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Year removed from tragedy, Alexei eyes improvement

White Sox shortstop focuses on baseball after father-in-law's murder in spring of '13

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GLENDALE, Ariz. -- The loss of Alexei Ramirez's father-in-law last Spring Training was far more painful and far more real than the sum total of the 99 White Sox setbacks during the course of a dreadful 2013 season.

And when the 2014 White Sox season begins on March 31, hope once again will spring eternal. Last year's shortcomings can be quickly washed away, even with the White Sox not exactly considered a favorite in the American League Central.

Ramirez's loss can never be replaced. The feeling of extreme sorrow has been dealt with, but lingers forever.

As Ramirez was preparing for his sixth season with the White Sox, Federico Poquelin was shot to death outside of his home in the Dominican Republic. Ramirez's priorities immediately shifted to his family, and dealing with this heartbreak helps explain a subpar 2013 campaign based on Ramirez's lofty standards.

"You know, it's different and it's hard to say. When someone dies, you do your best to work through a situation and to grieve in your own special way," Ramirez told MLB.com through translator and White Sox director of public relations Lou Hernandez. "But when someone is killed, and still to this day they haven't found a killer, there's a certain pain and suffering inside that is hard to get over.

"It was a tough season, a really tough season. Having been through some personal things that I went through, having to work through that, and now this offseason I've tried my hardest to be prepared and to have the best season I can."

At 32 years old, Ramirez stands as one of the elder statesmen on this reshaped version of the White Sox. He holds great value as one of the AL's most complete shortstops, but with young middle infielders -- such as Marcus Semien, Carlos Sanchez and Micah Johnson -- on the rise, the man playing in the second year of a four-year, $32.5 million contract extension holds equal value as a potential trade chip.

People might argue for a complete talent analysis, especially after Ramirez committed a career-worst 22 errors in 2013. A number of those miscues came on routine plays Ramirez made flawlessly thousands of times before.

The necessary defensive focus became hard to maintain when his real-life focus stayed understandably with his wife, Mildred, and their three kids.

"He had a lot on his plate going on, family-wise, off the field," said White Sox manager Robin Ventura. "Some people have tougher years defensively. You can't have any lapses to be really good at it for the entire year. That probably led to some of it, and ... he's just too talented to see that happen again."

"When you play in the big leagues for 162 games, the grind of it, you have to be mentally prepared every single day," said White Sox third-base coach Joe McEwing, who also works with the infielders. "Dealing with stuff off the field, it's tough. Until you go through it, you don't know what the individual is feeling."

To completely write off Ramirez's 2013 campaign would be inaccurate and unfair. He topped all shortstops with 181 hits and ranked second in doubles with a career-high 39. Ramirez stood second among AL shortstops with another career-high, 30 stolen bases.

Ramirez played in 158 games for a third straight season after playing 156 in 2010. Ramirez is No. 1 among AL shortstops in RBIs (328), games played (775), hits (817) and total bases (1,185) since '09.

His goal to become an even better overall player pushed Ramirez toward offseason preparation with former Major League shortstop Rey Ordonez in Miami. They "worked on the routine stuff, the A's, B's and C's of baseball," according to Ramirez.

"I've picked up and gotten better," Ramirez added.

Those errors and those tough White Sox losses stand as a distant memory. The same will never be said about Poquelin. Ramirez left the team for a short time last Spring Training when it happened and tried his best to help his family as they all grieved over the senseless loss of someone truly beloved.

"Primarily because he was a man who was so easy to love and be close to," Ramirez said. "A man who was incredibly great to my kids, and they still have memories and they still talk about him. So it was hard for everyone in my family.

"He treated me like I was his son and there's nothing that is ever going -- I'm never going to forget that, the relationship we had and the connection that we had. He treated me like I was his own."

Pundits and fans alike criticize players who don't live up to their lofty standards. These are highly paid athletes expected to consistently perform at a high level.

They also are husbands, fathers, sons, grandsons, brothers and friends. It's easy to forget off-the-field issues can play a major role on the field.

Psychologically, Ramirez and his family are in a better place than a year ago by his own assessment. His familiar and infectious energy seemed to come back with him to Arizona, as he begins work with this new young core.

"Just being around so much energy, new faces, young faces," Ramirez said. "I just have the motivation, and it's exciting coming in again and it doesn't feel like it has been however many seasons. It feels like my first time."

Scott Merkin is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Merkís Works, and follow him on Twitter @scottmerkin. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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