After eight seasons as a hitting coach in the lower levels of the St. Louis Cardinals player development system, Ramon Ortiz is in his first summer as a hitting coach of the Double-A Springfield Cardinals in 2016.
Known as 'Smokey, Ortiz' hasn't always been noted for that moniker, a nickname given in 1988 when fresh to coaching. Earlier, he spent five years as an outfielder in the Montreal Expos farm system and eventually Minnesota Twins, topping out at Triple-A before he called it a career due to the lack of resources available to Latin players at that time.
Following his playing career, the Venezuelan native returned to his homeland to start a new venture as a coach for the University of Central Venezuela before then Cardinals scout Marty Maier (now Reds Special Assistant to GM) approached him about a job to find and acquire Venezuelan talent.
“I was looking for a scout in Venezuela,” said Maier. “We hadn’t done a very good job at the time as far as working outside of the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico as far as our international scouting, especially Latin America. We were trying to expand our scouting territory where we were looking to be more efficient in South America as well.
“I can’t remember exactly how we were introduced and we got hooked up, but I bet I saw a few games with him in Venezuela. Then we decided to put him on full-time as a scout working in Venezuela and he did that for a couple years, then came to the States. We brought him in for spring training and I think he was really impressed with all of the people on the player development staff, so we decided to use him in another capacity. I think that’s how he ended up working in player development after that.
“He had a sharp eye, knew a lot of people, spoke English well, and for somebody like me to go down there and work on a regular basis I needed somebody who was bilingual while having a good idea of what we were doing. He checked all of the boxes as they say.”
In his first stint with the organization, Ortiz stayed in St. Louis from 1987-1995 when he met his mentor George Kissell. Smokey then went on to spend time as a coach with the Dodgers, Rays, and Yankees organizations until 2007 before returning the following year in a role with Gulf Coast League Cardinals.
Ortiz moved to the Batavia Muckdogs of the New-York Penn League, where he mentored big-league mainstays Matt Adams and Matt Carpenter. In 2010, the hitting coach joined up with Johnson City, helping them to back-to-back Appalachian League titles in 2010 and 2011 and led almost every major offensive category in those seasons.
“I think he’s done a great job (as a hitting coach) working with younger players in the minor leagues,” Maier said. “He’s got a great frame of reference of seeing all these great players coming out of Latin America - where he’s worked closely. He’s seen a lot of former and current major-league players come through the system up there.
“He’s got a good idea of what it takes to be a good hitter and all those people he’s seen come through all these years - really you build a library of knowledge of how these good players got it done swinging the bat and what made them successful. I think he’s done a pretty good job of taking these young kids and giving them the basics of what they have to do to be successful at the plate and make them realize what their strengths are.”
In Part 1 of this exclusive two-part interview, Ortiz talks about how he earned the nickname 'Smokey, his enthusiastic personality, importance of being bilingual, and the impact George Kissell had on his coaching career.
Derek Shore: First Ramon, could you take me back to how you first got the nickname Smokey?
Ramon "Smokey" Ortiz: "It was early in my career as a coach with the Cardinals. I remember I was in Johnson City; I was in the restaurant having my breakfast like any other day, and then there was a group of people, two ladies, who kept looking at me. I was feeling nervous because they looked at me and looked at me. Suddenly, one of them approaches my table and says, 'I know you are Smokey Robinson, I just want an autograph for my daughter.
"Since then, I've been Smokey, Smokey, Smokey, Smokey."
DS: You're well-known in the organization for your enthusiasm. Has that always been the persona you've carried?
RSO: "Yeah, I believe when you do what you love, it's a lot less stressful. Everything I do with this uniform - St. Louis Cardinals - is with a passion. I put all I can into it in order to develop those players and teach those kids to get to the major leagues which are their dreams. I try just to reinforce those dreams."
DS: How important is it to be bilingual this day in age, especially as a coach where communication is essential?
RSO: "I tell you it's big-time. It's one of the best tools that is taking more and more over (baseball) because more Latin players are coming to the States. They're such good talents. The only thing that can stop them from developing into a major league player or maybe superstar whatever is the communication.
"I have been through those situations also. I have a good relationship with some of them, and the first thing they mention is how hard is to understand. Especially at a bigger restaurant because they know how it is - they can point a finger on it (food). That's what I want - 'chicken, chicken and steak - no it's a steak'.
"But, baseball-wise, that's always the question mark. We got to make sure that they understand it. I think that requires more patience because you don't know where's the diamond. You don't know, and that could be the difference. Communication in order to understand in a simpler way. In a simpler manner because they have the talent.
"They let the talent come out as they perform. For myself, I won't delay what he can do with a matter of talent instead of telling, talking, and talking. My opinion, I do less talk and more work because you don't know how they understand things -- some of them understand things by doing because that's what they know.
"'I can do this, and I can do this.' First of all, give them some times where they can develop on their way and how do they do things in their own way. I don't mean, let them know go where they want. No, no that's not the point. The point is to let them show what they’ve got with them. Then, you start reinforcing what they've got without a drastic change into something, so you watch how they get through the plan, follow through the plan, and how they respond to the plan.
"The way they respond to the plan tells you something. One they don't understand well, or they can get it so that you can pick the one above or you can pick both and start over and reinforce it in every point or different areas for those people to understand."
DS: How much impact did the late George Kissell have on your coaching career?
RSO: "On me? Everything, everything. Remember 1989, by that time I was a scouting director, and they had me working in Venezuela in winter ball league which I had been there for years as a player and coach. Then, latest as a manager, but I always had the passion for being a good hitting coach.
"I've always been around good hitters, seeing what they're doing, how they prepare themselves before the game, put in notes about what I see, what I do not understand, and I got the first chance to ask them questions. That's how I built on my career little-by-little, and I was still learning every day. I learned more every day for every guy I worked with.
"George Kissell - they brought me here for spring training for a couple of weeks to see and check out the prospects that we had by the time, so when we went back to Venezuela, I would be able to make that comparison. Then, I started working into spring training - ‘get to major leagues, get to minor leagues, hitting fungoes, getting balls and coaching on first.’ Getting baseballs was in every situation always behind George.
"Then, he gave me the job. He asked me one day in the future if I would like to get a job here and I said, 'Yes.' There's no doubt in my mind. That's what I want to be. That's what I'm dreaming to become. He was my mentor to keep on going, and I was always behind him. That man was amazing. That guy was amazing as far as knowledge and experience of the game.
"Every position, he had something to teach, something to say, something to follow, and always teach you how to give 100%. What I still remember is: 'I don't want to see you walking in the baseball field.Y ou run in the baseball field. After three hours, you run out, and you run in. You run the bases after you hit.'
"So, things like that. He was always a great, great, great influence on me.
“He was everything."
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