By Bob Elliott
Jorge Bahaía admits he thinks “24/7” about his textile mill factory in El Salvador.
Or basically the same amount of time he worries and works on “our foundation.”
His foundation is FESA (La Fundación Educando a un Salvadoreño) and is based in the capital of El Salvador in San Salvador.
“The important thing is to create a balance between the two,” said Bahaía, 49 “At the end of the day you don’t want to be the richest man in the cemetery.”
This is a baseball tale.
It’s not a tall one, but it’s a good one about people respected in the baseball world and how their poster boy made the majors and recently finished his first full year in the majors, earning $522,800 US.
FESA’s beacon, it’s poster child is right-hander Erasmo Ramírez, who pitched for the Tampa Bay Rays this season, after being signed by the Seattle Mariners in 2007 and appearing in 47 games (35 starts) with the Mariners from 2012-14.
Ramirez was not all-state, all-conference or all-star.
He is not 6-foot-3, 190 pounds with a Jim Palmer Hall of Fame frame.
As Montreal Expos manager Felipe Alou used to say “it’s not the size of the man ... it’s the size of the heart inside the man.”
Listed at 5-foot-11, the 200 pounder has the heart of a Clydesdale, a major-league ticker. Ramirez made the third most starts for Tampa Bay, behind Chris Archer and Jake Odorozzi. He appeared in 34 games, making 27 starts, one less than Ororozzi going 11-6 with a 3.75 ERA walking 40 and striking out 126 in 163 1/3 innings.
His best outing was Sept. 14 when he carried no-hit bid into the eighth. He allowed a lead-off single to Carlos Beltran pitching 7 2/3 scoreless in his 98-pitch outing (62 strikes). The Yankees won 4-1 thanks to four runs in the top of the ninth.
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Everyone has a road to get where they are going.
Ramirez’s story began 13 years ago -- not in El Salvador -- but in his home town of Rivas, Nicaragua.
Bahaía received a call from Rene Gayo international scouting director of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Gayo had a friend in Nicaragua who wanted to help a track and field athlete and he liked the FESA program.
With only a certain number of spaces Bahaía asked Herman Espinosa to go to Nicaragua to see if this young player “had the tools.”
“He had a loose arm, he was small and skinny but we gave him a scholarship,” said Bahaía.
The young man was Erasmo Jose (Olivera) Ramírez.
“There were not a lot of opportunities for me in Nicaragua,” said Ramirez, standing in the home clubhouse at Tropicana Field the final weekend of the season. He had pitched 5 1/3 innings, allowing four runs in Game 160 against the Blue Jays, who rallied against the Rays bullpen with four runs in the sixth and three in the seventh to beat the Rays 8-4 as Mark Buehrle won.
“So, when they asked me to train at their academy I said yes.”
He made the 11-hour trip from home and was told the “truth” by FESA people, who said “you’re small, but you have talent.”
“The first month I wanted to go home,” said Ramirez, “but I decided if I wanted to make the major leagues I had to make major sacrifices.”
Bahaía’s father saw Jackie Robinson play. As a result both father and son are Los Angeles Dodgers fans. Yet, allegiances go out the window when it comes to getting Ramirez placed after he graduated from “our high school.”
“Many teams saw him pitch, but they said he was too small,” Bahaía said
Bahaía arranged to take his FESA team to a tournament on the island of St. Martin. Bob Engle, then director of Latin America for the Seattle Mariners, promised he would be there.
Ramirez dominated the opposition from the Dominican Republic and Panama. Engle signed him.
How many teams saw Ramirez?
“All 30,” said Ramirez. “If it’s not for Bob Engle I’m not standing here.
If not for Engle a lot of players might not be standing in major-league clubhouses. He drafted and signed Cy Young award winners Roy Halladay, Pat Hentgen and Chris Carpenter with the Toronto Blue Jays and also signed Felix Hernandez with the Mariners.
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FESA (Foundation to Educate a Salvadorian), started 20 years ago bases a pyramid idea.
There are 5,500 public schools in El Salvador and Bahaía says only 500 have physical education teachers and a small amount have athletic facilities.
“So we coordinate with public schools who don’t have fields, we can take players to places not being used ... like a company soccer field in the mornings,” said Bahaía.
There was only a baseball program in 1995.
In 2000 the foundation incorporated and six years later added soccer, boarding students from outside the city. The most talented players are recruited for the afternoon program.
The idea was to start with baseball, soccer, volleyball, track and field. By 2013, FESA had an alliance for the specialized high school for athletes (age 12-to-18) training in 20 different sports.
The elite go on to play for El Salvador’s national team.
When student-athletes are on the road competing at an international event they can sit in a hotel’s business centre and through Google Classroom, an educational app, which enables them to ask teachers questions.
Besides learning their athletic skills, every week Bahaía’s classes have a conference ranging on topics from: a hunger to win, doping, watching out for drugs, handling social media, how to be a good citizen and how to talk to the media.
“We like to prepare them the athlete not only to compete but be able to be a good role model as well. The kids will ask ‘where am going?’ We like to help.”
And then, the school reviews things with students each month.
“We have been blessed,” said Bahaía, “I have a good education. We think it is important to help, but to create opportunities for others. This is not a free lunch. We tell the kids about that line ‘the harder I work, the luckier I get.
It is “very satisfying” each January for a banquet when Ramirez visits El Salvador to tell kids that they should not join gangs, not to use drugs.
“When people see that someone little and small like Erasmo, we are able to inject hope and enthusiasm -- that if he did it, if he made it, they can do it too.”
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Bahaía knows the cruel numbers: “something like only 2% of people signed make it.”
He’s had soccer players go on, 11 baseball players sign and others gain scholarships.
Ramirez remains a beacon for El Salvador, a small country, like the pitcher.
But as Alou would say it’s not the size of the country, it’s the size of heart beat within.
And Bahaía makes sure it is strong ... as he looks for the next Erasmo Ramirez.