Ramon Ortiz was sitting in a restaurant in Johnson City, Tenn., one morning in 1988 when two middle-aged women approached.
“I was looking pretty good,” the State College Spikes’ 60-year-old hitting coach from Caracas, Venezuela, recalled with a boisterous laugh that ricocheted off the walls in his shared clubhouse office.
Pitching coach Dernier Orozco joined in, laughing as he leaned forward in his chair, diverting his attention from the “Law & Order: SVU” episode playing on the tiny television atop his locker.
Ortiz, whose light skin, curly locks and bluish-green eyes resemble those of a specific Motown legend, hadn’t been in the U.S. long, so he wasn’t quite sure what the women wanted.
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“Hey I don’t want to say anything, but I know you’re Smokey Robinson,” Ortiz remembers one woman saying. “Would you mind signing an autograph for my daughter because she’s a huge fan of you.”
“By that time, my English was ,” he waved his hand back and forth.
Ortiz insisted he wasn’t the singer, but the woman persisted.
“I know you don’t like that you’re in public, but I know you’re Smokey Robinson,” she said.
Steve Turco was also a coach with Johnson City at the time and was eating with Ortiz. He’s now the manager of the Gulf Coast Cardinals.
“Come on, Smokey,” he said. “Sign the autograph for the nice lady.”
Ortiz obliged, scribbling quickly, unsure how to spell the name.
“I’ve been Smokey ever since,” Ortiz said. “If you go someplace asking for Ramon Ortiz, who’s he?”
His personality has a gravitational pull all its own. His voice is often loud and usually accompanied by laughter, either his own or others.
When the Spikes and the Jamestown Jammers were delayed this season because of a slow-moving storm front, stadium cameras caught him dancing in the dugout.
However, Ortiz is more than just a jester. Hitting has been his life. It’s a craft he teaches — just as his mentor did — so that his pupils will get the chance that eluded him years ago.
Growing up in Venezuela, baseball was a way of life. The Ortiz family had a large enough plot of land that the neighborhood kids would gather and play.
With a good arm and fleet feet, he developed an appetite for fastballs at the plate because that’s all kids threw in Caracas. And because his friends threw wildly, he became an excellent bad-ball hitter “because if you want to hit, you’ll swing at everything.”
Ortiz eventually played his way into the Montreal Expos farm system and then later with the Minnesota Twins. He spent five years as an outfielder in the minors, making it as far as Class-AAA, but the landscape in the 70s and 80s was difficult for international players.
He had all the physical tools, but with one manager for 25-30 players, no hitting instructors and no English skills, his learning curve was steep.
“When I first came over, I knew how to catch and throw,” he said with a laugh. “That’s all I knew and I knew when I put the ball in play I had to run to first base.”
Communication was another story.
“I used to go with what I knew,” he said. “I wasn’t afraid because I knew I could do it the same way I did it back in my country. The only thing I needed to get better was my approach and my conversation with people to perceive the info they’d try to give to me ...”
Earlier this week, the Cardinals organization supplied the Spikes’ international players with English-language classes to help with that very adjustment. Classes will resume when the team returns to State College.
Ortiz had no such help, and seeing breaking balls and swinging at bad pitches hurt his chances before injuries eventually scuttled his career. He eventually returned to his homeland as a coach with the University of Central Venezuela, until Marty Maier, who was with the Cardinals then, approached him.
Maier, now a scout with the Cincinnati Reds, wanted Ortiz to help him find and cultivate Venezuelan talent.
Ortiz stayed in the St. Louis organization from 1987-1995, when he met the man he considers his mentor, George Kissell.
A beloved member of the Cardinals for 69 years as a manager, player, coach and instructor, Kissell, like Ortiz, never played in the majors, but dedicated his life to teaching the game until his death in 2008.
Still in his office, Ortiz’s voice quickened as he spoke effusively about Kissell. Then he stood mid-sentence, walked to his locker and pulled out a newspaper — an entire section — from 1997. A feature on Kissell with the headline: “The Professor.”
“Always with me wherever I go,” Ortiz said. “This is my philosophy right there. This is my guide and I don’t think I’ll change anything, because everything I know belongs to that guy ”
Now, the former student is the teacher.
“You come to the ballpark everyday and you see Smokey and you just automatically smile,” said Spikes third baseman Carson Kelly.
That sentiment, echoed by others in the clubhouse, seems born not just from Ortiz’s zaniness, but also from an approach that empowers his hitters.
In Batavia, Ortiz worked with Matt Carpenter and Philipsburg native Matt Adams, both now with St. Louis. When he worked in the Los Angeles Dodgers’ farm system, Ortiz also worked with Carlos Santana, now with the Cleveland Indians.
He doesn’t seek any credit, but Ortiz beams with pride because he knows how hard those guys worked and he’s proud that they found their own ways to maximize their skills.
He rarely tinkers with swings or alters stances. Those are last resorts. Instead, Ortiz focuses on the space between the ears and leaves the rest for the players.
“It helps a lot with confidence when you feel like you can take ownership of your own swing,” said Spikes first baseman David Washington, who also worked with Ortiz in Johnson City.
“You see it every day,” Ortiz said. “There’s a certain point in between the 17 inches at home plate that every time they struck a baseball the balls jump off the bat. Always. Everyone has one spot, but they don’t know yet. That’s why they can’t be consistent yet. And then our job is not to get rid of this or that, it’s the approach to let them find it and then ask them ‘you hit this pitch better than that pitch. Why is that?’”
If the minor league hitter is a skyscraper being built to withstand weathering by big league pitching, then Ortiz is laying the foundation.
“I believe in preparation 100 percent,” he said. “The preparation gives you the chance to anticipate which is a different animal than guessing. So when you do have that plan, that’s when you’ll start learning things and then you will be able to set up that guy instead of that guy sets you up.”
The passion in his voice is unmistakable. What motivates him is getting guys ready for the dream he never realized.
“I don’t know if I could have made it or not but I was there and I couldn’t do it,” he said. “It was painful for me sometimes to recall that I didn’t have that chance. That’s why I want them success. I want them success.”
As for the personality that endears him to his players and colleagues, if that ever leaves Ortiz’s solution will be simple.
“Hey, if I don’t love it I don’t deserve to be here.”