Block out the noise: Starlin Castro gives credit to Aramis Ramirez

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Block out the noise: Starlin Castro gives credit to Aramis Ramirez

PHOENIX Aramis Ramirez wasnt the first guy in the clubhouse and the last to leave the ballpark. He liked to plug in his headphones and spend time on his laptop.

Ramirez has a reserved personality and isnt a natural leader, but he could make people listen, especially the Latin players. That usually got lost in all the talk about his body language, but Starlin Castro picked it up right away, a few pieces to the education of an All-Star shortstop.

As Castro recalled: He told me: If you do something wrong, the fans will say something to you. Dont worry about it. Take that out of your mind and play baseball.'

Its OK, dont worry, that happened to me a lot of times, too.

The Cubs returned to Maryvale Baseball Park on Saturday, one year after Ramirez had to be separated from Carlos Silva in the dugout. Ramirez, Castro and Koyie Hill had each committed errors in a six-run first inning and it almost exploded into a fight. It became a billboard for dysfunction, but Ramirez showed some fire and stuck up for Castro.

It was an incident thats not supposed to happen, Ramirez said. (Silva said) something hes not supposed to. Nobody wants to make errors. I stood up and it wasnt pretty.

The Cubs have moved on and Ramirez is wearing a Milwaukee Brewers uniform. Dale Sveum a former Brewers player, coach and interim manager is running the show now, trying to get Castro to attack the ball and be on alert every play.

Castro drilled his first home run this spring during a 6-1 victory over the Brewers, but says that his individual goals revolve around getting better on defense.

Hes got another year under his belt, Ramirez said. Hes young, but hes real talented and hes smart. The only downside for him last year was his focus. Thats why he made a lot of errors, but hes going to get better.

Castros got all the tools. Hes got good hands, good feet. He moves well. Hes just got to concentrate a little better and hes going to get the job done. Offensively, hes one of the best hitters right now. He got 200 hits at (age) 21, so hes only going to get better. Defensively, hes got to work a bit.

Ramirez got to the big leagues one month before his 20th birthday, and believes he knows what it takes at this level. Thats why Ramirez told Darwin Barney in 2010 to work out hard in the offseason, because he could take the job at second base. Barney had never really heard that before from anyone else in the organization.

Yes, teammates didnt always appreciate the personal considerations that Ramirez received. He had trouble staying healthy and in the lineup, but was still among the most productive third basemen in the game.

Remember that Castro committed three errors and got booed during his Wrigley Field debut in 2010 and could have wilted. The talking heads debated whether he should be moved to another position, and Bobby Valentine wouldnt let his mental lapses go during an ESPN Sunday night broadcast last season.

Castro led the league with 29 errors last year, but it was in Chicago and not Double-A Tennessee. Ramirez tried to help Castro through his first two seasons, and maybe now some of it will sink in.

If you ask him, hed be the first one to tell you, Ramirez said. Yeah, we talked a lot. Thats why I say hes smart, because he asks a lot of questions. He wants to get better. He works hard. Theres a lot of stuff that the fans or the media dont see. Hes out there taking groundballs early almost every day. Im sure its going to pay off.

Its too late to rewrite the legacy of Ramirez on the North Side, but national perceptions might change if he wins a World Series in Milwaukee. And if Castro really does mature into a franchise player, Ramirez will have to get a little bit of credit.

Its tough to see your teammate play for another team, Castro said. Thats baseball. You dont know where youre going to finish your career. Hes a good guy. I learned from him a lot.

If you did something wrong or you did something good, hed tell you.

Confident Blackhawks youth ready to take the next step

Confident Blackhawks youth ready to take the next step

Ryan Hartman likes how he feels approaching this season, his sophomore stint with the Blackhawks. Scoring 19 goals, earning the trust of the coaches and gaining a good deal of responsibility in your rookie season will do that for you.

“It’s feeling like I should be there,” he said on Friday. “Maybe sometimes when you first get called up, you’re like, ‘Wow, I’m here,’ and you’re still thinking about that. Now it’s just feeling like hockey for me and how it’s always supposed to be.”

More confidence is there for Hartman, as well as a few other young Blackhawks players who cut their teeth last year. That’s good, because those guys, having shown what they can do, will likely get more responsibility this season.

