Cool at the corner

Aramis Ramirez has three 30-home run seasons and four 100-RBI seasons in seven-plus years with the Cubs. AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar

Remember when Aramis Ramirez didn't hustle? Remember when anyone cared?

"Eleven years later, people are still saying that, and I'm still here," Ramirez said with a smile in Mesa recently. "They say that since I make it to the big leagues, so I don't worry about that. I think I've had a good career."

Now it's possible that Cubs fans stopped caring about Ramirez's hustle or lack thereof because they were more concerned with his postseason offensive production. Or lack thereof.

Ramirez is equally unruffled about that.

"That's why we have to get far in the playoffs," he said. "If we get beat in the first round, you really don't have a chance to do what you're capable of doing. If you get 10 at-bats, that's only two or three games. Two, three bad games can happen to anybody."

That's one way of looking at it. Of course, it would be nice if one of the team leaders took a little more ownership of a 2-for-23 performance, which included seven strikeouts, two walks and an error, in 2007 and 2008.

"Everyone's responsible, not only myself, because we haven't done anything," he said. "We haven't pitched, we haven't hit. That's why we got swept both times."

All things considered, that calm and composed thing is probably why Ramirez is the player he is, one of the top two third basemen in franchise history and the most valuable Cubs hitter over the past six seasons.

And after the mess that was last season, just making the playoffs would look awfully good.

With three potential years left on his contract, Ramirez is on general manager Jim Hendry's radar with free-agents-to-be Derrek Lee and Ted Lilly.

"We've never lost a free agent that didn't want to leave here since I've been the GM," Hendry said. "Let it play out a little bit. There will be a lot of dialogue during the year between the Ricketts family and myself. We're not going to get caught up in it. We have enough to worry about now, winning games. We're confident [we'll keep] the guys we want to keep."

Ramirez, who turns 32 on June 25, has the option of voiding his contract after this season or remaining with the Cubs and earning $14.6 million in 2011. He was in a similar situation going into the 2006 season and decided to void his contract, which initially left three years and $33.5 million on the table. A month later, he signed a five-year, $75 million contract considered below market value at the time to remain with the Cubs.

"They know I like it here, that's no secret," Ramirez said of the Cubs. "Of course I want to stay here. [Letting them know that] doesn't matter to me. I've been here for seven-plus years … we'll see what's going to happen. My family is comfortable here, I'm comfortable here. But you can't control that. You never know what's going through their mind, what their plans are, if they have a young kid coming up through the system. I can't control that."

But what he could control, he has.

Ramirez was second on the Cubs with 65 RBIs in 2009 despite spending nearly two months on the disabled list. He was hitting .364 with four home runs and 16 RBIs (including five RBIs in the Cubs' season-opening series against Houston) in an 18-game stretch in 2009 when he dislocated his left shoulder after diving for a ground ball on May 8. And when he returned, there was barely a hiccup. He hit safely in 28 of his final 20 home games (.414 average) and finished the year at .317 with 15 homers in 82 games.

Clearly, Ramirez's absence was more damaging than any Milton Bradley meltdown. And when he injured his right triceps and didn't play in a game for 10 days this spring, you know Lou Piniella worried more than he let on.
It helped that in his first game back, Ramirez went 2-for-3, singling in his first two at-bats and driving in a run. But as usual, he wasn't panicking.

"I've been here long enough to know what I have to do during the season," he said. "And that's the key, just be ready to play. You don't have to hit .350 in spring training to prove you're ready. I don't even know how many at-bats I've got. I just try to be ready. My body will tell me when I'm ready to play. It's a long season."

And bad stretches are unlikely to faze the player Piniella recently called his most mentally strong at the plate.

"You go through a lot when you're young," Ramirez said. "When you're going 0-for-10, 0-for-20, you think you can't hit anymore. As a veteran player, you know that's not going to happen. You just have to get out of it as quick as you can.

"I was always able to hit, but with time, you get smarter, you have better plans. You have a better idea of what they're trying to do to you in different situations."

It's that same level-headedness that allows him to explain calmly why Cubs fans should believe this season will be better than the last.

"We won 83 ballgames, and I only played in 82 games, [Alfonso Soriano] only played [117], [Geovany] Soto [102]. It was a disappointing year for us," Ramirez said. "But we have a good team. We have almost the same team we had when we won 97 ballgames two years ago.

"Last year it didn't work. A lot of guys didn't have their best years, including myself. But we have the same group of guys, the same starting pitchers -- [Carlos] Zambrano, [Ryan] Dempster, [Ted] Lilly. We have Soriano, D-Lee, Soto. We've just got to be healthy …"

Ramirez won't compare himself to Ron Santo, but if he's not the best third baseman in franchise history, then he's definitely second, filling a conspicuous void when he joined the club midway through the 2003 season.

But along with four seasons of 30 or more home runs and 100 or more RBIs, there have also been long stays on the disabled list. And he cops to the occasional lapses in the hustle department. Ramirez might not be particularly revealing, but he is not in denial. He just doesn't see it as a negative, and in the big picture, we shouldn't either.

"I can hit .330, but if I don't run one ground ball out, what's going to be in the paper the next day?" he said. "But the fans are great, and I don't think they follow that stuff. I think they just want to win."

So does he.

"It's an honor [to be compared to Santo] but that's not my goal," he said. "I have a job to do, and I get paid pretty good money to do that. I show up and do my best every day until this franchise wins a championship. That's the bottom line. That's what we're all here for."

Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.