By: Brian Frank
Alex Ramírez starred on the late-90s Bisons and helped lead the Herd to two league championships. He put up some of the most impressive numbers on some of the greatest teams in Bisons history and then went on to be a superstar in Japan – collecting the most hits of any foreign-born player in Japanese baseball history. Ramírez recently spoke with The Herd Chronicles and reminisced about his remarkable baseball journey.
“We had a tremendous team,” Ramírez said about his first impression upon joining the Herd. “Of course, I was like – how am I going to play here? We had so many great players. And we got more guys down the road that came in as well.”
He was immediately impressed with the ballpark, only in its ninth season when he received his first call up to Triple-A in 1996.
“The ballpark was amazing to me,” he said. “The atmosphere was really good and left-field was very short – that was my power. I was thinking – okay, I can hit a lot of home runs here. And, of course, the fans were great.”
After all these years, one fan still stands out in Ramez’s mind – Bisons superfan Mark Aichinger, who, more than two decades later, can still be seen behind home plate, energetically cheering on the Herd and heckling opposing players.
“When I think about Buffalo and the fans, I always remember Mark,” Ramírez said. “Always getting upset with the opposite team and getting on the guys – ‘Heeeeeey! You stink!’”
“That became part of us. Every time we played at home, even when the team was losing, we were waiting for Mark to start yelling at the other team. ‘Go get ‘em Mark!’ It was great. It was a great experience being there.”
Ramírez played in 315 games with the Bisons. Photo Courtesy of the Buffalo Bisons Baseball Club.
Ramírez made his Bisons debut in the 1996 American Association playoffs before joining the team full time in 1997. Early on in his time with the Herd, he played right field on one of the most historic nights in Buffalo baseball history – Bartolo Colon’s no-hitter against the New Orleans Zephyrs.
“Bartolo was – my goodness – just unhittable,” Ramírez remembered. “It looked like he wasn’t really pushing himself to throw hard. He was on. Everything he threw was on the corners. He had tremendous stamina that day. I didn’t want anybody to hit the ball to right field, that’s for sure.”
“After that game, we were all thinking, Bartolo doesn’t belong here. He’s not going to be here for too long. And look who he became. It was amazing just to be there for that.”
Ramírez played for manager Brian Graham in 1997. Graham was one of the most successful managers in team history. In three seasons with Buffalo, he won 253 games, one league championship, two division titles, made three playoff appearances, and was named Baseball Weekly’s 1996 Minor League Manager of the Year.
“Brian Graham was one of the most professional managers I ever played for in my entire career,” Ramírez said. “He is a person who really cares about the players. The thing I really like about him is he will not sugarcoat anything. He will tell you things the way they are. As a player, sometimes you might think – wow, this is really hard the way he talks to us – but the reality is that he just says the truth and if you don’t do things the way you’re supposed to do them, then somebody else is going to take over your spot. I really appreciated playing for Brian Graham. We became good friends after that.”
Ramírez’s initial concerns about playing time were unfounded, as he was a regular in the lineup and had a big year at the plate before injuring his thumb in mid-August. He hit .286 with 11 home runs and 44 RBIs in 119 games, helping the Bisons become American Association champions, the organization’s first league championship since it won the International League in 1961.
He returned to Buffalo in ’98 and had one of the greatest seasons of the Bisons modern era, hitting .299 and setting team modern-era records with 34 home runs and 103 RBIs. In a sign of what lay ahead that season, he went on an incredible 28-game hitting streak in April and May.
“That hitting streak was awesome,” he remembered. “When I got to about 20 games in the streak, a lot of the players were like – ‘Hey you’ve got a 20-game hitting streak.’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, I know.” Other guys were like – ‘You’re not supposed to talk about it!’ But I didn’t care. I think that’s the reason why I was able to take it to a 28-game hitting streak, because I wasn’t thinking about the record. I was just taking it day by day and one at-bat at a time.”
Making the hitting streak even more impressive is the fact that the final ten games of it came when Ramírez had a torn ligament in his left knee. The injury was caused by a collision with Rochester first baseman Bo Dodson while Ramírez was racing down the first-base line on a slow roller.
