Big names, big money, big expectations.
That just about sums up the 2008 season for the Yomiuri Giants, the defending Central League champions who got bounced from the playoffs last year by the Chunichi Dragons, who would go on to claim their first Japan Series title since 1954.
To a potent lineup already featuring the likes of leadoff hitter Yoshinobu Takahashi (35 homers in 2007), Michihiro Ogasawara (31 HRs), Lee Seung Yeop (30 HRs), Shinnosuke Abe (33 HRs) and Tomohiro Nioka (20 HRs), the Giants have added free-agent outfielder Alex Ramirez.
"Rami-chan," as his adoring fans at his previous club, the Yakult Swallows, referred to him, is coming off one of the most productive seasons in his seven-year career in Japanese baseball. The former Cleveland Indian, a native of Venezuela, crushed it last year, hitting .343 with 29 home runs and 122 RBIs for a team that finished dead last in the CL.
But not only did the Giants poach one of the Swallows most productive offensive players, they also swooped in and snatched up the club's top pitcher as well. American righty Seth Greisinger won a league-best 16 games in his first season in Japan and posted a stellar 2.84 ERA, but when Yakult management balked at the negotiating table, he too joined the deep-pocketed Kyojin.
With Greisinger added to a solid staff featuring 14-game winners Hisanori Takahashi and Tetsuya Utsumi, and with manager Tatsunori Hara pledging to get Koji Uehara out of the bullpen and back into the starting rotation, the only thing missing was a quality closer.
Enter the man with the crooked cap. Not quite satisfied with their talent haul, the Giants also went out and plucked free-agent closer Marc Kroon, he of 161-kph fastball fame, from the Yokohama BayStars.
Three free-agent signings worth nearly a combined 2 billion yen. Think the Giants want to win it all this season?
"If you look at our lineup, it's just unbelievable," said Ramirez, whose two-year deal accounts for 1 billion yen of that total. "You never know in baseball, but I think we have everything you need to win a championship. Our lineup is good, our pitching staff is real good, we have everything. This is a No. 1 team and hopefully we can put it all together this year."
Both Ramirez and Kroon bring more to the ballpark than just game. Both men have carved out niches for themselves by playing to the fans. Ramirez is known for his comedic post-home run jigs while Kroon has made a name for himself with his hip-hop strut, crooked cap, corn-row haircut and collection of earrings.
Ramirez said that rather than discouraging him from putting on his post-HR show, the buttoned-down Giants have encouraged him to keep it going.
"The coaching staff has been saying stuff like, 'We saw you doing your performance and it was pretty good ... you're going to have to hit a lot of home runs so we can see more of it,'" recalled Ramirez. "The general manager even said the same thing, that he was looking forward to seeing my new performance. The fans really appreciate it too and that's who I'm doing it for."
Kroon, on the other hand, has been forced to tone it down a bit on a club that bans players from sporting facial hair and wearing earrings.
"It is what is, you know, it's a rule," said Kroon, philosophically. "They're paying me, they're the boss. This is the best way I could take care of my family. It's kind of different, but what do you do?"
For 350 million yen, you shave the chin fuzz, pop out the earrings and start working on your slider, which is exactly what Kroon did this spring. The headgear, however, remains firmly tilted to the left.
Kroon, a 188-cm right-handed power pitcher from Brooklyn, has been one of the most dominant closers in Japan since arriving here in 2005. His blazing heater has helped him compile 84 saves in just three seasons, but as he turns 35 he realizes he's going to have to serve up more than a steady diet of fastballs, especially pitching in Tokyo Dome where fly balls have a tendency to land in the bleachers.
"I'll get the ball in the ninth inning and go out there and do what I've been doing for the past three years, and that's saving ballgames," said Kroon. "I think it's going to be a little more difficult in the Tokyo Dome--the ball flies out of there, so it's going to be a little more of a challenge--but it'll be fun."
Kroon cemented his place in NPB's history books when he hit a Japan-record 161 kph on the radar gun his first season here. At his age, he says, don't expect him to crank it up any higher than that. In fact, Kroon plans on becoming more of a finesse pitcher.
"My max is 161, but I tell you that 1 km is tough, to get to 162," he said. "I'm another year older and this is my fourth year here so I can't just keep throwing fastballs like I have. Guys are starting to study me as I study them and I've got to do a few different things this year to stay on top of my game.
"I've been working on my slider. My first three years I was fastball, forkball. Toward the end of last year I started throwing my slider and had some success. In spring camp I was really concentrating on my slider and so far it's been working out."
Unlike the larger-than-life Ramirez and Kroon, the laid-back Greisinger will have no issues fitting in with his new club. The man Kroon calls "Mr. Mellow" spent his offseason backpacking around Turkey and Portugal. Oh yeah, he also found time to ink a lucrative two-year, 500 million yen deal with Yomiuri.
Not bad for a guy who essentially couldn't throw a baseball for four years due to arm surgery and who had to go to Korea to revive his baseball career. After going 14-12 with the Kia Tigers in 2006, Greisinger made the short leap to Japan, where he used his nasty changeup to tear through CL lineups.
Asked about the pressure of playing in packed stadiums for the glamour team of Japanese baseball, Greisinger brushed off the notion like a speck of dandruff.
"For me, it seems like every year there's a lot of pressure," Greisinger said. "I've basically been on one-year contracts for my entire career, so it's either do well or there's a chance I could be out of baseball. From that aspect I don't think there's going be any more added pressure just because I'm playing with this team. I still expect myself to perform at a high level. I think my own expectations are probably higher than the team's."
Having said that, the gravity of the situation is not lost on the easygoing 32-year-old, who pitched for the Team USA in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.
"It seems like every year the Giants want to win and this year certainly more than others, considering the amount of money they spent on this team," observed Greisinger, who passed up a lucrative one-year offer from the Chicago Cubs to stay in Japan, where he appreciates not having to "deal with the other stuff, the politics, leaving tickets for friends, people watching you on TV... it's nice to play over here where you can have a little anonymity."
And speaking of anonymity, the first-round draft pick of the Detroit Tigers in '96 is happy to fade into the background with the Giants.
"With Rami and Kroon there's obviously a lot of attention, so it's actually kind of nice because they grab the spotlight and I get to kind of hide in their shadows, which is really nice especially considering this team and how much media attention there is," Greisinger said. "Rami does a really good job of keeping things loose. I've never seen him in a bad mood or even without a smile on his face, so he's just a great teammate. Kroon I'm just getting to know, but he certainly has a different personality and he's fun to be around as well."
The Giants have won 20 Japan Series titles since 1950--including nine in a row from 1965--but they have come up empty since last winning it all in 2002. Not acceptable for the club often called the New York Yankees of Japan.
"That's one of the reasons I came over here, I just felt that this was going to be the opportunity to win a championship," said the clean-shaven Kroon. "I don't think I'm going to play much longer, so hopefully I can come over here and get an opportunity to save some ballgames and win a championship, that's definitely the ultimate goal."