The Yomiuri Giants began interleague play with a pair of marquee names on the verge of milestone merriment.
Alex Ramirez started the night one longball away from reaching 300 homers in Japan, while skipper Tatsunori Hara was a victory away from entering the 500-win club as a Yomiuri manager.
Hara's road hasn't been smooth, but he is about to ease past a place where only four other Giants skippers have gone. His next win will make him the fifth Yomiuri skipper with at least 500 wins, joining Tetsuharu Kawakami (1,066), Shigeo Nagashima (1,034) Shigeru Mizuhara (881) and Motoshi Fujita (516).
"I'm not really thinking about that," Hara told The Daily Yomiuri on Wednesday at Tokyo Dome before the Giants played the Saitama Seibu Lions.
"I hear it from people, and my reaction is 'Really?' When they say that, I think about winning 500 games, but that's about all," said the 51-year-old Hara, who replaced "Mr. Baseball" Shigeo Nagashima in 2002 and led the Giants to a Japan Series title. A third-place finish the next season was the end of that run, but he was brought back in 2006 following a fifth-place finish--Yomiuri's worst since 1979--under Tsuneo Horiuchi.
The Giants have won three straight Central League titles and took the Japan Series title last year.
Ramirez, a 35-year-old outfielder in his 10th season in Japan, said he hit his first home run at Jingu Stadium off the Giants' Hisanori Takahashi--now with the New York Mets--in 2001.
But Ramirez, who moved to the Giants as a free agent for the 2008 season, said his plan wasn't to spend so many years here.
"When I came to Japan, the first thing I was thinking was to come here for one year--not thinking about numbers, not thinking about anything. I just thought about making some money and then going back to the minor leagues."
Ramirez has the third most longballs ever among foreign players in Japan, trailing Tuffy Rhodes' 464 and the 330 of the Orix Buffaloes' Alex Cabrera.
"To be able to hit 300 home runs--that's a lot. I would not say that I'm a power hitter. I'm more of a line-drive hitter, but here in Japan, the ball carries pretty good and that helped me a lot," he said.
Beside a memorable longball in the 2008 Japan Series--a loss in seven games to the Lions--Ramirez pointed to a rare feat as a homer that stands out among his 299.
"This is something that is very special, one year I hit my 30th home run [of the season] on my 30th birthday. I don't think that's going to happen. I did that at Nagoya Dome five years ago."
Teams double up on MVPs
The Yomiuri Giants and Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks swept the monthly MVP awards, with Giants infielder Michihiro Ogasawara leading the way by winning the honor for the eighth time.
Ogasawara and Giants right-hander Shun Tono won in the Central League, while Hawks lefty starter Toshiya Sugiuchi and teammate Munenori Kawasaki earned the monthly honors in the Pacific League.
Ogasawara, who has 10 hits that either opened the scoring, tied the score or put his team in front, had a league-best-tying nine homers in March and April. The 14-year pro drove in 29 runs and batted .359.
"Everyone is doing a great job of setting the table and that's why I had those numbers," Ogasawara said. "I couldn't have done it alone, so everyone has earned this award. I'll work hard to win this award as many times as I can."
Tono won five games and posted a 2.04 ERA to win the award for the first time in his five-plus seasons.
Said Tono: "You can play a long time and not win this award, so I'm very pleased that I was selected."
Sugiuchi, in his ninth season, won for the seventh time by winning a PL-high six games and fanning 72.
Kawasaki, in his 11th season, won for the first time, hitting safely in 31 of 34 games and putting together a career-best 21-game hitting streak.