whose son is still just that — her son — despite his success.
“To me, he’s A.J.,” she said. “He’s my baby boy.”
Now, let’s go back. Because understanding A.J.’s relationship with his mom starts with understanding those memories, and those memories start with A.J. being about 3 years old at one of his father’s softball games.
While his dad was playing, he asked his mom repeatedly to run around the bases. She said no since the game was still being played.
After the game, he asked again when the players were shaking hands. She said that when they were done, he could go. And so he did, sliding into second, third and home before sprinting back to the family’s car coated in clay and radiating dust.
“Did you see that?” he asked his mom through a smile. “I did a home run.”
“I did, baby,” she answered. “That was awesome.”
Fast forward about 12 years. A.J. was struggling on the mound in a summer-league game during high school when his father, who was also his coach, emerged from the dugout.
“Go to the dugout,” his father ordered. “If you’re not gonna pitch right, just sit down. Better yet, go home.”
In the car with his mom, A.J. wouldn’t smile. He was always hard on himself, but on that day it was worse than usual. So his mom tried to brighten the mood.
“It’s OK baby,” she told him. “Sometimes I can’t stand your coach.”
“Mom,” A.J. answered, “that’s your husband.”
“That’s right, baby,” she said back. “That’s why I can say that.”
Fast forward another 15 years to right now, Mother’s Day 2017, when Cynthia will gather with the rest of the Ramos family to watch A.J. hopefully pitch again. She remembers when he was 6 and told her that some day he was going to play “with the big guys.”
And even though he’s been in the majors since 2012, seeing him pitch in person never gets old. Seeing his mom in the stands doesn’t get old for A.J. either.
“They don’t come out much,” he said of his family, “but when they do, it’s always special because they’re realizing that the dream has come true, and I’m actually doing what I set out to do since I was a kid.”
Meanwhile, his mother said the best gift he could give her on Mother’s Day would be a save — which would be his first since April 22 and fourth of the season. But even without it, it’ll still be Mother’s Day, and she’s still his mother.
“I’m just gonna be happy to see my son,” Cynthia said. “I’m always crying when I leave him.”