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Jim Allen

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Ramirez rocks to changing beat

by Jim Allen (Mar 19, 2008)

Things rarely turn out as one expects. Ask Alex Ramirez, whose professional life has followed one unsuspected turn after another. After seven seasons with the Tokyo Yakult Swallows, the latest twist in Ramirez's winding baseball career has led him to the Yomiuri Giants, a path well trod by veteran NPB stars both Japanese and foreign alike.

"When I was with the Swallows, I [thought] the Giants would be the last place to go, the last team I would play for," he told The Daily Yomiuri in February at the Giants spring training camp in Miyazaki.

"Because we have seen so many things happen here. Guys they come in here and go and they don't win. It's a challenge for me."

Challenge, however, is part of the game. If one doesn't want to do better, one might as well give up. Close to 200 foreign players have come to Japan since Ramirez made his debut on March 30, 2001 against the Yokohama BayStars, but just a handful have stuck for nearly as long.

Ramirez, Venezuelan compatriot Alex Cabrera and American pitchers Brian Sikorski and Jeremy Powell are the only four left from the summer of 2001. The only foreign players with more service time are Saitama Seibu Lions reliever Hsu Ming-chie (2000) and Orix Buffaloes slugger Tuffy Rhodes (1996).

"When I came to Japan the first year, I came here for the money," Ramirez said. "[But] the first year, the way these people accepted me here in Japan, it was something special. They treated me like

I was here for a long time. In that sense, I was blessed.

"From the time that I was here my first year, the people here and everybody,they treat me so well that I want to stay longer. Then I started to just want to stay here in Japan and finish my career here."

Things have turned out vastly different than Ramirez expected when growing up with dreams of making it as a pitcher.

Those dreams did not survive a serendipitous occurrence in the outfield while playing for his country. Instead of pitching that day as scheduled, he was pressed into service in center field when a teammate was hurt. Because he could hit, the manager asked him to do it for the team.

"So I said, 'Hey. OK, no problem.' So I'm playing out there and I hit two home runs," Ramirez said. "And Luis Aponte, he was the scout for the Cleveland Indians at that time. Right after I hit my second home run, he came down to the clubhouse, to the dugout and he told my manager, 'Hey I don't want you to have him pitching no more. I want to sign him as an outfielder.'

"That was a bomb, because I thought I had a chance to sign as a pitcher. I loved pitching."

But simply being stubborn doesn't pay the bills, and Ramirez said there was no hesitation about putting his pitching in the past tense.

"When you play in Venezuela, and they tell you, 'Your best position is second base,' that's the position you want to play because you want people to scout you as a second baseman.

"So for him to come back and say, 'Hey, I want you as an outfielder, I want to sign you,' That was something. Wow. I love pitching but he wants to sign me as an outfielder, that's the chance I got, so forget pitching."

More or less the same thing happened when Ramirez came to Japan. After playing primarily in right field for the Indians and Pittsburgh Pirates in 2000, he was told he would play right field at Jingu Stadium, too.

Despite what the front office had said, Plan A fell by the wayside. Ramirez's ambition in right ran into Atsunori Inaba, who years earlier had overcome a reputation as a weak amateur outfielder to become one of the best in the business.

"When I got to spring training, I went to right field to take fly balls," Ramirez said.

"[Susumu] Watanabe, he was the bench coach, he told me, 'Rami, go to left field.' I said, 'No, no, no. I'm going to stay here. I signed to play right field. He's like, 'No, no, no, go to left field.' I'm like 'Un-uh, I'm staying.'

"So he said, 'OK, you take fly balls there. No problem.' After I saw Inaba taking fly balls, I said, 'I'm going to left field. I'll be over there."

Ramirez recalled a story about how then-manager Tsutomu Wakamatsu tried to encourage him by telling him he could still get playing time in right field. But Ramirez turned the skipper down on account of his need to get more experience in left field, a position he hadn't liked before.

"One of the things I try to tell guys...when they come here to Japan is, 'Even though you've been in the big leagues, it doesn't matter how long you've been in the big leagues... Japanese coaches sometimes make you feel like you've never played baseball before," he said.

"But if you take that personally, you're going to be in trouble here."

The key to Ramirez's success here may well be that flexibility. He says he's always just been that way. When told early in his career he wasn't hitting enough homers, he changed his stroke, sacrificing one thing for another in order to get along and get ahead.

