Wilson Ramos was in the middle of his batting practice session on Friday morning when Washington Nationals manager Davey Johnson called him over to him.
The conversation began normally, a usual rundown of what the manager had in store for the catcher for that day. He told him he’d catch five or six innings in the Nationals’ final exhibition game of the spring, and that Kurt Suzuki would catch the rest of the game. Then he slipped in the sentence Ramos had been hoping to hear for weeks.
“You will be behind the plate on Opening Day,” Johnson told Ramos.
As he stood there, unable to keep the smile from his face, Ramos was, very simply, happy.
This was the moment he’d been working toward. The moment he’d been waiting for. The moment that would help justify all of the work he’d done in the past 10 months to strengthen his knee, remake his body and return to his spot behind the plate.
“I was waiting for him to tell me that,” Ramos said. “I was working to be behind the plate on Opening Day but after he told me that today, I got very, very excited. Happy for that. That’s a big, big moment for me.”
“To think about the road that he’s been on, last year with the kidnapping and the surgery, he’s been on a rollercoaster,” said shortstop Ian Desmond. “This’ll kind of give him that peace that his perseverance, determination whatever you want to call it, it’s paying off. He stayed here in the offseason, he put a lot of work in, a lot of time and it’s really a blessing for him to be getting that Opening Day job. I’m sure it’s nothing that he takes lightly.”
Ramos will start on Opening Day, and Suzuki will catch Gio Gonzalez in the second game of the season. They will alternate from there, the Nationals believing fully that they have two No. 1 catchers on their team and that they are at their best when utilizing them both equally.
“I think it’s win-win, either way,” Desmond said.
But when Johnson was evaluating the decision on who to give the first start of the season to, he felt Ramos’ work to return from what could’ve been a devastating knee injury — a torn anterior cruciate ligament and meniscus in his right knee — was worthy of a reward.
“It’s kind of a carrot for hard work,” Johnson said, explaining that he’d also prefer that Suzuki catch Gonzalez. “But I look at them as both No. 1 catchers… It was a tough call.”
Starting on Opening Day did not become a realistic thought for Ramos until he arrived at spring training. He knew he’d toiled all winter in D.C. to continue his rehab and, for the first time in his career, really focus on his workouts and the health of his body. But throughout that process he’d been mostly focused on getting his knee back to full strength.
When he arrived in Viera, and did the drills alongside the rest of the Nationals’ catchers — rarely, if ever falling behind — he began to think Opening Day was a real possibility.
His manager felt the same way.
“From Day One catching in the ‘pen, he looked great,” Johnson said. “The only thing that held him back was the doctors saying, ‘We got to see him slide.’ So he had to slide more than anybody on the club. But just the way he blocked the ball and then pounced on the ball after he blocked it, that told me everything I needed to know. That he was in great shape.”
Ramos has slimmed down since the May night that he caught his cleat in the grass and collapsed in a heap behind home plate. He’s leaner, more agile, and, observers say, playing with more energy than he’d had in the past. He feels more comfortable behind the plate.
“He looks like he’s got a little bit of a hop in his step,” Desmond said, noticing the difference from his spot at shortstop. “He’s excited. I think he’s kind of got that fire back in his belly. One of the biggest things is for us to hold him accountable that he continues to do the same things he’s been doing so he doesn’t get back on that road he was on before.
“That’s on us now to make sure that he maintains that because he’s going to be our guy. Kurt’s got a year left with us and an option, but I think it’s pretty clear that Wilson’s going to be in this game for a long time and he’s got to take care of himself and make sure he maintains it.”
When Ramos started on Opening Day in 2012, he called in one of the best moments of his career. That winter had been difficult, and he saw the baseball season as a way to put his harrowing kidnapping further into his past.
This one will be special for different reasons.
One of his brothers flew into D.C. on Friday and Ramos expected him to be in the stands on Opening Day. As he zipped up his coat and walked out of the clubhouse, the season just days away, he planned to call his mother, Maria Campos, as soon as he got back to his apartment to tell her the good news. He couldn’t wait to share it with her.
“My knee feels 100 percent and I’m strong,” Ramos said. “Now I feel better than before I got hurt. That’s really good for me and I’m just waiting for Monday to do everything I can do.