For a month after he severely injured his right knee last May, Wilson Ramos held out hope that the damage wasn’t so serious. The Washington Nationals catcher prayed he could return to the field later in the season. The swelling had subsided, he said, and he was walking around with little pain and only a slight limp.
A visit to Richard Steadman, a renowned knee surgeon, in Vail, Colo., in June dashed Ramos’s optimism. With his agent, Gustavo Marcano, at his side, Ramos learned that the injury would require not one but two surgeries and he would, without a doubt, miss the rest of the season.
The normally cheery Ramos, 25, was crushed. He was, in his own words, depressed. But he composed himself and called his mother in Venezuela, uttering words that now sound prophetic. “ ‘Mama, don’t worry,’ ” she recalls he said. “ ‘I’m strong. I’ll get past this. We’ve gotten past worst things and I’ll overcome this and we’ll get ahead.’ ”
If anyone deserves good luck this season, it’s Ramos. Over the past 16 months, he endured a kidnapping at gunpoint at his family’s home in the north-central Venezuelan city of Valencia on Nov. 9, 2011. Six months after that harrowing episode, he damaged the anterior cruciate ligament and tore the meniscus in his right knee when it buckled as he chased a passed ball in the seventh inning of a May 12 game in Cincinnati.
Ramos finds happiness and comfort crouched behind home plate, but for nine months he was deprived that opportunity as the Nationals enjoyed a historic season and a division title. He endured a long, arduous and lonely road to recovery. There are no more important joints for a catcher than his knees, and the Nationals feared his return might come more slowly than expected.
This spring, however, the Nationals have had to restrain Ramos. He dives after balls in the dirt behind the plate. He legs out infield hits. He slides on his surgically repaired knee with no pain. He is thinner than past seasons. He is already starting at his position and wants more. He wants to play opening day and in the playoffs. He will catch his first nine-inning game this week. He is past the physical and mental hurdles. Beaten down by a trying year and a half, Ramos has come back stronger than before.
“I’ve always said things in this life happen for a reason,” he said. “I’ve always seen them as tests that God gives us each on our path. And I’ve been strong and I’ve done my best to overcome all those bad things. Good things will come and I’m getting ready to receive them.”
The happiest moment of spring training for Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo was when Ramos strode to the plate at Space Coast Stadium against the St. Louis Cardinals on March 3, his first game taking at-bats since his injury, and crushed a double to deep right field that the wind kept in the stadium but helped win a game.
“I’m so proud of him,” Rizzo said.
Last June, Steadman repaired Ramos’s meniscus but needed to perform another surgery a month later because the knee damage was so severe. Marcano, his agent at SFX Baseball Group, accompanied Ramos. Unlike previously explained, the second surgery didn’t replace his ACL but cleaned it up. The Nationals were unsure, then, how Ramos’s knee would hold up without a ligament reconstruction.
“He’s done everything and more than a lot of the other catchers,” Manager Davey Johnson said.
Ramos stayed in Washington to rehab instead of returning to Venezuela — a sign, Rizzo said, that showed the catcher was serious about his rehab. He stayed in his apartment near Nationals Park and visited his physical therapist in Northern Virginia three times a week. He worked out at the stadium and leaned on the team’s training staff.
“That was a good decision to stay here with people that know a lot about rehab,” he said. “In Venezuela, I don’t know people that are experts in it and I preferred to stay here and focus on my health.”
Near the end of the season, Ramos would work out at Nationals Park in the mornings and chat with teammates in the clubhouse. He stayed to watch some games but more often than not he couldn’t stand watching and not playing. He celebrated with the Nationals after they clinched the National League East title, sitting in a shopping cart being pushed by teammates, but that, too, was emotionally painful. He accompanied them to St. Louis for the playoffs. “It was hard seeing everyone on the team giving their all and I couldn’t do it, too,” he said.
Ramos returned to Venezuela for only a month during his nine-month rehab, to spend Christmas with his family. He took along a workout schedule for December, working out at the gym of a friend, Omar Daal, a former major league pitcher. He took care of the baseball academy he founded in Guacara for young players who, like him, didn’t have the resources to train and practice.
Of all he learned from his brutal rehab, Ramos said he understands now that he needs to dedicate himself harder to training. The 6-foot catcher still weighs 250 pounds, but has replaced fat with muscle and looks leaner this spring. If Ramos lost weight, doctors reasoned, his rehab would be easier.
“In previous seasons, I wasn’t a player that was fully dedicated to working out,” he said. “I did my work on the field and for me that was enough for me. But after my injury, I see that’s not the case. You have to work hard to avoid injuries.”
Ramos has grand goals for this season. He wants to play opening day, play every day, guide the pitching staff, put up solid numbers, improve his defense and help the Nationals reach the playoffs. In fact, being on the field with his teammates during the playoffs is a goal he mentions often.
He doesn’t view his return as a position battle with Kurt Suzuki, with whom he has a good relationship. He understands the Nationals protected themselves with catching depth by trading for Suzuki in August and he has been pleased with the team’s patience with his rehab.
“I’m prepared and working hard to show them that I can play daily behind the plate,” he said. “Those are decisions they make; we don’t make them. Each of us has to give the best we can so they can see what we can do. After my injury, I know I need to win their confidence in me again.”
The Nationals plan to ease Ramos into action during the regular season, leaning on Suzuki early and slowly transferring the daily load to Ramos. Suzuki has an $8.5 million club option for 2014 that can be bought out for $650,000. If he makes 113 starts this season, the option vests at $9.25 million. The Nationals view Suzuki, 29, as a needed veteran and as insurance, but still consider Ramos their bedrock catcher of the future.
“He was one of the real up-and-coming players when he got hurt,” Rizzo said. “He deserves some good health, and with good health will come good things because he’s that kind of player. . . . He’s still a young kid with a high upside and I don’t think he’s scratched the surface yet.”
Ramos’s mother, Maria Magdalena Campos, visited him over the winter. He leaned on her support, which came mostly through encouraging words, care and prayer. She was a constant voice over the phone from Venezuela, telling him that he would return stronger, like the “big buffalo” nickname he was given by teammates.
“If this happened, it’s because something better is coming in your career,” Ramos’s mother said she reminded her son. “Something great.”
If Ramos has his way, “something” will be this season.