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Alexei Knows Adversity

The ball was hit fairly hard, but Alexei Ramirez still had time to get into position to field the bouncer off the bat of Alcides Escobar. Getting a force at second base would end the Royals' eighth-inning threat and preserve a victory - and a three-game sweep over Kansas City - for the stumbling White Sox.

Sorry, folks. This is 2013, and what used to be more or less routine has presented unprecedented challenges for this season's edition of the White Stockings. If you watched yesterday, Ramirez let the ball go through him into left field, two runs scored, and the Sox lost again 7-6.

Ramirez made 12 errors last season in 158 games. Yesterday's blunder matched that total, and we're still three weeks away from the All-Star game.

Before we castigate and curse Alexei, look at his body language. He hangs his head, his lips are moving, his eyes avert pitcher Jesse Crain, whose 29 consecutive scoreless appearance streak came to a painful end on Sunday.

That streak well might have ended Saturday when Alejandro De Aza, who appears to lack a basic understanding of the game, called off Alex Rios on an Eric Hosmer fly ball right before Alex was about to record the inning's second out. The ball dropped for a triple, but Crain pitched over it and held the Royals in check as the Sox won 3-2.

It would be understandable to slam Ramirez, who is having a lackluster season. Sure, he's hitting .277, right at his career average. But he hasn't homered since the season's second game, and he has just 14 RBI after averaging 73 over his first five years with the Sox. And he ranks near the bottom of shortstops when it comes to defense.

But this is a guy who knows adversity, which has to be the most overused noun in sports.

LeBron James talks about adversity, but what does he know? Ramirez and his fellow Cuban countrymen in the big leagues have experienced adversity in a real sense, whereas LeBron can always retreat back to Akron from whence he came.

But Ramirez can't go home to his native Cuba from which he defected at age 26 almost six years ago.

University of Illinois professor Adrian Burgos has studied and written about Cuban ballplayers walking away from their lives in hopes of a big contract and notoriety in the big leagues.

He wrote a book, Playing America's Game: Baseball, Latinos, and the Color Line, where he calls Alexei, Dayan Viciedo and other Cuban ex-pats as "men without a country."

"The biggest difference between Cubans and all the other Latino players is the reality of return," said Burgos in a phone call last weekend. "In making the decision to leave Cuba, they realize that. That's what makes it such a momentous decision. They know when they walk off the ballfield to a waiting car or another hotel or wherever they go, they know there is no turning back. These are young men making these decisions."

When put in this context, maybe booting yet another ground ball resulting in a White Sox loss pales in comparison to the life that Ramirez is leading. After not seeing his parents for five years, they came to Chicago last season, and his dad even threw out the first pitch before a White Sox game. Needless to say, that was an emotional time for the White Sox shortstop.

Last week when the Sox played in Houston, winning 4-2 last Monday to avert a four-game sweep by the 29-48 Astros, the Sun-Times ran a story about Adam Dunn and how comfortable he felt because he could stay at home with his family - they live in Houston - during the four-game series.

That doesn't happen for the handful of players who defected from the island nation.

"[It's a] very bold act," said Burgos, talking about players who leave their homeland for a chance to play in the United States. "These guys are looking to prove themselves on baseball's highest-paying, grandest stage. It's not the Olympics; it's not the World Cup or the World Baseball Classic. The major leagues is where you can prove your greatness on the baseball diamond and reap the greatest financial rewards. But for Cubans, you have to make a decision to leave something behind. There's an exchange there like no other in the world of sports."

The first great Cuban big leaguer was Adolfo Luque who won 194 games pitching in the National League for Boston, Cincinnati, Brooklyn and New York between 1914 and 1935. Of course, this was long before 1959 when Fidel Castro overthrew the Batista regime and assumed control of Cuba.

Luque was of European descent unlike Ramirez, Viciedo, Yasiel Puig, Jose Contreras, and Livan and Orlando Hernandez, all of whom are Afro-Cuban and would have been barred from playing in the major leagues prior to Jackie Robinson breaking the color line in 1947.

The Sox first black player was Minnie Minoso, occasionally called the Cuban Comet and a native of Havana.

Being black adds yet another piece to the puzzle, according to Burgos.

"When they [the Afro-Cubans] interact with people in the United States, people may not see them as Latino on the first instance," Burgos said. "They might just see a black man they expect to speak English. So the element of cultural adjustment becomes a little bit more complicated and complex for them finding a community and a place where they feel at home."

Chances are we will see many more Cubans seeking asylum with hopes of becoming major league stars. Puig is the most recent, he of the .400-plus batting average for the Dodgers. Cuba is a hotbed of baseball talent.

"They have a very organized system of player development," says Burgos. "From the time kids are 10 to 12 years old, they start playing in the sports academies that they have. It's run by the government, the National Institute for Sport and Education. Those kids play baseball half the day, then they spend the rest of the day in the classroom.

"They have this very organized system of development from the regional level up to national teams. When a prize player like Alexei Ramirez leaves, someone else will take his place on the roster. That's why they are able to compete at a very high level in these tournaments played around the globe."

But it is a big deal for the individual who elects to leave behind his family and culture for a chance to play in this country. Burgos mentioned the Mexican-American sportswriter Jorge Arangure who wrote a poignant piece in 2009 for ESPN The Magazine about the defection of Reds' closer Aroldis Chapman, whose fastball was clocked at 105 mph earlier this season.

Chapman, 21 at the time, was playing for a Cuban national team in the Netherlands in 2009 when he walked out of his Rotterdam hotel and defected. Once he attained Andorran citizenship, Cincinnati signed him for six years at more than $30 million. He left behind his parents, two sisters, and a girlfriend who has just given birth to his daughter, whom he's never seen.

Hearing about the lives these players leave behind makes a misplayed ground ball and another Sox loss in a season that's going nowhere seem inconsequential. But this is what they came here for - it's not inconsequential to them no matter the broader perspective.

"Ramirez sat for a long time staring into his locker. He declined comment through a translator," wrote Robert Falkoff on after Sunday's loss.

My guess is that Alexei wasn't thinking about how nice it would be to go home to his family. No, he was having trouble letting go of yet another crucial miscue in a season that has been filled with them.


Roger Wallenstein is our man on the White Sox. He welcomes your comments.

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