The performance was special this time. Alex Ramirez celebrated on his way around the bases, kissing two fingers and pointing at the sky between first and second, but his patented post-home run ritual was missing as he was congratulated by the rest of the Yokohama BayStars.
Nothing extra was needed, not after Ramirez, NPB’s consummate showman, provided all the drama necessary by breaking into Japanese baseball’s revered 2,000-hit club with a solo home run during the BayStars’ 6-3 win over the Tokyo Yakult Swallows on Saturday at Jingu Stadium.
“Before I touched first base and I heard the people yelling, I thought, ‘I did it. It’s done,’ ” Ramirez said. “The first thing that came to my mind was ‘Thank you God.’ “
Ramirez is the only foreign-born player to achieve the milestone and reached 2,000 hits in his 1,695th NPB game, faster than any player in history except “God of batting” Tetsuharu Kawakami, who needed 1,646 with the Yomiuri Giants, known as the Tokyo Kyojin until his sixth year with the team, to reach the mark.
Ramirez and Kawakami are the only players to reach 2,000 hits in fewer than 1,700 NPB games. Ichiro Suzuki reached 2,000 in 1,465 games between his career with the Orix BlueWave in Japan and the Seattle Mariners in the U.S.
“He’s the greatest,” teammate Tony Blanco said of Ramirez. “That’s something special. A foreign hitter to get 2,000 hits in Japan . . . he’s going to be No. 1 for a long time. I’m so happy for him.”
Ramirez ended last season seven hits shy of 2,000 and got off to a good start to begin the 2013 campaign. The chase briefly stalled during the BayStars’ series against the Giants earlier in the week. The first game was rained out, and Ramirez went hitless in the remaining two contests. He collected a pair of hits against the Swallows on Friday to move within one of the milestone.
“I started thinking,” Ramirez began, “of course the time will come, but how is it going to be? What is going to be the reaction from the fans, how am I going to react, how am I going to be able to handle that? Because 2,000 hits is to make history basically.
“I’m not going to be just Rami-chan, who people will say, ‘Rami-chan was a good player.’ I’m going to be on a different level in the history of baseball here in Japan. For me, I feel honored to be here and to accomplish these things. Especially in this beautiful country.”
Ramirez said the home run, which came against former teammate Masanori Ishikawa, was the most memorable of his career. He dedicated it to his wife and entire family after the game.
There could hardly have been a more fitting setting for Ramirez to carve out his place in NPB history. He began his career with the Swallows in 2001 and called Jingu Stadium home for seven years, helping Yakult capture the Central League pennant and Japan Series title in 2001.
Ramirez received flowers, as is Japanese tradition after milestones, from Swallows infielder Shinya Miyamoto, his former teammate, after his hit. Miyamoto, who recorded his 2,000th hit last season at Jingu, and Ramirez are the latest members of the ’01 Swallows to have reached the milestone. Atsunori Inaba also joined the 2,000-hit club last season, while famed catcher Atsuya Furuta collected his 2,000th in 2005.
“It’s an honor to be able to get flowers from Miyamoto-san,” Ramirez said. “I respect him very much. I started my career with him, and I learned so much from him. Just to be able to do it here in this stadium, where I started my career, I have a lot of respect for the Yakult Swallows organization and their fans.”
Only 41 players in NPB history — four active — have more career hits than Ramirez. Past greats Tuffy Rhodes (1,792 hits) and Leron Lee (1,579) are the only other foreign-born players to crack the top 100 on NPB’s all-time hits list.
“Even now, he’s still productive,” Swallows outfielder Lastings Milledge said of the 38-year-old Ramirez. “They have to put you on the team if you’re producing. If you’re not producing, you won’t be here. So the fact he’s still here shows how productive he’s been.”
Having experienced his greatest success in Japan, reaching the mark based on his NPB numbers alone was something of great importance to the Venezuelan star.
“I want to take this opportunity to say thanks to the Swallows organization for giving me this great opportunity to start my career in Japan,” he said. “Also to the Yomiuri Giants. For that great opportunity to play there, four years, and basically become the player that I am today.
“To the Yokohama DeNA BayStars, this is a great opportunity. I really want to say thank you. I’m going to try to do my best to accomplish what I came here for, and that’s to win the championship.”