With the Savannah Sand Gnats 2014 season opener quickly approaching, Sandgnats.com will be celebrating the city's rich professional baseball history by counting down the top 25 greatest to ever play in Savannah. By utilizing major league career statistics, minor league statistics and accolades, and by analyzing the general impact on the game and in the city of Savannah, Sandgnats.com has compiled a list of notable ball players that have helped shaped the story of Savannah and America's pastime.
Savannah, GA - "You have to swing like a man. A walk won't get you off the island," Rafael Ramirez once said. The idiom has been used by so many players to describe the swing-first mentality of so many hitters from the Dominican Republic, it's tough to determine where it started. Nonetheless, Ramirez is remembered as the first to popularize the iconic phrase. In 1978, on a path to becoming a big league all-star and defensive mainstay in the Atlanta Braves infield, shortstop Rafael Ramirez started his first full season of professional ball right in Savannah, Ga.
Ramirez was born in what is often called the "Cradle of Shortstops," San Pedro de Macorís in the Dominican Republic in 1958. The island nation has developed a disproportionate amount of quality ballplayers. Stars like George Bell, Robison Canó, Starlin Castro, Johnny Cueto, Alfonso Soriano, and Sammy Sosa all hail from San Pedro de Macorís. The island's small population, not far off from that of Savannah, has somehow produced 78 major leaguers.
Ramirez's high school, Liceo Gaston Fernando Deligne, has produced two major leaguers: Ramirez and former New York Mets outfielder Jordany Valdespin. Nearly 20 years apart, the two Delinge alumni Ramirez and Valdespin cut their teeth at Historic Grayson Stadium in 1978 and 2009, respectively.
Ramirez was signed as an amatuer free agent in 1976 by the Atlanta Braves. The 6'0" shortstop was a glove-first prospect for the Braves. Ramirez struggled at the plate through his first year of minor league ball, hitting just .177 in the Gulf Coast League. Then Ramirez started to make contact in 1978 with the Class A Greenwood Braves in South Carolina. He hit .278, a very respectable average for a shortstop at the time. The 20-year-old even conjured up the patience to draw 41 walks from Western Carolina League pitching.
Ramirez earned himself a late season promotion to Savannah, Ga., taking the field with the Southern League Double-A Savannah Braves. The 1978 Savannah club, managed by Bobby Dews, featured 10 future and even former major leaguers including famed author and pitcher Jim Bouton. Bouton, 39 years old at the time, was working on a comeback in the Braves organization after committing himself to the knuckleball. Ramirez hit just .208 in his 38 remaining games, but his slick glove work helped the Savannah Braves win the division and get a shot at the championship. The Braves would fall 2-1 to the Knoxville Sox that year.
Ramirez would get another year of seasoning, spending all of 1979 with the Savannah Braves. Again the shortstop struggled to hit for average, batting just .207 for the Savannah club. The right-handed hitter showed a nice uptick in power, however, belting 10 home runs that year - a total he would match only once in the big leagues.
The power and glove combination was enough to earn Ramirez a promotion to the Triple-A Richmond Braves in 1980, where he hit .281 over 80 games. Ramirez was being groomed to take over for Luis Gomez in Atlanta. He earned himself a late season call-up to the big leagues that year and hit .267 over 50 games for the Atlanta Braves.
By 1982, Ramirez was the Braves' everyday shortstop, hitting .278 while swiping a career-high 27 stolen bases. Ramirez was aggressive on defense, leading the National League for four consecutive seasons (1982-1985) in double plays turned, while also leading in errors three of those four seasons.
In 1983, Ramirez was named to the National League All-Star Team by leading the majors in singles (185) while hitting .295 with seven home runs and 16 stolen bases. For three seasons (1982-1984) Ramirez was a contact machine, hitting a major league-leading 420 singles - more than players like hall of famer Wade Boggs.
Ramirez continued a successful career spending eight seasons with the Braves and then closing out his career with another five seasons with the Houston Astros. Ramirez was a part of the major shift in the 80s towards shortstops that could bat as well as they could field. Ramirez, Cal Ripken, Alan Trammell, Robin Yount, and other shortstops of the era proved that shortstops could hold value as premier hitters near the top of the order.
In his eight seasons as a member of the Atlanta Braves, Ramirez was second in hits only to legendary Dale Murphy. Although viewed as an overly aggressive fielder, Ramirez's glove was good enough to start 1,386 games at shortstop - no easy task in the big leagues. Before he was turning two at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, Rafael "Raffie" Ramirez was just another young Dominican hitter at Historic Grayson Stadium, looking to hit his way off the island of Hispaniola.
Read the other entries in the Top 25 of Savannah's Greatest: