(Note: Blog will return June 28)
by Aaron McFarling | 981-3124
Noe Ramirez is a Salem Red Sox pitcher from Southern California. So is Henry Owens. The two are roommates and friends.
Their childhoods, though, couldn’t have been much different.
Owens grew up in Huntington Beach, home of the U.S. Open of Surfing. Ramirez grew up in the projects of East L.A.
Owens has driven through that area a few times on the way to visit his uncle.
He’d rather not go back if he can help it.
“That’s not a good place, man,” Owens said. “Not a good place at all. There’s a lot of gangs down there. It’s pretty dangerous.
“If I’m going, I’m definitely hanging out with Noe. I think I’ll be OK then.”
That would be his best chance. Ramirez is well-liked in his neighborhood because of the way he carried himself in his youth and the work he put in to become a professional ballplayer.
He’s blossomed into a good one, too. At the midway point of the season, Ramirez is 2-1 with a 2.34 ERA – lowest among Salem pitchers with at least 20 innings.
“He’s been one of our more consistent guys out of the pen,” Sox manager Billy McMillon said. “He has a couple pitches that work for him. Pitching last year at Greenville and playing at a high level of college, he has some stuff, and so far it’s been playing up here pretty well.”
Pretty amazing, too, considering where it all started.
Ramirez takes a great deal of pride in his hometown, but he won’t pretend it was the safest place to grow up.
“If you didn’t hear a gunshot in a couple days, that was rare,” Ramirez said. “Let’s put it that way. They’ve put up gunshot sensors now, all around the projects. It’s like these huge poles that have a gunshot sensor and a camera on them, so when a gunshot goes off, the police are there quick. It’s pretty cool. And it’s a good thing, especially since I still have family living there.
“It wasn’t a good place to be out at night, definitely. During the day it was all right, but it was just at night. It wasn’t the actual gangsters who live in the neighborhood; it was the rivals who come in to rile it up and cause havoc.”
Ramirez sought refuge in baseball. His father, Rafael, got 7-year-old Noe into a league that played about 10 miles outside the projects, at Monterey Park. Ramirez would practice with his older brothers at Hazard Park in East L.A., but all of his games were played in a relative sanctuary.
Ramirez molded himself into a college prospect and committed to Cal State Fullerton, where his East L.A. background helped him make a breakthrough he calls “life-changing.”
As a freshman, Ramirez was struggling to command a new change-up. His coach put him in touch with Blue Jays pitcher Ricky Romero – a fellow Fullerton alum out of East L.A.
“He has one of the best change-ups out there,” Ramirez said. “And he said what he’d do is, from 90 feet, just throw the heck out of it. Just throw it as hard as he could during warm-ups. And after a while, that’s how he got his control.
“And literally, man, a week after I started doing that I saw results really quick. So I credit him big time.”
Armed with the new pitch, Ramirez evolved into the ace of the Fullerton staff and earned a spot on the USA Baseball Collegiate National Team. The Red Sox drafted him in the fourth round in 2011 after he finished his three-year college career with a 29-5 record.
Ramirez struggled a bit in his first pro season, going 2-7 with a 4.15 ERA last year as a starter in low-A Greenville. Moved to the bullpen in Salem, he’s thrived, striking out 37 and walking just eight in 41 1⁄3 innings.
He hopes to keep it going, both for himself and the neighborhood he humbly represents.
“It was rough, but you know what? I have no regrets about growing up there,” Ramirez said. “That neighborhood made me who I am, my parents and that neighborhood. I have all the respect from everybody there. Everybody’s great there.
“Even the troublemakers give respect.”
A fact his roommate will remember should he ever venture back.