"I used to talk a lot to Wakamatsu when I first got here," Ramirez said. "He'd say, 'Rami, to succeed in Japan, you have to hit the ball middle away. You have to change the way of thinking.'

"And in the beginning, I'm thinking, 'No. It's the same ball. You still throw it around the plate.' But the mentality is different. I realized that later. The mentality was different and I had to learn those things. A lot of guys are good players, but they still don't learn that mentality, and that's what separates myself from some of those guys.

"I'm totally Japanese right now. And whatever these coaches say, I'll take it because that's how they want me to do it here, that's what I'll do."

That works as long as one produces and Ramirez has done well enough in that area. In seven seasons, he has a .301 average with 211 home runs. Ramirez has also driven in more than 100 runs over five consecutive years.

Just as impressive, he missed just 12 of the team's 994 games over that stretch.

"A lot of guys, players who come here from the States, from the big leagues, if they come here for the money, thinking, 'I'm just going to Japan and get the money and come back,'" Ramirez said. "Those are the guys who as soon as these coaches say, 'You're going down to the minor leagues,' they go back to the States and say, 'I don't like Japan. Japan, it's not good.' and things like that.

"But if you come here and you say, 'I'm going to play and I'm going to help the team. I'm going to make my money but I'm going to do it right. I'm going to respect those people and I'm going to try and learn how those people play there,' that's a different story.

"Those are the people who come here and succeed. If they say, 'Go down to the minor league,' they say, 'OK, no problem.'"

This year with the Giants, Ramirez will have just one new foreign player to impart that message to. Although Yomiuri went to camp with four new faces in a five-man foreign legion, only southpaw Adrian Burnside is new to Japan. The Giants brought back first baseman Lee Seung Yeop, while bringing in

Ramirez, fellow former Swallow Seth Greisinger and former Yokohama closer Marc Kroon.

Ramirez has become famous for his popular celebration routines, but said it's just superficial.

"I don't think they [the Giants] brought me here to be the entertainer of the team. They brought me here because they really want to win," he said.

"One of the things that I do--the performance--in the States, they don't allow that. I do that and sometimes I feel that, when I hit a home run off a foreigner, that I feel the guy's going to get upset.

"But sometimes I go there and talk to the person the next day, I apologize, 'Sorry. I didn't do that to show you up. I did it for the fans because that's what people like here. It's a totally different game here than in the States. They enjoy that. The people they like that. But it's not to show you up, so don't take it personally.'"

So where did it start? When teammate Hirobumi Watarai conned him into striking that silly "Ah-een" pose, Ramirez didn't think it was funny at all. But the fans picked up on it, egged him on and never let up.

"We're walking [from the Jingu Stadium club house down the first-base line] and we're checking the fans hands," Ramirez said. "And they're going, 'Rami-chan, Ah-een!, Ah-een!' and everybody starts laughing and I'm going like, 'OK!'

"...Every time I got a base hit, they're going, 'Rami-chan, Ah-een! Ah-een!' So I started doing it, not thinking. And the guy [who popularized it on TV, comedian Ken Shimura] said, 'You can do it every time you get a base hit.' But I hit a home run and they all said, 'Rami-chan, Ah-een!' and it became national.

Not only did the Ramirez show take on a life of its own, but it began spawning. Since then, other players have come up with their own signature celebrations.

"It's gotten a little bit out of control," Ramirez said. "Adam Riggs was doing 'Yahhh!' [with his hands thrust upward like a bear's claws]. Last year he got hurt and I said do it, but he said, 'I'm not playing good.' So I told him people don't care about that stuff here. They'll be happy just by you doing that. They just want to see it."

And now his new fans at Tokyo Dome will demand their own version of Ramirez's show along with the same reliability and production he brought to the Swallows for seven years. Although the move will also bring with it a massive new set of expectations, Ramirez seems as well prepared as anyone for such a jump.

"It's so different," he said of how his career has diverged from his childhood expectations. "I can't even explain how different it is.

"My agent called me a couple of times and he's like, 'Hey some teams are interested in you in the States.' I don't want to close my doors, but I don't really want to go back to the U.S. I think I want to stay in Japan. As long as they want me back in Japan, I want to stay here."


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