Popular slugger Ramirez, family opening Latin-style cafe in Tokyo


Most foreigners who come to Japan to play baseball do just that — and only that. Whether a career lasts a few games or several years, the guys go back to their home country to continue playing ball, stay in the game as coaches or managers or find another job outside the game. A few, however, have stayed in Japan and started a business.

Wally Yonamine for example, together with his wife Jane, opened their highly successful and popular pearl shop in Tokyo’s Roppongi district, over the years serving a clientele that included customers from the sports and entertainment worlds. Hawaiian native Yonamine played with the Tokyo Giants and Chunichi Dragons from 1951 through 1962 and managed the Dragons 1974-79.

Mike Solomko, an American who played with the Hanshin Tigers (1960-63) and Daimai Orions (1964-65) also stayed on in Japan and opened a lucrative business selling pots and pans. Chico Barbon, the Cuban-born Hankyu Braves star shortstop in the 1950s, once owned a pizza-and-steak restaurant in Kobe.

Japanese players, too, have been known to work a variety of jobs in and out of the game after their active careers have ended. Many stay in baseball as coaches, managers, scouts, umpires, batting practice pitchers or catchers, front office executives, farm team dormitory custodians or in PR, sales or fan service.

Several years ago, Japanese sports papers listed a yearend “Sayonara Pro Yakyu” column which indicated what retirees would be doing after taking off their uniforms. Outside of baseball, ex-players have become school teachers, taxi drivers, stock traders, politicians and farmers. Many have opened places to eat and drink such as sports bars, night clubs, coffee shops and sushi restaurants.

The latest player to delve into the restaurant business here is the still-active Yokohama Baystars outfielder Alex Ramirez. The Venezuelan-born slugger, together with his Puerto Rican wife Liz, are opening the Rami-chan Cafe in Tokyo next month, and they are excited.

Alex has played in Japan since he joined the Yakult Swallows in 2001. He’s also played with the Yomiuri Giants and Yokohama, enjoying a stellar career entering its 13th season. The commitment to the restaurant would indicate he and Liz expect to be here for a lot longer.

He has stayed in Japan throughout this off-season, rather than return as usual to his home in Florida or Venezuela. Following the conclusion of the baseball schedule in October, Ramirez and his wife got right to the task of setting up the cafe for the opening on Jan. 22 in Tokyo’s Nishi Azabu district.

“Since Alex loves to eat, we always had the idea to someday open our own restaurant,” said Liz, “but we thought it would be in the U.S. We did not expect to be in Japan for 13 years.”

Because Alex is still playing, Liz will be the main overseer of the operation of the Rami-chan Cafe after her husband leaves for the Baystars’ spring training camp in Okinawa at the end of January. The cuisine at the new place will be mostly Puerto Rican-style, with the specialties being foods Alex “rushes home to eat after a game,” according to Liz.

“As much as we love Japanese food,” she said, “there are no Puerto Rican or mixed Latin restaurants in Japan. That’s why we decided to do this. Also, it is really the only food I know how to cook.”

The menu will include chicken noodle soup, enpanadas (a Venezuelan pastry stuffed with ground beef), mofongo (stewed shrimp with mashed green plantains), roast pork with yellow rice and pigeon peas, Alex’s favorite coconut pudding, salads, warm bread and tropical drinks such as pina coladas and strawberry daiquiris. Lunch will cost about ¥1,500; dinner ¥2,000 to ¥3,000.

Liz expects the atmosphere to be like a tropical setting to give customers the feeling they are “outside, dining on a terrace,” enjoying the meals prepared under the direction of two chefs, Puerto Rican Antuan Negron and Japanese Ryosuke Minowa.

As he so often does after hitting a game-winning home run, Alex is quick to acknowledge the Almighty for the opportunity to expand into the restaurant business.

“I want to thank God for the great team we have assembled to create the Rami-chan Cafe and look forward to a successful operation,” he said.

That team includes son Alex Jr. who works with Rami-chan Enterprises in the U.S. and helped design the new cafe’s logo, placemats, menus and chopsticks.

Liz added, “We have been in Japan many years and have learned to love the people of Japan, a country which has become our home. We are doing the restaurant so we can stay much longer, even after my husband retires.”

The 38-year-old Alex has said he would like to remain active for two more seasons in Japan and has made it no secret he would like to stay in Japanese baseball as a coach or manager. If all goes well, the year 2013 should be a most memorable one for him. Rami-chan is only seven hits shy of 2,000 and 22 home runs short of 400 in his Japan career.

His team is looking better too.

“I think we will be much improved during the coming season,” he said, in looking forward to a successful year on the field at Yokohama Stadium and off the field at the Rami-chan Cafe in Tokyo.

This is our last column for 2012. We’ll see you with the first Baseball Bullet-In of 2013 on Jan. 6. To all readers and fans, we wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Contact Wayne Graczyk at Wayne@JapanBall.com