Alex Ramirez thanked God before he reached first base. He continued along and touched the other bags as a light, constant rain fell on Jingu Stadium and the sparse crowd — 11,069 to be exact, though Ramirez would later say the place felt packed — that braved the promise of a Saturday downpour and watched him become the first foreign-born player in NPB history (42nd overall) to collect 2,000 hits, which he did with the 379th home run of his career.
“In the future, I will not have to say I was a good player anymore” Ramirez said. “I’m not going to have to say I was a good player in Japan. With this, it speaks for itself.”
Ramirez’s legacy in Japanese baseball was secure long ago. The only question now is if he’ll be remembered as the greatest foreign-born player ever.
Currently in his 13th season in Japan, Ramirez has a career .303 average, is 22nd on the all-time home run list and 20th in RBIs with 1,262 over his career with the Yakult Swallows, Yomiuri Giants and now Yokohama BayStars. Tuffy Rhodes is the lone foreign-born player with more homers (464) and RBIs (1,269).
“In regards to greatness, Rami is certainly up there,” renowned author and Japanese baseball expert Robert Whiting said in an email. “He won’t pass Tuffy in homers, but will beat him in RBIs and batting average and hits. That’s enough, don’t you think, to put him at No. 1. And also he is more likable than Tuffy, who had a temper. But don’t forget to include Leron Lee in your conversation about greatness. People tend to forget, but he has the highest lifetime batting average (.320) of anyone in Japanese professional baseball with over 4,000 at-bats. (Ichiro of course had a higher career batting average in Japan, but didn’t make 4,000).”
Ramirez is the elder statesman among NPB’s foreign community, many of whom were happy to see history made.
“I love it,” Yomiuri Giants pitcher D.J. Houlton, in his sixth year in Japan, said. “It’s good to see a guy come over here and be successful and play long enough to get 2,000 hits. He (also) plays everyday, and he’s not the youngest guy. He goes out there every day and works hard. He’s a good guy to model yourself after.”
There have been numerous foreign players who put up impressive numbers in Japan. Some have won MVPs — Rhodes, Randy Bass, Warren Cromartie and Boomer Wells, to name a few — and there are two foreign-born Sawamura Award winners, Victor Starfin and Gene Bacque. A few could’ve laid claim to the title of “greatest foreign player,” but Ramirez’s longevity — the 38-year old has played in 1,696 games, the most by a foreign-born player — has set him apart.
Lasting for so long in Japan is no accident. The game is demanding enough, but the cultural adjustments needed to survive in NPB and Japanese society is more than most have historically been able to handle for more than a couple of years, if that long.
“It takes a special breed of player,” said Jeremy Powell, a former pitcher who spent eight seasons in Japan with the Kintetsu Buffaloes, Orix Buffaloes, Yomiuri Giants and Fukuoka Softbank Hawks. “I think all of us who have spent a longer time over there had the ability to adjust sooner. Not physically, mentally. You have to have the ability to have an open mind and embrace the Japanese way.”
Powell also stressed the importance of foreign players earning the trust and support of their ballclubs.
“They have to allow you to adjust on the field, allow you to fail to succeed,” he said. “Unfortunately in a game built on failure, most guys don’t get to fail, they have to produce and produce now. Odds are against us staying for a long time.”
Ramirez didn’t think he’d last much more than a year in 2001, when he arrived to play for the Swallows.
The Venezuelan slugger had been signed by the Cleveland Indians in 1991 as an amateur free agent, and for seven years hit at almost every level of the farm system, never finishing with fewer than 11 home runs or 44 RBIs in seasons with at least 67 games played. He was mostly unable to carry that into the majors, hitting .259 with 12 home runs and 48 RBIs in 135 games over parts of three seasons.
He found early success at Yakult, and over a decade later has contributed to three Central League pennant winners, helped capture two Japan Series titles, won a pair of Central League MVP Awards (2008 and 2009), made eight All-Star Games, and set numerous records.
“Alex has to be the best foreigner ever, right?” remarked Powell. “Tuffy is up there as well, but Alex has been there longer and recently reached a milestone that I don’t think will ever be broken. It doesn’t matter where you do it, but making history in any capacity like this takes the cake.”
Ramirez’s peak was a sublime stretch from 2003-2010 during which he averaged 35 home runs and 116 RBIs per season. The eight consecutive 100-RBI campaigns he put up during that span broke the NPB record held by Giants icon Sadaharu Oh.
“He’s a legend,” said Yokohama’s Nyjer Morgan, in his first season in Japan after six in MLB. “That’s something historic. My first time being part of something like this. I’m just embracing this whole being in Japan and playing with Rami-chan, a future legend.”
Ramirez’s numbers may be eclipsed only by his immense popularity. He’s become a fan favorite due to the way he’s embraced Japan, his popular post-home run performances, and the easy, amiable way he interacts with fans. He’s also set up charities in Japan and has developed a deep affinity for the country.
“I have received all the support from Day One,” Ramirez said. “The kindness and what people make me feel here, not only me, but also my family, it’s just like home. This is home, and this is the place where I want to be, and I would like to stay here after I’m done with baseball.”
Among the pantheon of foreign players, perhaps only the enduring popularity of former Hanshin Tigers great Bass, who remains so beloved Whiting said, “If the fans in Japan took a vote to choose Greatest Gaijin, Bass would win handily,” surpasses Ramirez’s.
“I really hope that the Japanese community takes him in and puts him in the Hall of Fame because he’s earned that,” Swallows outfielder Lastings Milledge said of Ramirez. “All the stuff he’s done for the community, all the stuff he’s done on the field and off the field, I think it’s great. He’s different than all the foreigners that came over. Arguably, well, not arguably, he’s the best foreigner to ever play in Japan.”