Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Wilson Ramos had plenty of reason to smile during today's workout.
Beneath the quote are the numbers "11-11-11." As in November 11, 2011. The day Ramos was rescued by Venezuelan authorities following 50 hours in captivity.
For anyone who encounters Ramos, it's an instant reminder that this winter was unlike any ever experienced by a major-league ballplayer. As much as people wish they could relate to Ramos, no active player had ever been abducted from his home and whisked away under a dark hood to a remote shack in the mountains.
So teammates and coaches have tried their best to offer Ramos support and good wishes since the moment he walked into Space Coast Stadium this spring. The Nationals' second-year catcher appreciates it all, but he wants everyone -- teammates, fans, media -- to know something.
He's ready to move on. He's ready to focus on baseball.
"I'm excited to be here with my friends and play baseball again," he said today inside the home dugout. "I'm really, really happy to be here."
The feeling is mutual from every corner of the Nationals' clubhouse. Guys give Ramos a quick hug upon seeing him for the first time, then shift the conversation back to baseball.
It's helped that Ramos already played plenty of baseball this winter following his ordeal. He rejoined his Venezuelan club, the Aragua Tigres, only one week after his rescue. He wound up playing in 44 games, going 9-for-20 during the league championship series to help lead his team to the title.
This morning, Ramos took a familiar position behind the plate in the large bullpen at the Nationals' training complex. For 10 minutes, he caught Stephen Strasburg's throwing session, offering words of encouragement throughout and wrapping things up with a quick embrace and an "Atta boy, Stevie."
The uninformed would never have known what transpired three months ago.
"I asked him while he was catching Strasburg: How much of winter ball did you get after that ordeal? And he said he played a month and a half," manager Davey Johnson said. "So to me ... as far as I'm concerned, that thing's over. It's history."
Ramos doesn't like to talk about details of his kidnapping -- he's also been instructed by the Nationals not to answer questions about it, in part because there's still an ongoing investigation into the matter -- but he was overwhelmed with the support he received from fans both at home in Venezuela and back in Washington.
"They give me a lot of support," he said. "They believe in me, so they helped me a lot with everything."
Ramos didn't have to stay in Venezuela following his rescue. He could have returned to the United States and enjoyed the rest of the offseason in peace. But, as is the case for so many Latin American ballplayers, the desire to be home and with family during the winter was too strong.
"I know it happened to him, and it can happen to anybody," said fellow Nationals catcher and fellow Venezuelan Jesus Flores, who also stayed home to play winter ball. "But at the same time, all of our families are over there. And after being in a long season over here, you want to spend time with them and be at home, eating your food, everything you miss when you are here."
For Ramos, it wasn't enough just to stay at home with family. He felt the need to return to the diamond as soon as he was allowed.
"I played there because I was trying to put my mind on baseball," he said. "If I stayed in my house, I was thinking too much. So I played baseball there because I wanted to clear my mind."
As much as Ramos tries to keep his mind clear all spring, there will be the occasional reminder of his ordeal. The crescendo will likely come April 12, when he's introduced before the Nationals' home opener against the Reds and a sellout crowd gives their catcher a rousing welcome home.
"Hopefully the fans maybe stand up and break out their hands and say a couple good words for me," he said. "I want to hear that."
In the stands will be members of Ramos' family. He's already secured visas for them to come to the United States at various times during the season. Ramos was always close with his family. This ordeal brought them all even closer together.
Once the emotions of Opening Day pass, Ramos will try to get his mind back on baseball once again. He'll be more concerned with calling a good game and driving in a key run than rehashing the most harrowing 50 hours of his 24 years on this earth.
Ramos, though, won't have to turn far to remember what he endured and to appreciate what he now has. It will forever be visible on his left arm.
"I feel like I'm living again," he said. "I've got a new life."