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While one man named Ramirez was seeing his star shine bright in Cleveland, another Ramirez toiled in the Indians farm system, proving consistently to be a top hitter in the club’s minor leagues while waiting for his opportunity in the Show.
Alex Ramirez signed with the Indians in 1991 as a teenager out of Caracas, Venezuela. He saw his professional game action begin in 1993 at the age of 18 and evolved into a balanced threat of power, steady batting averages, and speed. Yet somehow, despite some positive numbers in the early stages of his career, his greatest accomplishments as a baseball player would occur far from his native Caracas or from his temporary home in the United States.
By 1997, Ramirez had reached the Indians’ Triple-A affiliate in Buffalo and remained with the club in 1998, where he burst onto the minor league scene with a .299 season with 21 doubles, 34 homers, and a career-best 103 RBI while being named the team’s Minor League Player of the Year and an International League postseason All-Star. The strong showing in his second season with the Bisons, who went on to end a long Governors’ Cup drought that year, got him a September call-up to Cleveland, where he was 1-for-8 in his first three Major League games wearing the number 61 on his back.
Ramirez split the 1999 season between Buffalo and Cleveland, appearing in 48 games for the Tribe while hitting .299. While the batting average looked promising and he showed some power and ability to drive in runs over his 102 plate appearances, he drew just three walks in what had become a trend throughout his young career. His minor league numbers remained good (20 doubles, 12 homers, 50 RBI with a .305 batting average), but were a bit off from the level of production he had shown the previous year. Despite that, he still was named a midseason International League All-Star.
He returned to the Indians roster to start the 2000 season and through 41 games had hit .286 with five doubles, a triple, and five homers while driving in 12. But the corner outfielder, still unable to latch onto a spot in the crowded Indians outfield, was dealt to Pittsburgh with Enrique Wilson for left fielder and first baseman Wil Cordero, who was returning for a second stint with the Indians.
With a fresh start in a new league with a new team, Ramirez’s early showings did not translate. He hit .209 in 43 games with the Pirates, supplying his usual extra base numbers while seeing a decline in singles and a lack of patience at the plate that led to few free passes. Following the season, his contract was sold to the Yakult Swallows of the Japan Central League.
This move would turn out to be far more substantial for the 26-year-old, who blossomed into a superstar on the Japan stage. He spent seven seasons with Yakult, appearing in 982 games while hitting .301 with 200 doubles, eleven triples, and 211 home runs in that span. He hit 40 homers and drove in 124 runs while hitting .333 in 2003 and, in his final season with the Swallows, he set a Japan Central League record with 204 hits (including 41 doubles and 29 homers) while hitting .343 for the season.
He passed on a new deal with Yakult following the season and moved to the Yomiuri Giants, who immediately benefited from Ramirez’s presence in the lineup.
In his first season with the club, he hit .319 with career-highs with 45 homers and 125 RBI and was named Central League MVP. He hit .322 the following season as the league’s batting champion and was again named the Most Valuable Player as the Giants won the Japan Series. In 2010, he toppled his personal bests with 49 homers and 129 RBI for the Giants.
Ramirez moved on from the Giants following the 2011 season as his numbers appeared to be heading towards a decline. At 37, he joined the Yokohama BayStars and spent two seasons with the club, hitting .300 in 137 games in 2012 with 19 homers and 76 RBI, but he hit just .185 in 56 games in 2013 in his last season of professional action in the Japan Central League. Early in his final season, he hit a home run for his 2,000th hit in Nippon Professional Baseball, making him the 42nd player ever (and the first foreign ball player) to reach that mark. The accomplishment entered him into the Meikyukai (The Golden Players Club), one of two baseball hall of fames in Japan; players gain automatic entry for reaching either 2,000 career hits, 200 wins, or 250 saves while playing in Japan.
In his 13 seasons in Japan, he hit a combined .301 with 380 home runs. Combined with his eight seasons in the Major League and minor league system, he hit .297 with 505 home runs.
Ramirez continued to play the game that he had dedicated 21 professional seasons to when he spent 2014 as a player-coach in the Baseball Challenge League in Japan with the Gunma Diamond Pegasus. Following the season, he retired and worked as the club’s Senior Director before joining the JPCL’s Orix Buffaloes as an advisor.
In what was a surprising move to some following the season, he was named the manager of the Yokohama DeNA BayStars despite having no previous professional managerial experience. He led the BayStars to a 69-71-3 record in his first season at the helm in 2016, guiding the team to a third place finish in the Central League and an exit in the second round of the league’s Climax Series.
During the year, he was also honored by his former Triple-A team, the Buffalo Bisons, who inducted him into the Buffalo Baseball Hall of Fame on July 29.
While the season provided Ramirez with plenty of new challenges and struggles along the way, he was given the vote of confidence from Yokohama’s owner last September that he would get an opportunity to fulfill the second year of his two-year contract. Where his baseball life goes after that may largely be contingent upon what his club is able to accomplish on the field in the 2017 season.
If he exits the managerial ranks, he has plenty to fall back upon. The beloved slugger had a successful restaurant in Tokyo called Ramichan Café, which served fare from Puerto Rico, the home of his wife. He also sells stuffed dolls in his likeness and other t-shirts and memorabilia at ramichan.jp, using the nickname he earned during his time in a land far from his native Caracas and much removed from his MLB days in the United States Rust Belt.
Photo: AP Photo