Noe Ramirez's journey out of Hazard

FULLERTON, Calif. -- Noe Ramirez ties his shoelaces, covers his head with the hood of his sweatshirt and starts his jog down a dark residential street. He glides through an alley and heads south on the usually buzzing, now-isolated Harbor Boulevard, past a thrift store and an Irish pub.

There's a certain serenity to everything at this time of night. He disappears into the shadows with one stride and re-emerges with another, eventually reaching the deserted Cal State Fullerton campus. The lights at Goodwin Field shine bright and Ramirez, now picking up the pace, enters through the left-field gate. No applause, no standing ovation, no walkout music.

Just Ramirez and his thoughts.

This scene isn't just the focus of a Titans promotional video, it's something Ramirez actually does.

"When I have a chance," Ramirez says, "I just throw on the iPod and start thinking. I get my mind right. I think about baseball, think about my family on those runs. Just everything that's important in my life."

Rafael Ramirez, Noe's father, raised his six children in an East Los Angeles neighborhood where street gangs fought over territories. Violence and delinquency were rampant. The odds were stacked against Noe from the beginning. Nearby Hazard Park, where father and son spent countless afternoons practicing, is known more for the notorious street gang that shares its name than it is for béisbol.

The diamond at Hazard was far from a perfect jewel. It was a play-at-your-own-risk type of place. On that pot-holed dirt, a simple ground ball turned into an infielder's worst nightmare without notice. The grass was rarely maintained. It resembled a gopher's playground more than a ball field. Father and son were always one quirky bounce away from cutting practice short. Sure, a bad hop off the chest left a nasty welt, but it also served as a lesson for Noe.

That's how he learned to play ball. Ramirez thought it was normal because he didn't know otherwise.

"One time," Rafael Ramirez recalls, "Noe said, 'Dad, when I grow up I want to show that there's people that can come out of here and do good things.' He always says he owes his success to his family, that we supported and mentored him. But really, above all, it was baseball that kept him off the streets."

Ramirez, a lanky, deceptive right-hander, will take the mound Friday in the Titans' NCAA regional opener at Goodwin Field. There will be applause and recognition. The draft-eligible junior brings with him a 29-6 career record, and all the coaches who passed on the skinny kid from Alhambra High know him now. A mediocre grade-point average limited Ramirez's options coming out of high school. Titans head coach Dave Serrano, seeing immense potential, an electric arm and a resemblance to former Fullerton standout and current Toronto Blue Jays ace Ricky Romero, took a chance.

"Noe is very near and dear to me," Serrano says. "A lot of players are, but Noe caught my eye and my heart early on in his career. By no means am I putting Noe down, but he doesn't come from much. He has made the most of what he has been given. As a coach, I pull for those type of guys. You just realize he's a special kid. His name, even though many people know, isn't as [recognized] as it should be. The young man has only won since he's been here."

Serrano realizes that Ramirez's days in Fullerton are numbered. That's the life of a college coach. The major league draft is less than a week away and Ramirez is among a strong group of pitchers expected to be early selections.

"He's going to be a fast mover up to the big leagues," Serrano says.

Ramirez admits that it's difficult not to press during a draft year. Scouts are constantly on a prospect's case and, Ramirez says, it's hard not to notice the radar guns behind home plate all rise simultaneously. The draft is always in the back of his mind.

"You've just got to manage it right," Ramirez says. "When I'm on the field, I'm thinking about that batter, that pitch. It's a mindset. It's all mental. You've just got to be strong."

Pitchers are usually graded on two points: makeup and stuff. Ramirez believes he has both, and it's hard to argue with him. He is 8-3 and touts a 1.74 ERA this season, holding the opposition to a .183 batting average.

Ramirez arrived in Fullerton as a two-pitch pitcher -- fastball and curveball -- before Serrano, known for teaching the changeup, scratched the deuce altogether. Serrano introduced him to Romero, a changeup-throwing lefty who led the Titans to the national championship in 2004, and a strong relationship was born.

Some guys, according to Serrano, end up with good off-speed pitches. Others end up with bad ones. Serrano believes Ramirez and Romero have great ones.

"Noe's change is called a change, but I think it's more than that," Serrano says. "It's a split at times. It tumbles, it cuts. I don't think at times he knows where it's going. So if he doesn't know where it's going, I know the hitters don't know where it's going. It's a pitch that misses many barrels, a pitch that will take him all the way to the top."

Said Titans first baseman and closer Nick Ramirez (no relation): "It's almost there, you try to swing and it's gone."

Noe doesn't want to come off as arrogant, but he hasn't seen a change like his. None drop like his. None move like his.

"It's been on another level since I talked to Ricky," Ramirez says. "It drops more, it dances, it does some things that I don't want it to do. Ricky came through huge."

Now, Ramirez hopes to take his patented pitch on the road with him, specifically to Omaha, Neb., for the College World Series. The Titans are in the postseason for the 20th straight year.

"Somewhere along the way," Serrano says, "he's going to have to win one, and possibly two, big games to help us get there. We know this is probably Noe's last opportunity to play in Omaha. You want it for the whole team but you want it for certain guys that have paid the price in this program. You'd like to see them go out on top. We'll jump on Noe's back when we give him the ball and hopefully he, along with his teammates, can help us get back there."

Ramirez always dreamed about big moments and bigger stadiums. He grew up in the projects, and like anyone growing up there, had aspirations to escape the struggle. The surroundings might have made those goals appear unrealistic at times, but he didn't waver. He weathered the tough hops, and stuck his chest out when things got rough.

"It's definitely an area where you don't want to stay your whole life," Ramirez says. "You want to move on from there, but at the same time, I feel like it was a great place to grow up. If kids have their head on straight, I feel like that's a great place to see things that will prepare you for life. It's easy to fall into the traps that the neighborhood offers, but you have to be disciplined enough to avoid them."

Ramirez, a full-blooded Mexican who spoke Spanish before he learned English, would jump at the chance to wear Mexico's red, white and green jersey if he was asked to play in the World Baseball Classic one day. His father would be ecstatic.

When it's all said and done, Ramirez wants to be known for his work in the community as much as his work on the mound. He and his siblings have had discussions about starting a charity that would benefit the Hazard Park projects.

"I want to be known for the right reasons," Ramirez says. "I've never had it easy. I understand what many people are going through. I just want to help out, honestly. That's what I want to be known for."

He's on his way. One late-night run at a time.

Blair Angulo is a frequent contributor to ESPNLosAngeles.com and is one of the authors of the UCLA report.