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Ramirez declines to talk about cockfighting in native Dominican Republic

MESA, Ariz. -- Aramis Ramirez arrived at spring training Tuesday and gladly talked about last season when he led the Cubs in RBIs and helped them win the NL Central.

But the team's star third baseman had little to say on a report about his passion for cockfighting in his native Dominican Republic.

Ramirez batted .310, hit 26 homers and led the Cubs with 101 RBIs but struggled in the first round of the playoffs. He was 0-for-12 as Chicago was swept by the Arizona Diamondbacks.

"You know, it happens," he said. "They were hot and played good. That wasn't the reason we lost. We didn't play well."

The New York Times reported this month that Ramirez was featured in an issue of a Dominican cockfighting magazine, En La Traba, and is pictured with some roosters.

"When I'm in the Dominican Republic, I'm dedicated entirely to them," he was quoted as saying.

On Tuesday, Ramirez declined to address the subject. Cockfighting is legal and popular in his country.

"I'm not going to talk about that. That's personal, that's a different culture down there. I'm from [the] Dominican, so let's talk about baseball," he said.

In the wake of Michael Vick's recent dogfighting case, Metspitcher Pedro Martinez and Hall of Famer Juan Marichal drew criticism from animals rights groups recently after they were seen on a video at a cockfight.

Ramirez played in 132 games last season and was slowed at times by a sore left knee that landed him on the disabled list in June. He also had some wrist problems.

That's why the Cubs plan to have Ramirez take it at an easy pace during spring training with a specialized program that will include several other players.

Manager Lou Piniella said he and his staff would also devise a plan to make sure Ramirez, Alfonso Soriano -- who also had leg problems last season -- and Derrek Lee are given days off to rest this season.

"Ramirez isn't going to steal 40 bases because he does a few more drills here in the spring," Piniella said.

Ramirez sometimes has to go easy when his legs bother him and his critics have at times questioned his hustle.

Nothing could be further from the truth, says teammate Ryan Theriot.

"I knew he was hurting and he never said anything and he's not going to say anything. He's not somebody who's going to make excuses," Theriot said.

"He's just not that type of person. ... He plays hurt and he plays with nicks."

Ramirez said he will take days off when needed to rest because his health is one of his major concerns headed into the season. Acquired from the Pirates in a 2003 trade, Ramirez now has five seasons of at least 100 RBIs, starting in 2001 with the Pittsburgh. At age 29, he in the second year of a five-year, $75 million deal.

"I just want to be healthy," Ramirez said. "If I'm healthy, everything will take care of itself. The numbers will be there and we're going to win some games."

Notes
Piniella said his message to the team before the first workout was simple. "I told them we had a good team and use spring training as a springboard to get in good shape so you can get off to a good start." ... Piniella said the only starting job still undetermined among everyday players is center field, where Felix Pie and Sam Fuld are competing. There's a closer's role to be determined between Bob Howry, Kerry Wood and Carlos Marmol, but probably just one spot in the rotation. Reacquired veteran Jon Lieber is the favorite to be the No. 3 starter in the rotation. He'd follow Carlos Zambrano and Ted Lilly and pitch before Rich Hill. That would leave the fifth spot where converted closer Ryan Dempster, Jason Marquis and Sean Marshall are the candidates.