Returning to Japanese baseball this season after a decade-long absence is Ralph Bryant, one of the most prolific sluggers ever to play the game here as a member of the Kintetsu Buffaloes from 1988 to 1995, and currently the first-base coach and a batting instructor with the Orix Buffaloes.
Bryant was asked last winter to join the coaching staff of the merged Orix-Kintetsu club by manager Akira Ogi, Bryant’s manager for the first five years he played for the Buffaloes, and the Georgia native accepted right away.
Bryant’s colorful and storied playing career in Japan actually began with the Chunichi Dragons, though most fans and even veteran media members forget that, because he never played with the Dragons varsity.
He was with the Los Angeles Dodgers in the spring of 1988, but L.A. had no place for him in their system, so sent him to Nagoya where he would play on Chunichi’s farm club.
Those were the days when Japanese teams were allowed only two foreign players on their first team and a spare on the farm.
“The Dragons had (first baseman-outfielder Gary) Rajsich and (Taiwanese pitcher Genji) Kaku, and both of them were doing well, and they won the (Central League) pennant that year,” Bryant recalled. He spent his time wallowing in the Western League until the alleged misconduct of another player opened the door to what would become Bryant’s stellar seven-year hitch as one of Japan’s best players.
On June 7, 1988, Osaka police, acting on a tip, raided the apartment of Buffaloes American player Dick Davis and found 14 grams of cannabis resin.
Davis was handcuffed and hauled off to the slammer, then released and deported a few weeks later, his Japan career suddenly ended.
Kintetsu, contending for the Pacific League title, was left with a double problem; a hole in its lineup where Davis’ potent bat had been, and very little time to send someone to the U.S. to scout, talk, negotiate and acquire another guy, because the deadline for hiring new foreign players each year is June 30.
Then they thought of Ralph Bryant.
“Ogi and (Kintetsu batting coach Futoshi) Nakanishi came to watch me play on the farm against the Buffaloes one day,” said Bryant. “I didn’t even know they were there.”
They liked what they saw, however, and said right away, “We can sure use him.”
They arranged to purchase Bryant’s contract and wound up with one of the best deals since U.S. Secretary of State William Seward bought Alaska from Russia in 1867.
Bryant paid big dividends right away.
Playing in only 74 games during that 1988 season, he belted 34 homers, had 73 RBIs and hit .307. The Buffaloes narrowly missed winning the Pacific League pennant and the right to face Bryant’s former team, the Dragons, in the Japan Series.
The Seibu Lions (again) won the PL flag by a margin of two percentage points.
It was different in 1989, though.
Playing the full season, Bryant hit 49 home runs, drove in 121 and batted .283. He was named PL MVP, and this time it was the Buffaloes who squeaked by with the pennant victory and Japan Series qualification.
With the pennant race going down to the wire, Kintetsu won an October twinbill (Whatever happened to those exciting finishes? Whatever happened to doubleheaders?) at the Seibu Stadium in Tokorozawa.
Bryant had the hot bat, hitting four homers in the two games, as the Buffaloes, with a .568 percentage, beat out the second place Orix Braves (.567) and the third place Lions (.566).
Unfortunately for Bryant and his teammates, they suffered an embarrassing defeat in the Japan Series, losing the final four games to the Yomiuri Giants after three easy victories. But Bryant recalled that 1989 season as the peak of his career and a great time in Japanese baseball.
What was most amazing about Bryant’s style of hitting is the fact the opposing team’s pitchers never knew what to expect when he came to the plate on a given night. There were games when he could not hit the proverbial broadside of a barn. He would strike out swinging four times.
But, the next night — or the next time he would face the same pitcher in the same ballpark under the same conditions — he could not miss.
He would hit three homers and a double, mark seven RBIs, and the pitchers would be baffled.
Bryant laughs about that and says, “I know it. It was crazy. It was just like that; I don’t know why. But the opposing teams never knew what to do when the game was on the line. They didn’t know whether to walk me or pitch to me, because they had no idea if I was going to strike out or hit a home run.”
Obviously, though, the “can’t miss” days far outnumbered the “broadside-of-a-barn” games, as Bryant wrapped up his seven-year stint in Osaka with career totals of 259 homers, 641 RBIs and a .261 average. He won three Pacific circuit home run crowns and one RBI title.
He is also credited with perhaps the most memorable home run in Japanese baseball history, an unbelievable blast that struck a bank of speakers hanging from the ceiling of Tokyo Dome during a 1990 game against the Nippon Ham Fighters.
The ball caromed down to the field in right-center, and the umpires credited Bryant with the four-bagger because, figuring the trajectory of the ball’s flight, it would have gone over the scoreboard and completely out of the stadium if there were no roof, and probably landed somewhere around Korakuen subway station across the street from the Big Egg.
About his new job, Bryant is grateful to Ogi for thinking of him.
“He even insisted I wear the same uniform No. 16 I had as a player,” said Bryant who is enjoying the double duty as hitting teacher and first-base coach. “We have a lot of good young hitters who are willing to listen and take advice, and I’m learning how to handle the job at first.”
About the Buffaloes, currently in fifth place in the Pacific division, Bryant says, “The merger has been tough, because we have starters from both (Kintetsu and Orix), and we never have a set lineup. We have not been able to get the right combination to win and, if we had gotten key hits in certain situations, our record would be a whole lot better.”
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