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Cromartie praises Ichiro, hopes own legacy gets due credit

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One of the joys for Yomiuri Giants fans who packed the stands at Korakuen Stadium during the final years of the ballpark, before the team moved into the shiny new dome being built next door, was to see Warren Cromartie hit a home run then trot out to his spot in the outfield between innings and lead enthusiastic cheers of “Banzai!”

“What a place, my God, what a place, so electric, so intimate,” Cromartie told The Japan Times in a recent telephone interview from his Florida home, “all the championships won, (Sadaharu) Oh-san hit all those home runs, lot of history was there.”

Cromartie was a fan favorite with the Giants, from 1984-90, much like had been in the majors with the Montreal Expos. Cromartie, now 62, still hears from Japanese fans and says many tell him how much they enjoyed watching him play.

“Even Ichiro told me that,” he laughed. ” ‘Cro-san, they still love you in Japan!’ ”

His chat with Ichiro was before a game at Marlins Park in May. Cromartie, who doesn’t go to many games, happened to be at the park and made it a point to seek out Ichiro, who at the time was still barrelling toward his milestone 4,257th career hit.

“To do what he’s done from Japan to the U.S., putting up the numbers like he’s done, is phenomenal,” Cromartie said. “Four thousand hits is a hell of an accomplishment anywhere. You can’t get 4,000 hits in a video game.”

While there was a lot of discussion in North America about Ichiro’s combined hits between NPB and MLB, that wasn’t the case during Cromartie’s heyday in Japan.

Cromartie’s 2,055 career hits (1,104 in MLB and 951 more in Japan) could’ve earned him a spot in the Meikyukai (the Golden Players Club), which is reserved for batters with least 2,000 hits and pitchers with 200 career victories or 250 saves. In recent years, the group has combined MLB and NPB numbers for Japanese players.

But the Meikyukai only starts counting after a player’s NPB debut, which mostly leaves out former MLBers, even those who excelled in NPB for an extended period. Unless, like slugger Alex Ramirez, they hit one of the benchmarks after coming to Japan.

There are other players with more than 2,000 hits combined between the leagues, but not as many who played in Japan as long as Cromartie did. Alfonso Soriano, who had no idea what the Meikyukai was when approached by Daily Sports in 2013, isn’t listed, despite having briefly played for the Hiroshima Carp, for whom he had two hits, before amassing 2,095 in MLB.

“I think it should be recognized,” Cromartie said of his numbers. “I think it only helps Japanese baseball to do that, along with the other foreign players who accomplished so much in Japan to be recognized.

“I’d like to be recognized for that. I’ll leave that up to them. It’s part of something that’s good for Japanese baseball, I think.”

Cromartie remains extremely proud of his NPB career.

He hit .321 with 171 home runs, 558 RBIs and a .908 on-base plus slugging percentage in seven seasons with the Giants. In 1989, he was named Central League MVP and helped the Kyojin win the Japan Series.

Adjusting to life in Japan off the field wasn’t easy early on, and Cromartie would often pass the time watching movies he’d recorded on VHS tapes back home and brought with him.

In one of his more memorable incidents on the field, Cromartie was hit in the head with a pitch during a game against the Yakult Swallows on Oct. 3, 1986, and spent a night in the hospital. Initially, it was thought he’d be out of action for a lengthy period.

“I came back the next day and hit a grand slam (a decisive blow in an 8-3 win) at Jingu,” Cromartie said. “That pretty much sealed my acceptance in Japan during that time. I feel that’s when I got accepted.

“I don’t think I would’ve been successful without Sadaharu Oh or the Giants. I played with the best team, that made it more exciting every day. But it was tough getting used to the traveling, money, food, communication. It took a little while.”

Cromartie still pops up in Japanese commercials from time to time even today. Last year, he was in a baseball-themed Toyota ad that became very popular with baseball fans in Japan and the U.S.

“That was a very good commercial, it went places,” he said.

Cromartie spends much of his time these days working with the Montreal Baseball Project in hopes of bringing MLB back to Montreal. The Expos called Montreal home from 1969 to 2004, when the franchise relocated to Washington and became the Nationals for the 2005 season.

“I’ve been on this journey for five years now,” he said. “It’s going on 11 years since we lost the Expos. Now, there’s a big swell of enthusiasm and hope that we’re going to get our team back. We’ve made some noise in Montreal.”

Cromartie plans to return to Japan for a visit in July. He says he’d like to see Oh, “my sensei,” he said, and wants to reconnect with the Giants and interact with the team and its fans once again.

“I am a Giant,” he said. “I will always be a Giant.”