Column: Two men, a diamond and a lesson

Vic Ramirez, far left in middle row, and the 1967 Gastonia Pirates.
Vic Ramirez, far left in middle row, and the 1967 Gastonia Pirates. Courtesy of Gaston Gazette

My family had few rituals as I grew up, but Septembers and pennant races always remind me of one. This year, as my dad struggles with health issues, it’s especially on my mind.

Every summer Sunday, if the Gastonia Pirates were playing at home, Dad took my brother and me to Sims Legion Park. Without fail. Even the day the left field wall was obliterated by a tornado, we were there.

We always sat in the same seats in the grandstand behind home, with the same elderly men. And we always knew the Pirates would finish second, probably to the Spartanburg Phillies, in the Western Carolinas League race.

Then, in 1967, there was Vic Ramirez.

My baseball hero

I saw Ramirez play only a few times, on Sundays that summer, but he was my hero. I swear, he doubled every time he came up. And he never left a runner on base. (At least, that’s how I remember it.)

But something else about him seized my interest. In Gastonia, he stood out – dark and Dominican, but there was something more. I remember watching him every time he knelt in the on-deck circle, and hoping the guy at the plate would reach, so Vic could bring him home – but also wondering what he was thinking. What was it like to be Victor Ramirez?

I never saw him talk much. He seemed friendly but a little distant, a little guarded. Maybe it was my imagination. Maybe his difficulty with English. Certainly the tint of his skin. Whatever it was, even an 8-year-old kid could sense that life was a challenge for Vic Ramirez, that he was struggling to achieve in a place where he often was made to feel he simply did not belong.

In a boy’s mind, sort of like second grade at Grier Elementary, but even worse. I thought I understood. And his perseverance inspired me.

And I thought I could tell, as we sat on those green, splintered seats with that familiar group of old Southern gentlemen, smoke swirling around their straw porkpie hats as they discussed how the world was going to hell in a hand basket, that Dad really liked Vic, too.

Dad’s tough life

My father, Tommy Frederick, was born in Gastonia in 1934. In a mill town during the Depression. His only sibling, Carl, was 10 years older. One of his few companions was a dog, Dutch, who died one day under the wheels of a car in front of the house. Dad spent his teenage years often alone, playing ball against a stoop, trying to make a little change for the family, sometimes rescuing his own father from the adversities that find men in hard times.

Some people who grow up in hardship become bitter and self-absorbed. But Dad was smart and realized: As taxing as life was for him, he was a white kid in the South. Wasn’t it a lot harder for those kids born without even his paltry privilege? And was that not his concern?

So that’s how he lived. And slowly I acquired that from him – not through lecture, but by osmosis, by watching him with people. At the store where he worked, on a service club project, at church, at the ballpark, on the streets, wherever he met you – no matter who you were, you were just as good as he. Maybe better.

And I began to realize, as I tried to approach life the same way: Living at peace with everyone? That’s the well of real happiness.

Last Sunday morning, as I was thinking of calling Dad about his latest medical tests, my brother Tom emailed me a link to the 1960s stats pages for the G-Pirates at baseball-reference.com. What great bliss. Here again were all those players we’d seen on their way to fame – Al Oliver, Bob Robertson, Dave Cash, Bob Moose, JJ (Johnny Jeter), little Freddie Patek at short and hey, there was skipper Clyde Sukeforth, the guy who had signed Jackie Robinson for the Dodgers.

But on the 1967 roster was the man I always wanted to know better. Nervously I clicked on the link to Vic Ramirez.

Wow. What a year he had. He hit .329 with a .526 slugging percentage. He had 13 homers and 18 of those inevitable doubles, and 174 total bases in just 96 games before he was called up to Class AA at the end of the season and the Pirates, of course, faltered again.

Vic didn’t again approach that kind of greatness. He never rose above AA ball before finishing his career in the Mexican League (including a year in Reynosa, the only place outside the States where I ever saw a game, sitting with my own son, Calvin, in 2001.)

But the most important line in his stats was this: “Born: August 26, 1940 (Age 73).”

So Vic was alive!

Searching for Vic

I scratched my morning plans and went looking for him. I realized that I wanted to call him, to hear about his life since those strange days in 1967, when he was at the peak of his skills but part of a hard change in an old Southern town. I wanted to tell him about my dad, and to tell him what Vic Ramirez meant to one of those white kids up in that smoky grandstand behind him.

It didn’t take long to find him. On nibaje.com, March 28, 2009:

Santiago. - Ceferino Víctor Ramírez, ex-jugador y coach de las Águilas Cibaeñas, falleció en la madrugada del miércoles, a la edad de 69 años, 10 de ellos postrado en una cama, víctima de un derrame cerebral.

After 10 years in bed, probably forgotten by most of the people who saw him play but not by one whose conscience he somehow stirred, El Orgullo de Nibaje – the Pride of Nibaje, Santiago, D.R. – is gone. I’ll never talk with him.

But I’ll always have something important from both of these men. From Vic Ramirez, a commitment to pride and performance in adversity that he silently imparted. And from Dad, the imperative to recognize and appreciate the struggles and the merits of all people, without prejudice or favor.

I’m so much luckier than both of them.

Researcher Susan Ebbs contributed to this report.

Eric Frederick is managing editor of newsobserver.com.