By DION MARTORANO
Journal & Topics Sports
There is something special about helping the next generation of athletes.
Chicago Bandits veteran Abby Ramirez knows what it’s like to look up to pro players and dream of being one of them one day.
Ramirez was a star at Trinity High School in River Forest, where she graduated in 2013. She was an All-State selection as a senior after batting .596 with 20 HR, 48 RBI, 60 runs, 12 doubles, 5 triples and 20 stolen bases. Ramirez was the 2013 Gatorade Illinois Softball Player of the Year winner and was an MaxPreps All-American (2013), before heading to the University of Michigan.
At Michigan, Ramirez started all 242 games she played from 2014-17, posting an impressive .349 batting average with 220 hits, 2 HR, 63 RBI, 180 runs, 19 doubles, 6 triples and 35 stolen bases. She only struck out 51 times in 630 at-bats. Ramirez also left with a strong .958 fielding percentage. She graduated as a two-time All-Big Ten second team selection (shortstop, 2015, 2017) and was a three-time academic All-Big Ten selection (2015, 2016, 2017).
Ramirez has used her smarts and athletic skills to help the next generation ever since joining the Bandits, who play in Rosemont, in 2017.
“She is a hometown hero who gives back to the game every day by working with the youth in the Chicagoland area year round,” Bandits assistant general manager Jourdan Skirha said in February. “Kids in her presence feel how dedicated she is to this game and they feel that emotional connection to her that we want all of our players to emulate.”
Ramirez served as a coach with Holly Scott, director of operations for the Bandit Academy, for eight young aspiring softball players from across the Chicago area Monday, June 15-Thursday, June 18 at Parkway Bank Sports Complex in Rosemont. The group of 9 to 12-year-olds included Emily Peon (age 11, Chicago), Maya Melendez (9, Roselle), Lucy Houston (11, Barrington), Julianna Hurtado (11, Barrington), Mary Krause (11, Barrington), Lyla Coleman (12, Lockport), Gianna Cunningham (11, Naperville) and Isabella “Izzy” Zwolinski (11, Barrington).
Scott is an Oak Park-River Forest alum (IHSA state champion in 2005, runner-up in 2004) and North Central graduate (2010), who was College Conference of Illinois & Wisconsin (CCIW) Player of the Year in 2009. Scott is currently the pitching coach at North Central.
While it meant a lot to the kids to play and learn from a professional softball player, it meant a lot to Ramirez to give back.
“It’s really rewarding because I was once in their shoes before,” Ramirez said. “Going to camps and looking up to other professional players when I was their age. So for me to kind of do the same thing, it almost feels full circle for me. Just to have fun and create fun (memories) for them and not be hard on them. Teach them the fundamentals, but also make it fun for them so that they develop that same joy of the game (that I have).”
With COVID-19 canceling many events this year, including the National Pro Fastpitch 2020 season, and pushing students across Illinois into e-learning, it felt nice to finally be outside playing softball last week in Rosemont.
Running the camps this year only made it more special because of everything happening in the world, according to Ramirez.
“Even for myself, it’s something I look forward to, because I am missing the game just as much too,” Ramirez said. “To be able to give them a chance to get on the field and just have fun and get outside and enjoy themselves after the crazy start to the year we’ve had. It is really fun for them, but me as well.”
Ramirez, who was named to the 2019 All-NPF team, isn’t the only one who gives back. The whole Bandits team does. From lending their field to local teams to running camps, along with many other promotions, the Bandits do the best they can to give back to the Rosemont community.
“It’s so great to be a part of (the Bandits), because they really are trying to grow this game from the youth level all the way to the professional level,” Ramirez said. “I think just giving girls the opportunity to get out here and figure out what they love and where they want to play. It’s great to give them space to have fun and learn the game. It is such a great thing to be a part of. I am also from the Chicago area, I played here (Parkway Bank Sports Complex) in high school. I know how cool it is to play on this field when you are not a professional. I know it left a mark on me and it is definitely special to be able to do that for someone else.”
Ramirez and Scott each wore masks and did their best to maintain social distancing throughout the camp, where they taught the eight girls about throwing, hitting, fielding, pitching and baserunning, among other things. The coaches had fun with the players, handing out popsicles on a hot day, jokingly spraying the players with a water hose as temps hit the 80s.
Ramirez said she hopes the players develop more than just softball skills, but also gain confidence and find it empowering to them. She hopes they have fun, but also grow as young women.
The campers even got a visit from Bandits General Manager Toni Calmeyn and Parkway Bank Sports Complex Director of Operations Frank Cargola, who was celebrating his 60th birthday Wednesday, June 17.
Ramirez said she was lucky to have great mentors growing up and people to look up to.
“When I was younger and taking lessons at camps, I had a lot of players I looked up to,” Ramirez said. “It is pretty cool now that I can be in that position to help influence younger girls to develop a love for softball. It’s great to let them have a space to be themselves.”
Giving lessons during a pandemic presents its challenges, but she is learning to adjust along the way.
“It’s challenging, because the first thing I want to do is give them a hi-five when they do well,” Ramirez said. “I have to give them an air hi-five now or just say good job. It’s been challenging, but actually directing them and telling them physical adjustments to make actually hasn’t been too big of a problem. They have been able to make adjustments by me just explaining it to them. We can show them videos and have other ways to get around it. The hardest thing is my voice, I’m screaming through this mask so they can hear me across the field. So far it’s been going pretty well. I am just really happy to be out here picking things back up.”
Camps and lessons usually draw a larger crowd from ages 7-18, but one positive is the smaller camps are now more personal. Ramirez also loves the progression the players make, which is even more pronounced now that she can see the campers for 1 hour, 30 minutes each day for four straight days.
“It’s been pretty fun to get to know them,” Ramirez said. “Not only do we learn their names, but what their interests and everything are. We try to make them learn stuff about each other to create a bond moving throughout and by day four they are sad to leave because they want to keep coming back.”
The next Bandit Academy All Skills Mini Camp with Ramirez was set for Monday, June 22-25.