Scouts from other major league teams were invited, too, and most had come to gawk at shortstop Martin Esteilon Peguero and a Colombian catcher, Jorge Alfaro, both of whom would eventually sign for over $1 million each with the Seattle Mariners and the Texas Rangers, respectively.
Pena, however, took note of Ramirez, who was maybe 5 feet 8 inches and 140 pounds at the time, but played with noticeable determination and surprising confidence.
At 17, Ramirez was already something of an afterthought by Dominican standards. Baseball rules allow teams to sign prospects in the Dominican Republic when they turn 16, and many of the top players are gobbled up before their 17th birthday. But Pena thought to himself: That little kid plays like a man. He knows what he’s doing.
In a telephone interview from his home in Santo Domingo, Pena, who grew up in the Bronx and once scouted for the Mets, recounted the almost comical negotiations that led to Ramirez’s signing with the Indians.
Credit Dustin Franz for The New York Times
The prospects who had traveled from Baní, including Ramirez, were represented by a local trainer, Pena said. He was pushing the scouts who were at the showcase to sign Peguero and Alfaro and other more refined players. The trainer insisted that Peguero wanted $3 million and Alfaro $1.5 million, but he never mentioned Ramirez.
“He told me about the center fielder, and asked for $850,000,” Pena recalled. “I said, ‘Come on, don’t be ridiculous. What about the right fielder?’ ”
The conversation continued this way for a while, Pena said, with the trainer consistently directing Pena back to the most expensive players. But the cagey Pena had other ideas.
“I said, ‘Look, I’ll sign one of your players for you,’ ” Pena said. “ ‘But I’m not spending that kind of money. What about the second baseman?’ ”
“That little guy?” the trainer replied incredulously. “Give him $300,000.”
Pena said that was too much. The trainer brought up the more expensive players again. Pena kept saying no. And then he offered $10,000 to sign Ramirez, almost as a consolation.
At that point, the trainer countered with a $200,000 demand and the conversation went back and forth again, the number dropping by tens of thousands of dollars with each exchange, until they settled with a handshake on $50,000 — little more than loose change, by baseball standards, for a player who would go on to wreak havoc on major league pitching.
“I am thankful for Ramon Pena for signing me like that,” Ramirez, who is now 25, said through an interpreter this week. “I have always had to fight. But I always kept a positive attitude.”
After signing Ramirez, Pena said, he was unable to produce the legal papers necessary for Major League Baseball to allow him to play. So Ramirez sat out the 2010 season, working out at the Indians’ facility in Boca Chica, instead.
By 2011, when his papers were in order, Ramirez was too good for the Dominican summer league. The Indians brought him to their Class A rookie ball club in Arizona, and he hit .325 with 13 doubles in 48 games.
Credit Ron Schwane/Associated Press
Ramirez sped through the minors and made his major league debut in 2013 at age 20. Originally considered a utility player because of his versatility, he filled in at third base, left field and shortstop.
But last year, Indians Manager Terry Francona inserted him in the starting lineup 144 times, batting him mostly fifth. This year, he hit third, fifth and sixth, started 151 games and rapped out more doubles in a season than any player since Brian Roberts produced 56 for the Baltimore Orioles in 2009.
“I love to hit doubles,” said Ramirez, who has now settled in at second base. “I like to make good, hard contact and hit the ball on a line. That’s my swing.”
Some of those doubles are also the product of Ramirez’s hustling out of the batter’s box on any ball in play. As Lindor noted, “He’s always looking for two.”
For opposing pitchers, including the Yankees’ staff in the division series, Ramirez presents a particular problem. The left-hander Craig Breslow is a teammate now, but earlier this year he pitched against Ramirez as a member of the Minnesota Twins. He marveled that Ramirez’s swing seems to have so few holes.
“He can potentially be the best player on the field at four or five positions,” Breslow said, “and he can also be a weapon anywhere in the lineup.”
All of this is what baseball has come to recognize in Ramirez over the last two years, but Pena saw it years ago. And not just at the scouting showcase when he was able to sign him for a mere $50,000. About a year later, Pena knew for certain that the bonus money was not wasted when he saw Ramirez, still a teenager, take command of a Dominican Winter League game while playing for Toros del Este.
On a gusty day in La Romana, with the Toros protecting a one-run lead in the ninth inning and the bases loaded with two outs, the batter hit a pop-up high into the swirling wind. It went to shallow left field, but then was blown all the way back across the diamond. The left fielder didn’t call for it, nor did the third baseman or the shortstop.
Pena said Ramirez was the only one to shout out, and with the runners circling the bases and touching home plate with what might have been the winning runs, Ramirez calmly squeezed the ball in his glove to end the game.
“No one else wanted any part of that ball,” Pena said. “When I saw that, I knew Jose had the guts for this.”