Alexei pays it forward in honor of his mentors

Alexei pays it forward in honor of his mentors

It wasn't so long ago that Alexei Ramirez was the new man on the block -- an exciting young player from Pinar del Rio, Cuba, who had the potential to be a significant contributor to the White Sox for a long time.

That was in 2008. Seven years later, Ramirez has been an All-Star, a Silver Slugger Award winner and has established himself as one of the finest shortstops in baseball. He's also the most tenured position player on the Sox and second only to John Danks among all players.

Ramirez is fully conscious of the responsibility he has inherited in 2015, his eighth big league season. He's not afraid of the challenge, in fact he embraces and assumes the position with a great deal of pride. He understands that in baseball, as in life, there comes a moment in time when acquired knowledge should be shared. He was mentored by Jose Contreras and Minnie Minoso, among others, and now it's his turn to pay it forward.

"I have been given a great opportunity to follow in the footsteps of those individuals that have helped me by sharing their knowledge," Ramirez said. "By reaching out to the younger players, I feel that I can best show my gratitude to those that taught me lessons and gave me advice."

The first person he mentions is Contreras -- who understood the difficulties the Ramirez would face because he confronted the same challenges. Contreras took his fellow countryman under his wing as he began to adjust to the Major Leagues both on and off the field.

"Contreras and I are both Cuban, so he understood my situation and where I was coming from," Alexei said. "He was there from the beginning, offering his help and advice. I was like his younger brother. He was always telling me what to do or how to act, because everything was very new to me. Although baseball is always the same, there are other protocols here -- ways to prepare, and a lot of other things, too."

The daily advice Ramirez received from Contreras went beyond baseball. It included lifestyle and the rules and norms that they had to follow in the United States, a country with a culture and language that is completely different than Cuba.

White Sox legend Minoso was someone else who significantly impacted "Pirineo" (pronounced pee-ree-neh-o -- Ramirez's family nickname based on his slender build). Minoso was there for Ramirez from the moment he put on a Sox uniform.

Ramirez had never met Minoso prior to his arrival in Chicago, but he certainly knew of him and the fact Minoso proudly represented Cuba during his 17 seasons and five decades in the Majors.

"When I was in Cuba, I knew who Minnie was. Everyone over there knows about him, because of everything he did when he got here -- and during that time, he became a hero in Cuba," Ramirez said.

"I clearly remember the first time I met him face to face," Ramirez said. "It was my first time in Chicago. He was one of the first people who greeted me, and that was very special. We had a very close connection, similar to that of father and son. He was very attentive to me and made me feel like I was part of his family. He taught me about life, baseball, about everything."

Their relationship became so strong that Minoso, who became the White Sox first black baseball player in 1951, would walk into the clubhouse at U.S. Cellular Field and head straight for Pirineo's locker to greet him and chat.

Most of those conversations were about family, stories about Minoso's life in Cuba and in the U.S., and the transition into a new culture and language. They discussed the problems Minoso faced when he arrived in this country, where he stayed and established roots and his accomplishments in baseball.

"Minnie was an incredible person. He liked talking and recounting stories and I learned something new each time he told them, even if he repeated them because there was always a new detail or anecdote," Ramirez said. "Sometimes, when he would invite me over to his house, we'd sit and share a cigar and talk. He loved talking and having long conversations."

After taking a moment to reflect on what had been the biggest lesson he learned from Minoso, Ramirez said, "He taught me that no matter where I am, or what situation I find myself in, that I should always have confidence in myself; that I should never feel less than anyone else -- even if I don't speak the same language or come from the same place. What's most important is to honor your name and carry it on your chest, which is why one should leave everything on the playing field. That helped me a lot during my first days here, because I felt nervous some days about all of the things that I wasn't familiar with. Now, that's something that I want to share with all of the guys that come here, because all of that has been very important to me and I always have it top of mind. I know that there is still a language barrier, but I've learned if there is something I want to say to some of the guys, and I don't know which words to use, I just do it through hand gestures. What matters is getting the message across so that everyone can understand it. I believe that what I've learned from my experience can help others."

In the time Ramirez has been on the White Sox, he's had to say goodbye to many friends and peers.

"Without a doubt, it's difficult when you have to see people you care about leave the team," said Ramirez. "The first one, I believe, was Contreras. After that it was Ozzie [Guillen] and Joey Cora, who were the first coaches I had on this team. They taught me how to adjust to the speed of the game here and how to make the best of my talents. Sometimes they were tough, but I always knew that it was for the best. Omar Vizquel also left. I feel that the two years I shared with him helped me to understand a lot about the game, especially about my defense. From him, I learned how to be a better shortstop, because he was one of the best ever. Then Alex Rios left, he was also my friend. This year it was Dayan [Viciedo], who I was also very close to, as we are both from Cuba. At the end of the day, this is baseball and it's a business, which is why you have to keep working hard and stay focused on what you can't control."

Of everyone, Minoso is the one Ramirez had the hardest time speaking about.

It was in the morning of March 1 that the unexpected and somber news reached Ramirez: Minoso had passed the night before. Ramirez heard the news as he was entering the Spring Training facility in Glendale, Ariz.

Ramirez said, "That was some of the worst news that I'd ever received in my life. Minnie was like a father to me. He was that paternal figure who guided me and gave me advice when I came to this country -- to this team. He opened the doors for all of us, Cubans and all Latinos, to come here, play ball and make our dreams a reality. He went through a lot and dealt with much to succeed here, in order to open the path into this world for us. Now it is our responsibility to help the future generations. That is one of my goals: to honor his name and legacy."

Ramirez's first step was to address the team about the idea of wearing Minoso's No. 9 during the home opener. The White Sox were obviously on board, but they had to ask Minoso's family for approval. Everyone was in agreement, and on April 10, during the first game of the season at U.S. Cellular Field, Ramirez entered the field by way of car with the No. 9 and the last name Minoso on his back. The surprise left everyone in the park speechless.

"I felt that I needed to do something to honor Minnie," Ramirez said. "I thought about it in the days after his passing, and I mentioned it to the team. And they helped me with the process so that I could do it. As soon as I put on the jersey I felt Minnie's strength, his energy. He's still with us, in our memory and I want it to be that way forever. That is why any time I am able to do so, I will honor him, perhaps not by wearing his jersey, but by applying his lessons and getting out there and playing with intensity every day, giving the team my all. I will put all of my heart into defending the White Sox name I wear on my jersey. Something he always told me was to go out there and play hard every day and give my best; that I should lead by example and instill that in all of the guys. Now, that is my responsibility."