Alex Ramirez is arguably the greatest baseball import to have ever played in Japan and with just three more hits, the Venezuelan will become the first foreigner to reach the 2,000-hit milestone. (Check the countdown on his website to keep up to date…)

by Matthew Hernon

The 38 year-old slugger – affectionately known as ‘Rami-chan’ – won his first Central League MVP Award in 2008, batting with a .319 average and retained that title a year later with the league’s highest average, scoring at .322. He has hit 40 or more home runs on three occasions and has finished top of the RBI (Runs Batted In) leaderboard four times.

Ramirez is more concerned, though, about helping his team than earning individual honours. Having won the Japan Series with both the Tokyo Yakult Swallows and Yomiuri Giants he now hopes to repeat the feat with the Yokohama DeNA Baystars. Speaking to Tokyo Weekender before the season begun, we found him in bullish mood, despite the team’s poor record over the last few years.

“I strongly believe we have the potential to be an A-class team with a chance of winning the title. We have added some great players to the roster like Tony Blanco who has already won a home run title and I think he can help protect the line-up.”

Rami-chan in numbers:

40 or more runs scored in three different NPB seasons

2 times Central League MVP (2008/9)

8 years in a row Rami-chan finished the season with an RBI over 100

“(Hitoshi) Tamura has come back and I believe he will be a very important player this year, while two new pitchers have come – (Jorge) Sosa and (Enyelbert) Soto – both of whom already have proved they can play in Japan. When you add them to some of the exciting young players we’ve already got, like (Yoshitomo) Tsutsugoh, who is going to be one of the best players in the league, and (Sho) Aranami, I genuinely believe we have a chance of doing well this year.” (Having played only two games as of April 1, the DeNA Baystars have won two and lost one and sit second in the Central League)

Rami-chan’s experience will be vital in helping the youngsters develop over the next couple of years. The Caracas-born star made his debut in Japan in 2001, when Tsutsugoh was still in Elementary School, and has been there and seen it all during his time here. He helped the Yakult Swallows win the Japan Series in his first year and became an immediate hero to the supporters, who helped him feel at home right away.

“Even with the language difficulties, they made me feel part of the team,” he says. “It has been the same at all the teams I have played for here … So many people in this country have helped me become the player I am today and that is one of the major reasons why I have stayed in Japan for so long. I’ve had offers from Major league sides, but I politely declined. I feel like I belong here and this is where I want to retire.”

After just a short time in his company it is easy to see the infectious personality that has always helped make him a firm fans’ favourite. He will always be the gentle giant from Venezuela, but feels completely at home in Japan. So much so, he has decided to open a restaurant in trendy Nishi-Azabu, and it’s at Ramichan CAFÉ we are chatting.

“It is the first Puerto Rican eatery in Japan and I am so excited about it. My wife (who is Puerto Rican) and I have always wanted to own a restaurant, so it is a dream come true for us. That said I can’t take any of the credit for how it looks,” he laughs, “She has better taste than me so I let her choose everything.”

“I never imagined it would look so beautiful. She, with my son, Alex Jr., has created a tropical style atmosphere with a waterfall, a sky ceiling and old Puerto Rican houses painted on the wall. She has done an amazing job, but she is not just skilled in design, she is also a fantastic cook so she will help out in the kitchen along with our Puerto Rican, Japanese and Brazilian chefs.”

There is of course excellent Pernil Pork (a Puerto Rican classic, seasoned and spiced and roasted for around four hours) and the idea behind many items on the menu, as well as the decor, is to bring a slice of the sunny Caribbean nation to Japan – the cocktails help with that, too.

There is the expected (and popular, we’re told) baseball memorabilia in the basement from Rami-chan’s own collection, with the spoils of his career on full show, but this is not simply a sports bar. The place has something of a romantic feel, too, and an impressive VIP room for the special guests and occasions that come often.

With a new restaurant, numerous trophies and the money that follows them, Ramirez could be forgiven for taking it easy in his final couple of years as a player. That, though, is not his style.

He has prepared as vigorously for this season as he did for the previous 12 as he tries to help turn the DeNA Baystars into a genuine force in the league. Looking at recent tables it seems like an impossible task, but listening to Rami-chan speak, it doesn’t sounds too far-fetched.

(Main image courtesy of Yokohama DeNA Baystars)