Ramirez shifts focus to back to baseball

Ramirez deflects cockfighting questions

MESA, Ariz. -- Cubs third baseman Aramis Ramirez deflected questions Tuesday about his involvement in cockfighting, saying it's "personal" and that he wants to focus on baseball.

Ramirez, 29, was mentioned in a recent New York Times story about the popular sport in the Dominican Republic, which said he was featured in an issue of the cockfighting magazine En La Traba. The Times said the magazine included photos of Ramirez with several roosters that he raises for fighting. He told the magazine: "When I'm in the Dominican Republic, I'm dedicated entirely to [the roosters]."

On Tuesday, before the first full-squad workout, Ramirez was asked about his involvement in cockfighting.

"I'm not going to let you finish that question," Ramirez said. "I'm not talking about that. That's personal. It's a different culture down there. I'm from the Dominican. Let's talk about baseball."

Was he surprised the story received so much attention?

"I said I'm not going to talk about that," Ramirez said. "Like I said -- I just have to say this -- it's a different culture in the Dominican, and that's it."

The next question was about teammate Ryan Dempster predicting the Cubs would win the World Series.

"Last year, [Carlos] Zambrano said that," Ramirez said. "Everybody is hoping for that. We hope we can do it. We made it to the playoffs last year, even though we had a lot of injuries -- myself, [Alfonso] Soriano got hurt. Nobody had a career year last year and we still made it. If we stay healthy, we'll be all right."

Staying healthy is Ramirez's goal this season. The third baseman is coming off a season in which he hit .310 with 26 homers, 35 doubles, and drove in 101 runs. He was limited to 132 games because of injuries to his right wrist and knee, and the Cubs sent Tim Buss, their strength and conditioning coach, to the Dominican Republic to make sure Ramirez was following through on his workouts.

"I just want to be healthy," Ramirez said. "If I'm healthy, everthing will take care of itself. The numbers will be there."

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Ramirez went 0-for-12 in the three-game National League Division Series, one of several Cubs who struggled at the plate against the Arizona Diamondbacks.

"I had a great season -- I just had three bad games," Ramirez said. "It happens. That wasn't the reason we lost. We didn't play well."

Cubs manager Lou Piniella has said he wants to try to give Ramirez, Derrek Lee and Soriano more days off this season to keep them fresh. Ramirez didn't seem to mind.

"Everybody needs one once in a while, except Soriano -- he doesn't want a day off," Ramirez said. "Everybody wants one. I'm sure everybody will need one. It's a long season."

Tuesday was not only Ramirez's first day in camp, but his first chance to see new teammate Kosuke Fukudome. Does he speak any Japanese?

"No," Ramirez said, laughing. "Spanish, and a little bit of English."

Having a good hitter behind him in the lineup should help. Fukudome is projected to bat fifth behind Ramirez.

"I don't know how much difference it will make," Ramirez said. "I have to see how it plays out -- I don't know how much difference it will make. I'm not a guy who takes a pitch. I swing at pretty much everything."

The Cubs begin this season not having won a World Series since 1908, and Ramirez is well aware of the drought.

"I've only been here for four [years] of them," he said. "Hopefully, we do it this year. It's 100 years, it's a long time and it's a shame because we have great fans, it's a great city. It's a great ballpark and great tradition. Hopefully we do it this year. We've got a great team.

"We can match anybody in the National League," he said. "The Mets are pretty good, but we can play with anybody. Position by position, and man by man, we can play with any team in the National League."

In his address to the full squad on Tuesday, Piniella was going to talk about unfinished business after last season.

"We had a pretty good season," Ramirez said of 2007, "but we didn't finish it the way we wanted to."

Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.