Chances are, when the Florida Marlins plucked Miguel Cabrera out of Venezuela as an undrafted free agent in July of 1999, they had no idea they'd eventually be opening the eyes of 11-year-old Wilson Ramos to his catching idol.
Ramos, who calls Cabrera "like my brother," became an avid Marlins fan when the team called his friend up to the big leagues during the 2003 season.
And while Cabrera was busy winning a World Series in his rookie campaign, Ramos - himself just a year away from signing with the Minnesota Twins at age 17 - was captivated by the catcher on that championship Marlins squad: Ivan Rodriguez.
"He was my favorite," Ramos said, with Rodriguez sitting just a few locker stalls away in the Nationals' clubhouse. "When I was young, I liked seeing how he played. I liked everything about him."
But the soft-spoken Ramos talks about his adulation for Rodriguez from a precarious position.
When he was traded to the Nationals from the Twins last season in exchange for reliever Matt Capps, Ramos suddenly became teammates with Rodriguez - giving the 23-year-old who'd just come from working with Joe Mauer a chance to learn from a player considered one of the best catchers in major league history.
Now he's expected to replace him.
"Pudge is Pudge," said Nationals bullpen coach Jim Lett, who also serves as the team's catching instructor, when asked to compare the two players. "You're talking about a Hall of Famer. But I think he can be a good mentor to this guy because of his experience, and I think that's all Wilson needs in this game is experience."
For all the accolades that his predecessor has collected throughout his lengthy career as one of the game's elite backstops, Ramos brings to the table equally as much value in untapped potential.
In small sample sizes, he's been impressive. Through his first 84 major league at-bats, Ramos has hit .298 with a .322 on-base percentage and, according to several talent evaluators, is just beginning to truly come into his power potential.
"The guy has a chance to hit for a high average and has a chance to hit for power," said Nationals hitting coach Rick Eckstein, who's been working with Ramos on helping him torque his hips during his swing to be more explosive when he contacts the ball.
"There's a lot of guys that [he could be compared to], but he's got a uniqueness about him that's pretty special," Eckstein said. "He's got a very high ceiling and I would rather see what he's going to turn into instead of putting a name on him and him saying, 'I've got to be like this guy.'
"I want him to be himself because I think that his future's extremely exciting to think about."
That's exactly what the Nationals are counting on as they transition from having Rodriguez serve as the team's everyday catcher to, immediately, the two sharing time and, eventually, Ramos growing into the starring role.
While Rodriguez, who is 183 hits away from career No. 3,000, isn't the same hitter he once was, the Nationals continue to praise his defense and work with the pitching staff.
There too, though, Ramos is raved about, and he continues to work with Lett on his lateral movement and blocking balls.
"Wilson's great," said left-hander John Lannan, who earned the Nationals' only win of the season on Saturday with Ramos behind the plate. "He [does] little things that help me ... and he calls a good game. He's learning a lot from Pudge, but I think he's well beyond his years in game calling."
"Some guys have that ability, as far as calling a game, where it just comes naturally," Lett said. "Some guys work on it and it's something you have to adjust to. Wilson seems to have that knack where you can tell him a scouting report or something one time and it just clicks. It stays with him."
The Nationals have spent a good deal of their six-plus seasons in Washington looking toward the future as several highly touted prospects have come and gone through the organization. In Ramos, they have another to look forward to as he prepares to step into the spotlight.
And making way for him to take that step will be the same catcher, now eight years older, whom Ramos so admired as a teenager in Venezuela.
"I know that he is a great player," Rodriguez said. "He's the future of our ball club. I'm here to work with him. I don't have no problem with that. ... I told [Nationals manager Jim Riggleman], 'The only thing that I want is to have a better team every day.' I'm a winner. I've been in the playoffs, I've been in the World Series already. I've been on good teams and I learned from those experiences.
"That's what I would love to bring here, especially to the young guys."
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