That includes Nick Schmaltz, who will either get first crack at the second-line left wing vacancy or help the Blackhawks at center, which he says is his preference “but I’m fine with wing, too.” Schmaltz struggled to start last season but following a few games in Rockford, he returned a more confident player. He played well with Jonathan Toews and Richard Panik on the top line and filled in for Artem Anisimov later in the season.

“I was nervous coming in. I didn’t know if it was going to work and I gained confidence game by game and felt more comfortable,” he said. “I was making the plays I’m used to making.”

When Tanner Kero was recalled right before Christmas, it was because of Anisimov’s injury. But outside of a bye-week return to Rockford Kero turned that call-up into a full-time gig, giving the Blackhawks another bottom-six center option and earning himself a two-year contract. With Marcus Kruger and Dennis Rasmussen no longer here, Kero is expected to have that third- or fourth-line center role; thanks to experience gained last season, Kero’s more comfortable now.

“It was great,” he said. “Going in, you’re not sure. It’s day-to-day to start and you just want to prove yourself and get those opportunities, get trust and more ice time. As the season went on I got more confident, trusted my game more. Going into the season I’m going in with a lot more confidence.”

John Hayden felt fairly comfortable when he joined the Blackhawks last spring thanks to his senior season at Yale – “I needed that fourth year as a player and a person,” he said. Still, getting in some NHL games, getting a feel for the pro level and gaining familiarity with the Blackhawks will benefit him in September.

“It’s important considering it’s my first training camp and I’ll know a lot of the guys, which helps a ton. From an on-ice standpoint, I have that experience,” he said. “I’ve spent a ton of time addressing areas in need of improvement all in all I’m excited for training camp.”

But Hartman and others don’t see it as weight on their shoulders.

“I don’t think there’s pressure,” Hartman said. “When you look back you want to see improvements every year, you want to see yourself becoming a better hockey player. That’s something I want to do, I want to be able to look back and say I had a good career my first year but each year I got progressively better. That’s where my mindset is at.”

There’s more opportunity for the young players but Hayden says that’s true of everyone.

“I don’t really analyze opportunity. Regardless of the team, it’s going to be competitive,” he said. “Every summer you have to have a hard-working mindset and do what you can to show up in the fall in the best shape of your life.”

The Blackhawks’ young players have all set the bar at a certain level and will be expected to improve. It takes confidence to take that next step. Thanks to experience gained last season, they’re feeling good about taking it.

White Sox: The big-picture reasoning behind Rick Renteria and bunting

White Sox: The big-picture reasoning behind Rick Renteria and bunting

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Rick Renteria wants his players to be able to execute a bunt regardless of how much it drives White Sox fans crazy.

The White Sox manager wants to win now, but he’s also looking at the big picture.

Even though he knows how much a team’s chance of scoring decreases when an out is surrendered via the sacrifice bunt, Renteria is using the opportunity to see what abilities his players have. He wants to know what they can do.

Renteria is well aware that his calls for sacrifice bunts aren’t popular with fans (see: Twitter’s reaction to Yoan Moncada’s bunt tries on Saturday). But he also thinks there’s no better time to work on bunts than during a game. So as much fury as it brings, Renteria will continue to ask his players to work on a skill he’d like to see remain part of the game.

“Listen, (Moncada’s) a plus runner,” Renteria said. “He’s going to be able to use that as a part of his arsenal. I see a whole lot of home run hitters dropping bunts right now against shifts and things of that nature. I don’t think that art should disappear. We’re in the era of quote-unquote the long ball, but like I’ve said, sometimes you need to do certain things to kind of put your club in a better position.

"If you think that’s one of the things that’s available to you, you use it. I don’t think you’re necessarily giving it up in terms of an out, because when you’ve got guys who can run anything is possible. You end up loading the bases possibly. I know our guys are very cognizant of just playing the game. If they feel like they want to get two guys in scoring position on their own, they do it. It’s not something I want to take away from them. I think they read the defenses. Sometimes we talk about other ways of dealing with the defenses, but I think they’re understanding that we’re going to want that to be a part of all their abilities.”

As for the team’s execution, Renteria isn’t satisfied with the results. That means you can expect to see more bunts the rest of the way.

“It’s still a work-in-progress,” Renteria said. “I think that would be a falsehood to say we’re at the point where I go, I’m very, very happy with the way we lay down bunts. It’s still a work-in-progress, something that we’re going to continue to emphasize. Something we’re going to continue to work on. And then again, the only opportunities you get in real time are games, and that’s when you need ‘em.”