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Reigning MVP Ramirez sets sights on producing even better season

by Jason Coskrey

Yomiuri Giants outfielder Alex Ramirez led the Central League with a .322 batting average, hit 31 homers and drove in 103 runs last season.

The scary thing is, he expects to be even better this year.

Fresh off winning his second straight CL MVP Award and playing a huge part in the Giants’ 2009 Japan Series triumph, Ramirez is refreshed, recharged and ready to do it all over again.

“This year is going to be a good year for me,” Ramirez said. “I feel good. I feel better now than I’ve felt in the past. So I think this year is going to be another good year for me.”

The slugger credits the work he put in over the offseason and a slightly increased workload during the spring as the root of his lofty ambitions.

“I think my conditioning this year is way better,” Ramirez said. “Mentally, I’m always 100 percent. But physically, I think I’m better this year than I have been in the past.

“I really think the reason why is that I’ve been taking ground balls at first base and moving around more. That helped me get my body into better shape.

“Of course if you’re looking at numbers during spring training, you wouldn’t say that. But I don’t really try to produce in spring training. I just try to see some pitches and see what teams are trying to do to me.”

One thing Ramirez won’t have to worry about is the pressure of trying to help deliver a championship to the storied Yomiuri franchise. The Giants had a title run in mind when they signed Ramirez as a free agent two seasons ago.

After falling to the Seibu Lions in Game 7 of the 2008 Japan Series, Ramirez helped the Kyojin bring home the title last season.

“It’s a blessing from God to be able to accomplish this,” Ramirez said. “To fulfill my responsibility to the team. The last two years have been unbelievable.”

Ramirez has been the CL’s top player since joining the Giants. He was the league MVP in his first year with the team, hitting .319 with 45 homers and 125 RBIs, then followed that with another MVP campaign last season.

That kind of production leaves everyone wanting more, which Ramirez understands is a natural part of playing for the Giants.

“Especially with this organization, there is a lot of pressure day in and day out,” Ramirez said. “Because the fans expect you to win 144 games and with the team we have, they don’t expect us to lose.

“So of course there is a lot of pressure. But with the support of my teammates, and the fans — they take that pressure away from me — I’m able to produce better.”

Ramirez has also won over the Yomiuri fans with his cheerful personality and popular (to the home fans at least) home-run performances.

“He brought a new air to the team,” infielder Michihiro Ogasawara said. “That was beneficial to us and he really boosts the fans with his performances. Plus, he’s a smart player and a real professional.”

Ramirez, who embraces the fans like few others, almost never joined the Giants. He was enjoying a successful career with the Tokyo Yakult Swallows, when the nature of the business dictated a change.

“When I was with the Swallows, my first priority was to stay with the Swallows,” Ramirez said. “I loved the Swallows fans and the whole Swallows organization treated me nice. Of course, they had different plans which didn’t really include me.

“So it was easier for me to make the decision about coming here. I think it was the best decision I’ve made in my baseball career. This is a professional organization. I’m really happy to be here. The fans are great, as are the coaches and players. This is the total package. I’m very happy that I made the decision to come here.”

Ramirez’s understanding of the nuances of the game is also why fans may see him play first base at some point this season.

With rookie outfielder Hisayoshi Chono tearing it up during the spring, the team may be forced to find a way to get him some playing time.

A move that could send Ramirez to first base.

“I think so,” Ramirez said when asked if he could make a quick adjustment to playing first base. “We’ve got Chono and I can see tremendous potential in this guy. This guy is going to be a superstar. He’s going to need a chance to play.

“So it’s just a matter of time for me to move to first base. Or if the manager says ‘hey Rami you stay there, we’re going to put him at another position then later on we’ll see,’ that’s fine too. Whatever the manager decides is fine with me.”

As he often does, the Giants star sees the silver lining in a possible move.

“I want to be in the outfield, but I also understand the game,” Ramirez said. “I understand that he’s a talented young player and he needs to be on the field.

“So I see my options and I think if I learn how to play first base, I can be there three or four more years, instead of playing two or three more years. So the possibility is there. Whatever the manager wants me to do, I’ll be happy to do it.”