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Yokohama star Ramirez keeps family close to his heart

by Jason Coskrey

Staff Writer

Alex Ramirez is dressed in his full uniform and standing a few feet in front of the Yokohama BayStars clubhouse, but baseball is the furthest thing from his mind right now.

The BayStars have a game against the Hiroshima Carp in less than an hour, and manager Kiyoshi Nakahata has just disappeared into the clubhouse to rally the troops.

Ramirez will follow him in a few minutes, but for now all that can wait. Because while Ramirez may be a star on the diamond, his family comes first, and right now he’s beaming as he talks about the newest addition to the “Rami-chan” fan club, granddaughter Charlee Alexandria Ramirez, in Japan for a visit.

“She’s a beauty,” he says proudly. “I feel happy just to wake up in the morning and see her there smiling. She’s only 5 months old, but she knows who her grandpa is.”

The 37-year-old Ramirez is in his 12th season in Japan, and in the latter stages of a career that will go down as arguably the best by a foreigner in NPB history.

After a few years starring in the Cleveland Indians’ farm system and a brief stint with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Ramirez has found superstardom in Japan, but tries not to let success take his mind off his real priority; his wife, his kids, and especially grandson Danny (DJ) Alexander Ramirez and Charlee.

“Family for me is number one,” Ramirez says. “I really take care of my family, and I really want to be an example to them and want them to see that I’m doing my best. Not only for me, but for them and their future.”

The life of a professional baseball player is hectic, but when Ramirez’s family visits, he spends as much time with them as possible. When his schedule provides little free time, he brings his family to the ballpark, hoping to share his career with his young grandchildren.

He’s put DJ in the arms of former Yomiuri Giants great, and the team’s current manager, Tatsunori Hara, and recently made sure Charlee held court with Nakahata. He’s also hit home runs with them in attendance.

“Later on, I’m going to be able to show them the games where they came to the stadium and I hit a home run or did pretty good, and they’re going to be like, ‘Wow grandpa, I was there,’ ” Ramirez said.

“That’s something very special to me.”

Ramirez had a great relationship with his own grandmother, Jesus Capriles, who died last year.

“I took care of her to the end,” he says. “She really loved me, and I love her. She was a role model, and I really want to be like that with my grandbabies.”

He already has plenty of experience pushing a younger generation in the right direction, as his longevity in Japan has made him a mentor of sorts for a number of players.

“You’re talking about the best import who ever played in Japan,” said BayStars infielder Randy Ruiz. “I’m happy to have him and happy he’s taking time out of his busy schedule and helping me out. I know he’s helping out a lot of people on this team. He’s a leader.”

Ramirez says having a family makes it easier to talk with younger players.

“They see me as a father and grandfather and someone with experience, and they can come to me and ask me for advice and things like that,” Ramirez said.

The infectiously upbeat personality that’s made him a fan-favorite doesn’t hurt either.

“He’s always like that,” said veteran BayStars pitcher Daisuke Miura. “He’s cheerful in the locker room and communicates with his teammates. He’s been in Japan so long, he’s used to it. He gives advice to everybody. Whoever asks him for it.”

That’s good, since Ramirez should have a lot of advice to dispense.

He was the Central League monthly MVP for hitters in July and is batting .297 with 15 home runs and 58 RBIs (top five in all three categories) this season. He gave a wry smile at the notion DJ and Charlee’s grandpa is out-producing a lot of players who are much younger.

“It has a lot to do with my preparation,” says Ramirez. “Being my age and a grandfather, I know that I have a lot of responsibility and I have to take care of myself.”

In over a decade in Japan, Ramirez has a .303 career average and sits 23rd all-time with 374 home runs and 20th with 1,240 RBIs.

In 2007, his last with the Yakult Swallows, Ramirez had a .343 average and finished the year with 204 hits, making him the third player in NPB history to reach 200 in a single season.

He won his first Central League MVP award while with the Giants in 2008, batting .319 with 45 homers and 125 RBIs. Ramirez earned the honor again in 2009 after hitting .322 with 31 home runs and 103 RBIs. He led Japan with 49 home runs in 2010 while batting .304 and driving in 129 runs.

“I think he’s a great player,” said Swallows slugger Wladimir Balentien. “He’s the idol of a lot of kids. Even of a lot of foreigners who come over here for their first year. They look at him as a role model, as a guy who came here, just like me and the other foreigners, and has been able to succeed in this league for so long and is still doing it.”

Ramirez arrived in Japan as a member of the 2001 Swallows, a team that featured future major leaguers in pitchers Ryota Igarashi, Kazuhisa Ishii and Shingo Takatsu, as well as infielder Akinori Iwamura, in addition to probable future Japanese baseball Hall of Famers Atsuya Furuta, Atsunori Inaba and Shinya Miyamoto. Notable foreigners on that team were Roberto Petagine and Kevin Hodges.

“It was an honor to play for the Yakult Swallows,” Ramirez said. “Thanks to them, I was able to produce and be the player that I am today. We had such a great team. I’m very happy for those guys, and I learned a lot from those players. Looking back, it’s just amazing, just to be with all those guys.”

That Swallows team, which edged Hideki Matsui’s Yomiuri Giants by three games for the CL pennant and beat the Osaka Kintetsu Buffaloes in five games to win the Japan Series, may also end up as having four members who went on to reach the 2,000-hit milestone.

Furuta, the famously bespectacled Yakult legend, reached the mark in 2005, while Inaba and Miyamoto made it earlier this season. With 1,954 career hits, Ramirez is poised to become the first foreign player to achieve the feat.

It’s something that won’t come without a slight complication; not that Rami-chan will mind.

“The 2,000-hit ball is going to be one ball, and I have two grandkids,” Ramirez said with a smile. “So it’s going to be a little bit hard, but I will treasure that very much. I will dedicate that firstly to my wife and my family and all my kids.”

When DJ and Charlee are older, Ramirez plans to tell them all about his life and career in Japan. First, however, he’ll make sure they understand what’s really important.

“Number one is to teach them about God, the Bible, and to follow Jesus’ steps,” Ramirez said. “Then, I would like to teach them about respect. If they can do those things, then everything will fall into place. That’s the Rami-chan that I’d like to be for my grandbabies.”