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‘Rami’ has Swallows fans squealing with delight

by Rob Smaal

Call him the Shigeki Maruyama of Japanese baseball, with a little Tony Robbins thrown in for good measure.

Win, lose or — in Japan, anyway — draw, homer, whiff or single, you’ll rarely catch Yakult Swallows outfielder Alex Ramirez with a scowl on his face.

“This is just a game,” Ramirez said last week during the Swallows-Giants series at Tokyo’s Jingu Stadium. “One day you’re here, the next day you don’t know where you’re going to be. You’ve just got to stay positive about everything, whether you’re in a slump or not. It all reflects on you and what your teammates think about you.”

To that end, Ramirez, a 27-year-old Venezuelan native in his second year here in Japan, can usually be spotted wearing a big smile as he chats with his teammates or signs autographs for fans.

But when he steps into the batter’s box, Ramirez is all business. And business has been pretty good this year.

Through July 29, “Rami,” as his adoring fans like to call him, was boasting a .305 batting average with 15 home runs. His 58 RBIs were tied with Yomiuri slugger Hideki Matsui for most in the Central League. On the down side, he was also leading the CL in strikeouts with 89.

Still, Ramirez’s first-half performance this year earned him a spot in the two-game midseason All-Star series.

“It depends on your attitude, how you approach the game,” says the ever-upbeat Ramirez, when asked to explain his success this season. “Last year, I came here and started off slow but finished strong (.280 average, 29 HRs, 88 RBIs). This year, I’ve been doing pretty good since the beginning of the season.

“I think it’s because this is my second year, I kind of know how they’re going to pitch me and my approach to the game is better than last year. I feel more confident and I feel the team has more confidence in me this year.”

Ramirez was signed by the Cleveland Indians as an undrafted free agent in 1991. He eventually played nearly 100 games with the Tribe over three seasons as he was shuffled between the big club and its minor-league affiliate in Buffalo. On July 28, 2000, Ramirez was traded to Pittsburgh in a deal that saw Wil Cordero go the other way.

In 135 career MLB games, Ramirez posted a .259 average with a dozen homers and 48 RBIs. Prior to last season, the Pirates sold Ramirez’s contract to Yakult.

Since he has been in Japan, Ramirez has made a name for himself with his solid play, but he has also achieved a degree of fame for his ability — and willingness — to mimic a famous Japanese comic’s trademark howl.

Occasionally, to the delight of Swallows fans, Ramirez will pound his chest in Sammy Sosa-fashion and let out a squeal of “aiiiyeen,” a gesture popularized by local comedian Ken Shimura.

“When I first came for spring training, some of the other players saw the way I am and said, ‘OK, this guy can probably do something like that,’ ” explains Rami. “So they taught me and I started doing it in spring training and the fans liked it. I continued doing it and every time I did something good on the field, instead of calling my name, they started saying ‘aiiiyeen, aiiiyeen,’ so I kept doing it.

“Sometimes I’m walking down the street and people who don’t even remember my name will suddenly say, ‘That’s the aiiiyeen guy!’ So it’s kind of funny, but I like it and I enjoy doing it, and the people like it.”

While Ramirez continues to give the people what they want, which includes a possible repeat of the Swallows’ Japan Series success from last season, one thing remains clear; whether he’s chasing down fly balls in left field or entertaining fans with his high-pitched squeals, the affable Ramirez will do it with a smile on his face.