Taking a Different Kind of Walk

Eric Lim/New University

There’s more than meets the eye when UC Irvine’s Christian Ramirez takes the plate.

As he leaves the on-deck circle, the echo of the late ’90s Latin hit “El Africano” permeates the stadium. The song, an up-tempo, dance-inducing tune is a reflection of Ramirez’s energetic personality and an honor to his Hispanic heritage.

Making his way to the left side of the plate, the center fielder leans over and reaches down at the earth. Like a masseuse maneuvering his hands on the back of a patient, Ramirez strokes through the dirt of the diamond, rubbing his hands together to enhance his grip on the bat. While it may seem like a common practice to the average fan, it is a representation of Ramirez’s toughness and grittiness on and off the field — traits he acquired growing up in the cuts of Santa Ana.

As he digs in, Ramirez looks down at the plate and gives the sign of the cross, symbolic of his beliefs, but more importantly an act of appreciation and humility. Ask Ramirez how it feels to be the starting center fielder for the UCI baseball team and he will tell you “it’s a blessing.”

Growing up, Ramirez did not have the same opportunities many people may have had. His family, like many in Santa Ana, lived on a check-by-check basis, earning just enough to get by every month. While his family was not able to provide him with many material possessions, they were able to raise him with much more than money could buy. Perhaps the most important thing, however, was their passion for baseball.

“My family is a big sports family,” Ramirez said. “My dad loves baseball, so I think as soon as I began to walk, which as far as I could remember, I was three years old when I took my first swing. Every weekend revolved around baseball, so I grew up watching my dad and brothers play. It just continued from there.”

“They are my biggest influence,” he said. “They’re tough. They taught me everything I know: to be tough and overcome, and to make sacrifices to get what you want. They encouraged me to pursue my dreams.”

Surrounded by gang violence and poverty in his hometown of Santa Ana, Ramirez never would have imagined being where he is at now: playing Division I baseball and on the verge of graduating from a top public university like UCI.

“There was a lot of guys I looked up to [in Santa Ana] who were a lot better than I was at the time being left in the shadows,” Ramirez said. “I started seeing the harsh realities of my hometown. They had a mentality of living day-by-day. Instead of making sacrifices for the future they were living for the moment. As if they believed that no matter how good you were, you were only going to play baseball up until high school. Eventually I started thinking like that too. ‘Nobody from Santa Ana ever makes it, there’s no way.’”

Temptations of the street life began to call as Ramirez began to fall away from his dreams of playing baseball beyond high school. It was this type of environment, however, that helped Ramirez to realize that he was in need of a better future.

“Where I lived it was easy to get caught up in the negativity Santa Ana offers,” he said. “Obviously it’s a good town and has its good things, but it has a lot of bad things too. I was surrounded by a lot of gang problems. Unfortunately I’ve witnessed somebody get shot just feet away from me. I’ve seen a lot of my friends pass away or be imprisoned.  It’s very easy to get caught up in that type of environment because that’s what you’re surrounded by.”

After a couple years at Santa Ana High School, Ramirez decided he needed a change of scenery and transferred to La Quinta High School in Westminster. This is where his eyes were opened to the opportunities beyond high school.

“It was like a whole different world,” he said. “What many in Santa Ana lacked, as far as having goals and being successful, I saw at La Quinta. I remember my first day, the first conversation I heard was a guy and girl talking and the girl was mad because she had applied to both USC and UCLA, and she wanted to go to USC but only UCLA had accepted her. I was like ‘wow’ because I would never hear anyone at Santa Ana talking about college so it was a huge eye opener.”

With a fresh slate at La Quinta, Ramirez made the most of it on the baseball diamond and off the field. His work earned him a scholarship to play baseball at Cal State Los Angeles. As Ramirez prepared for his first year at CSULA, the man who recruited him, Pat Shine, had accepted a job as an assistant at UCI. Ramirez, unfamiliar with the new staff stuck around for his first year, but ultimately decided to transfer to the smaller Cypress College. After one year at Cypress he began to get offers from various schools, including an offer from a familiar face: Pat Shine at UC Irvine.

“I had developed a good relationship with Coach Shine so I decided to come here,” he said. “Not only because of Coach Shine, but UCI offered excellent academics. It was only a couple minutes from home, so most importantly it allowed my family to come to every single game. It was a bit of a roller coaster. Playing for three schools in three years, but I saw it all as a blessing and it’s made me a better player and a better person so I have no regrets.”

With just one month left of his baseball career at UCI, Ramirez will cap off a stellar career as an Anteater. But for the man fans at the ballpark know as “T.T.,” his biggest achievement will come on June 15 when he walks across the graduation stage to receive his diploma. Ramirez, a first generation Mexican-American, will be the first person in his family to graduate from a university.

“It speaks volumes,” he said. “Everyone is just excited. I know my family is super proud of me, from my uncles and aunts. They’ve all supported me and they’re definitely excited.”

“He’s a really good story,” UCI head coach Mike Gillespie said. “He comes from some difficulty in his background. Through all these changes, he’s survived. It hasn’t been easy, but he’s figured it out. He’s had to grind it out, but he is going to graduate. ‘So what? We’re all supposed to graduate right?’ but sometimes it’s a little harder for some than others.”

Standing at 5 feet 9 inches, Ramirez is far from the prototypical baseball outfielder. But it is this characteristic that has made Ramirez work three times harder at everything he does to prove naysayers wrong.

“It was just one of those things that I knew what I wanted in life and it didn’t matter what the cost. I had to make a lot of sacrifices to get where I’m at,” Ramirez said.

As Ramirez stands in the batter’s box at home plate in his stance ready for the opposing pitcher’s delivery, he’s more than another baseball player. He’s a symbol of hope for a city once plagued by gang violence and ravished by crime; a role model for kids like him who once believed there were no opportunities outside of Santa Ana.

“I’ve learned to love the adversity,” he said. “Me being the little guy from Santa Ana I used it to motivate me. As I kept playing, people that I didn’t even know would get my number somehow and call me and tell me ‘hey, it’s awesome what you’re doing. A lot of kids here in Santa Ana admire you and want to be in your shoes, so keep doing what you’re doing.’ All of that just gives you extra fuel when you’re having a rough time.”

“Very few get the opportunity and luxury to play for a school like UCI so it’s awesome because I feel like I’m representing them. Every time I go up to the plate I’m representing a lot of people: All the people that watch me and support me from my hometown. It’s my fuel and my motivation just to be able to represent the people back home that look up to me.”