CLEARWATER, Fla. - The dream appeared to be over at 17 for Edubray Ramos, the righthander with the searing fastball who could be the closer of the future for the Phillies. He had signed with the St. Louis Cardinals for roughly $15,000 in 2010 and been introduced to professional baseball in the Venezuelan summer league.
It did not go well for the young man from Carabobo, a state on the northern coast of Venezuela.
Ramos made 10 relief appearances in his introductory season and allowed runs in eight of them. An unsightly 9.53 ERA was placed next to his name, and that was not the worst of it. Not even close.
Shortly after the brief summer season ended, the Cardinals pulled out of the league, and only a chosen few from Ramos' Venezuelan team were moved to the team's academy in the Dominican Republic. Suddenly, at 17, Edubray Ramos needed a job.
"It wasn't just me," Ramos said through a translator before a recent spring training workout. "It was a bunch of guys that got left out because of that situation. It was difficult at first. This is the sport I love. It is my passion, so it had almost been like a tease. I had only played for a couple of months, and then it was gone."
And it was not gone just for a minute.
Ramos did not pitch professionally in 2011 or 2012.
"I worked at a contracting company," he said. "I was cleaning floors. I had to do that. I had to help out my mom, and it was obviously a way to stay out of trouble because things are tough in my country, and it would have been easy to get away from doing the right things. My motivation was to stay clean, help out my mom, and hope that another opportunity would come along."
His motivator was Orlis Mendez, a bird-dog scout and agent who briefly pitched in rookie ball for a Cardinals affiliate in 2003.
"He was the guy who kept my spirits up," Ramos said. "I stayed in shape for those two years with his help. He motivated me and told me there would be another opportunity at some point."
Ramos said Mendez knew he had the special kind of arm needed to climb through the multiple levels of minor-league baseball, a grueling road that is even more difficult for Latin players to navigate.
"We met in a park where I was throwing," Ramos said. "He came up to me and said, 'Look, I know who you are, and I've seen you throw before. Let me take you under my wing and eventually there will be another shot.'
"More than anything, he kept me mentally strong. I knew I had all the physical tools, but Orlis was the guy who kept telling me I have what it takes."
What Ramos needed most, however, was a second chance, and that finally arrived in 2013. Carlos Salas, who was then in charge of Venezuela scouting for the Phillies, had played with Mendez in the Cardinals system, and he agreed to invite Ramos to a group tryout.
"When he got released by the Cardinals, he wasn't throwing that good," Salas said. "He had to clean up his mechanics. He was throwing 87, 88, maybe 90 [mph] sometimes. But he cleaned up his mechanics, and I was the first scout that got a chance to see him."
That encounter was not purely luck. As more and more teams pulled out of Venezuela because of the declining political climate, the Phillies remained. They were one of only five teams there in 2013 and one of only four last season. The league folded after last season because it was down to three teams. The Phillies will continue to operate an academy in Venezuela, but their young players from that country will now help form a second team in the Dominican Republic summer league.
Salas was pleasantly surprised by what he saw from Ramos in that 2013 tryout.
"He was the last pitcher to try out that afternoon," Salas recalled. "It was really dark by the time he started throwing."
The wait was worth it for Ramos and the Phillies. Salas called Sal Agostinelli and told the Phillies' international scouting supervisor that he wanted to sign Ramos.
"I just remember the kid being ecstatic," Agostinelli said. "He was very thankful. I think Carlos was a little worried that I would not want to sign him because generally you don't bring in released players, but he threw OK, and Carlos really liked him. What impressed me was that he had a really good curveball, and that gave him two good pitches. At the very least, I thought maybe he could be a big-league reliever."
While working with Les Straker, the Phillies pitching coach in Venezuela, Ramos appeared in 14 games in the Venezuelan summer league in 2013. The numbers still were not great - 2-3 with a 5.08 ERA in 14 games - but when he returned for the 2014 season it was apparent that his ability had blossomed to the point where he needed to go elsewhere.
"We got a call from the Venezuelan academy, and they said if we needed an arm, they had a guy that was better than that league," Phillies scouting director Joe Jordan said. "They said we needed to get him to the United States."
Upon Ramos' arrival, Carlos Arroyo, who was the Phillies' minor-league pitching coordinator at the time, was immediately impressed.
"I kept looking at the reports, and I'd see this guy named Ramos, and it would say he's throwing 93, 94," Arroyo said. "I was like, 'Wow.' So we brought him and started him in the Gulf Coast League, and right away it was 93 and 94 with a hook. Immediately he had the arm.
"And then we started him last year in Clearwater in the back end of the bullpen, and here he comes. Swing and miss, breaking ball, fastball coming at you. This kid is a man, and he opened everybody's eyes. He's got weapons."
Arroyo also learned something else about Ramos and why he felt so strongly about taking care of his mother, Daneliz Garcez.
"Last year I saw him one day sitting by himself, and I asked him what was going on," Arroyo said.
"He told me his mother was dealing with diabetes, and he had no money to send home. I told him, 'You want to help your mom? Get to the big leagues, and you're going to help her a lot.' "
Ramos, 23, is on the doorstep of the big leagues now. He dominated at high-A Clearwater last season and finished the year at double-A Reading, where he admitted the hitters were better and the strike zone was smaller. He will probably be back at Reading to start this season, but he has enough confidence and support now that he believes a trip to Philadelphia is in his near future.
"I feel I can be a major-league closer," he said. "I'm getting close. I'm closer than anyone thinks."
Which is pretty amazing when you consider how far away he was four years ago.