By John Philip Wyllie
Despite the fact that he began the week leading all National League catchers in appearances (58), hits (63) RBIs (32) home runs (7) and batting average (.292) the San Diego Padres’ Ramon Hern-andez was not even ranked in the top five in the early returns of the annual MLB All-Star balloting. Mike Piazza, a .258 hitter this season for the cellar dwelling Mets leads the pack. Piazza is trailing Hernandez in every major category except doubles (14 versus 12) and of course votes.
Even more absurd is the Cubs’ Nomar Garciaparra’s lead as the top vote getter at shortstop. He was hitting an embarrassing .157 when he injured his groin on April 20 and he hasn’t played a game since.
Hernandez, a 2003 American League All-Star, is not concerned with what has become little more than a popularity contest than a test of true ability. With fans in major markets like New York and Chicago able to stuff the ballot box by voting early and often, players in smaller markets like San Diego face an uphill climb.
“I really don’t care about the voting,” Hernandez said recently. “If I go, I’ll be happy about it. If I don’t, I’ll be happy too because I will have three days to spend with my son and my wife. So it doesn’t really bother me at all. I already went to one (All-Star Game). If I go, I go and if I don’t, I’ll get a three-day vacation.”
Hernandez cares much more about the team’s success than he does about any individual accolades he receives. He thinks last season was a turning point and that the confidence the Padres gained by their strong showing in 2004 has carried over to this season.
“Last year we gained a lot of confidence. Everything didn’t work out (at the end) the way we wanted it too, but I think we played pretty good baseball. Now, everybody knows a lot more. (In the off-season) we got a few guys in trades and through free agency and everybody knows their role. Everybody on this team knows we can beat anybody if we play good baseball.”
Fans outside of San Diego may not realize just how valuable Hernandez is to the Padres, but his teammates do.
“Ramon was an All-Star in Oakland and he’ll be an All-Star here for sure,” said pitcher Adam Eaton after he and Hernandez combined for a victory June 4 over the Cubs.
“He works hard, looks at (game) videotape endlessly and remembers the games he has caught in the past. I have faith in him to have some good ideas out there. He takes a lot of the thinking and the pressure off of my decision making. To a man, I know that everybody on this pitching staff enjoys throwing to him and that he shares a large part of our pitching staff’s success.”
Padres back-up catcher Miguel Ojeda has had plenty of time to study Hernandez. The Padres durable catcher has been able to stay healthy and rarely asks for a break. Ojeda believes that Hernandez is one of the best in the business.
“Ramon is very special player. He is very strong and he plays almost every day. He’s a tough player that doesn’t give up even when he is playing in pain. He is also very smart and knows how to call a game and handle pitchers. He’s a complete player, he’s smart, he can hit, he can throw and he draws a lot of walks. It is tough for me to be angry (about his own lack of playing time) when a guy is having the type of year that he is having.”
If Hernandez is going to be rewarded with a second trip to the All-Star Game, it is going to take a concerted effort from Padres fans casting their votes both at the stadium and by those logging on to MLB.com.