Cubs 101 - Pt. 57 - Aramis Ramirez, the cock-fighting curse breaker
When Ron Santo left the Cubs in 1973, probably nobody realized that the Cubs would try to fill his heel-clicking shoes for the next 30 years to varying degrees of failure. He would leave the Cubs as a 9-time All Star, a 5-time Gold Glove winner, and as a perennial sad participant of Hall of Fame votes. And nobody the Cubs found after Santo could touch him, not as a third baseman, not as a team leader. That isn't to say that there weren't flashes of brilliance -- Bill Madlock would fill his shoes adequately for three seasons before getting traded to Texas because P.K. Wrigley did not believe such an "uppity" player should earn as much as Madlock wanted.
After that it became a revolving door -- from the light-hitting Steve Ontiveros to the defensive equivilent of a box that was Ron Cey to the ridiculously bad Vance Law, it just got worse and worse out there. The Cubs turned to mediocre players like Steve Buchele and Luis Salazar, they resorted to rookies who'd never pan out like Kevin Orie and Gary Scott, they acquired booming strikeout kings like Todd Zeile and Shane Andrews, and they even used aged falling stars like Gary Gaetti. In fact, from 1994 until 2002 the Cubs had a different player serve as their primary third baseman each season. It was ridiculous, and Ron Santo's shadow seemed real and strong. Then, in 2003, Jim Hendry made a mid-season trade for Aramis Ramirez.
He was 25 years old when he came to the Cubs, and some people already thought he might've been washed out. After hitting 34 homeruns and batting .300 as a 23-year-old for the Pirates in 2001, his production in 2002 was pretty attrocious -- .234 AVG, 18 homers -- and, while he was putting up decent offensive numbers in '03 he was considered defensively mediocre. Still, the Cubs managed to acquire him for next-to-nothing and he immediately filled the shoes that Santo had left vacant so many years earlier -- he was offensively spectacular, leading the Cubs to their first post season series win in nearly 100 years in his first season.
His defense wasn't actually so bad either -- he had mechanical issues, and especially in '03 every grounder hit his way was an adventure, but Ramirez improved to the point where he was quite possibly a defensive attribute by his second season. And more importantly he kept on hitting. In his first 3 seasons with the Cubs, despite missing some time to injury in 2005, Ramirez hit 31-or-more homeruns. He has been an All Star twice for the Cubs so far, 2009 will be only his second season out of 7 in which he failed to drive in 100 runs or more, and he has already logged more games at third base with the Cubs than any player since Santo.
Which isn't to say that Ramirez doesn't have his detractors. After all, he's not the leader that Santo was, and in his personal life he participates in the dastardly sport of cock fighting. He's also been accused on numerous occassions of not hustling, as he has often failed to run out ground balls. Then again, he has suffered numerous nagging injuries over the years, many involving his legs, and while Ramirez isn't the homerun king that Sammy Sosa was he is perhaps the best clutch hitter the Cubs have.
In other words, like pretty much every modern-day athlete, Ramirez is hardly perfect. He's a slugging third baseman who might not be the best fielder. He's a clutch hitter who has a history of not running out ground balls. He's hit some epic homeruns but he's totally evaporated in the last two playoffs he's played in. He seems to be liked by his players but he's not a vocal leader and he participates in some questionable activities (cock fighting) in his private time back home where it's legal.
But one thing is certain -- he probably won't retire with as many games played at third base for the Cubs as Ron Santo, but he has taken a decades-long hole and filled it beyond our wildest expectations. He's also one of several indications of how, in the past decade, the Cubs have progressed from being satisfied with mediocrity to being driven to win. The fact that Cubs GM Jim Hendry sought, acquired, and has twice re-signed him is indication of that, and we are grateful of this glorious, homerun-hitting, cock-fighting third baseman.
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