Every morning since he was a kid, J.P. Ramirez dragged himself out of bed and headed out to the batting cage, sleep in his eyes and bat in his hand. And every morning, he put the bat on his shoulder and took a deep breath. And he began to swing.


Over and over, hour after hour, ash met leather. Line drives seared through the morning dew as they tried to escape the confines of the cage.


And he wouldn’t stop.


Over time, the bones in his fingers warped, the result of them being perpetually clamped around his bat.


And he wouldn’t stop.


The skin on Ramirez’ hands calloused to the point of making them almost useless for anything other than swinging his bat.


And still he wouldn’t stop.


He can no longer flatten his hands without a debilitating pain shooting through his knuckles.


And yet he keeps on swinging.


Like a car odometer on a family trip, the swing count spirals upwards.


Two hundred swings. Three hundred. Four hundred.


By his 500th swing, Ramirez is drowning in sweat and comfortable that he had wrung every last ounce of strength from his muscles.


And with that, he would leave the cage and return to the world of a teenager, where school and tests and girls and food and cars occupy his time.


Until the next morning, that is, when he would once again grab his bat, enter the cage, and hit 500 balls as hard as his hurting hands would allow.


This unyielding approach to perfection is what got J.P. Ramirez noticed in his home town of New Braunfels, Texas. He wanted to be not just the best, but the very best baseball player to ever don a Canyon High School jersey.


And to do it, he had to be better than the Yankees’ Lance Berkman, an alum of Canyon High.


It wouldn’t be difficult. All it would take, he thought, was 500 swings a day.


Every day.


The local paper named him the best first-year player in the conference.


And he kept on swinging.


He was named all-state (a big accomplishment in Texas) in his sophomore, junior, and senior years. He was a Louisville Slugger All-American his senior season and a Baseball America second-team All-American.


Canyon coach Pete Garza, who has seen them all come and go since 1968, said recently that Ramirez was simply “..the best I’ve ever coached. As far as work ethic goes, he’s definitely at the top.”


Better than even Lance Berkman.


One hundred swings. Two hundred.


The batting cage is in his backyard, and every morning his neighbors awake to the sound of 500 balls cutting through the humid air, reverberating on their roofs and their garages and their cars.


“For some reason the neighbors don’t mind the noise,” Mary Ramirez said. “They understand it’s J.P. I guess they figured they’d need to get used to it.”


Three hundred swings. Four hundred.


His father began to take J.P. to the batting cages at the age of four, hitting 75 mph pitches with ease. By seven, he could get around on a 95 mph fastball.


Five hundred swings.


After his amazing high school career, he accepted a scholarship to play baseball for powerhouse Tulane University. Clubs were so sure that he was going to college that no one dared draft him and risk losing their pick.


Except the Washington Nationals, that is, who took Ramirez with their selection in the 15th round in last year’s amateur draft.


Normally, 15th rounders get bus fare and a package of Twinkies for signing their contract.


Ramirez got $1.2 million.


Negotiations remained very quiet between the Nationals and Ramirez until it became apparent that the team would not be able to sign top pick Aaron Crow in the waning minutes of the signing period. A quick phone call was all it took. Ramirez was a National.


By way of comparison, Drew Storen, one of the Nationals’ first-round picks in 2009, signed for just $300,000 more than Ramirez, who was drafted 14 rounds later.


One hundred swings. Two hundred.


Ramirez arrived in Viera, Florida late in 2008 and played in the nine remaining games for the Nationals’ Gulf Coast League rookie team, hitting .407 with a homer and 12 RBI, leading the team to within a game of the GCL Championship.


Three hundred swings. Four hundred.


In 2009, the 5’10”, 185 pound Ramirez played for the Vermont Lake Monsters, a Class-A team in the New York-Penn League, where he faced 20-something college pitchers almost every night.


In 72 games, Ramirez batted .264-4-39 with six steals. Over a full major league season, that would translate into .264-8-78 and a dozen steals, not very good by his standards. He had to get better.


And so he returned home to New Braunfels after the season and took a day or two off. Then one morning, he stood up, walked out to his backyard batting cage, let the handle of his bat slip into his curled fingers, placed it on his shoulder, and took a deep breath.


And he started to swing.


One hundred swings. Two hundred. Three hundred.


Ramirez was promoted to Class-A Hagerstown this season and is currently hitting .283-13-56 (.283-21-84 over a full season). He has improved in almost all areas of his game, both offensively and defensively.


He’ll almost certainly start next season with High-A Potomac and will likely end the season with Double-A Harrisburg.


He has taken a big step towards the major leagues.


And yet, just a few days after the end of this season, when the pain begins to subside in his hands and the inflammation lessens, J.P. Ramirez will wake up early, drag himself out of bed and walk down the stone path towards his batting cage.


He’ll take a deep breath and focus on the pitching machine. And the balls will start flying his way.


One hundred swings. Two hundred…


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