“For some reason I always had a high pain tolerance and I always played through a lot of pain,” he said. “I remember going to the stadium and thinking – man, I don’t know if I’m going to be able to play today. But once I got to the stadium, everything just changed. The adrenalin would kick in and I’d be ready to go. I’d use a lot of tape and things like that and say just put me in.”
The historic hitting streak, which is still a Bisons modern-era record, finally came to an end in a game in which Ramírez only had one at-bat. After undergoing an MRI earlier in the day, he pinch-hit with two on and two out in the eighth inning of a game the Bisons were trailing 6-3. He grounded out to short, ending the team’s longest hitting streak since Jimmy Walsh’s 31-game streak in 1927.
“I really wanted to play,” Ramírez said of pinch-hitting with his streak on the line. “Some of the other guys were saying, ‘Why did you hit in that situation?’ But I wanted to play. I really wanted to hit. That happens. That’s part of the game. I played 985 consecutive games in Japan. I played through a lot of pain. I went seven years playing every day.”
Ramírez (center) with teammates Torey Lovullo and Jolbert Cabrera. Photo courtesy of the Buffalo Bisons Baseball Club.
The Bisons had rejoined the International League in 1998 after the American Association disbanded. However, a new league wasn’t the only change for the team, as manager Brian Graham was promoted to Cleveland during the offseason and former Akron Aeros manager Jeff Datz replaced him in Buffalo.
“Jeff Datz used to be my manager down in Double-A before that,” Ramírez said. “He has great communication skills. He would talk to us and tell us things whether we liked them or not – but that’s the way it’s supposed to be.”
“I remember one time he called me into his office when my defense was bad. He said, ‘I just got a call from the major leagues and they need an outfielder. But do you think you can play in the major leagues right now?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I want to go. I think I’m ready.’ He said, ‘No, you’re not. Your hitting is ready but your defense is not. I’m not going to take a chance with sending you there.’”
Datz’s blunt message was received and appreciated by his young outfielder.
“I said, ‘Yeah, I get it. You’re right. I need to continue working.’ And I stayed there and continued working. As a player, you always think the manager is against you, but the reality is that the manager has to take responsibility. They’re not going to recommend somebody to go to the major leagues if they’re not ready.”
Ramírez capped off the ’98 regular season by going on an absolute tear. In late-August and early-September, he hit a home run in five consecutive games tying Ollie Carnegie (1938), Carlos García (1992), and Bill Selby (1998) for an all-time Bisons record. His home run in the fifth game, a line shot to left field, came in a 5-3 win over Syracuse. It was also his 34th home run of the season, setting the team’s modern-era record. The solo shot also gave him 102 RBIs, tying Brian Dorsett (1992) for another modern-era record. Ramírez would later tack on another RBI to finish with 103.
“It was against Roy Halladay,” Ramírez said of his historic home run. “At that time he was one of the top prospects and he was throwing very, very hard. (Before the game,) I thought – it’s going to be hard for me to hit another home run today. But we were playing at home and I felt like I had a chance at home. I had a good feeling at home and everything was going in my favor – and I hit that home run.”
Twenty-five years later, his single season home run and RBI records are still tops in the team’s modern-era.
“Records are made to be broken, so hopefully somebody comes and breaks them,” he said. “I think one of the reasons why (the records still stand) is because a lot of guys now don’t stay a full season – and if they stay a full season, they don’t play every day. I had almost 600 plate appearances. I had over 500 at-bats. That gave me the opportunity to do what I did.”
He continued his red-hot hitting in the playoffs. In Buffalo’s first game of its first-round series against Syracuse, he hit for the cycle. It’s still the only cycle at Sahlen Field and the only post-season cycle in team history.
“I remember my triple very well,” he said. “I hit a blooper down between right field and second base and the right fielder dove for the ball and missed it. I put my head down and just kept running and got a triple out of that. I think that (the triple) was the most amazing thing.”
The Bisons went on to sweep the SkyChiefs and then beat Durham in five games to win the Governors’ Cup and advance to the Triple-A World Series to face New Orleans in Las Vegas. But Ramírez didn’t join his teammates in Las Vegas, because following the decisive fifth game against Durham, he realized a lifelong dream.
“Everybody was wondering who was going to get called up to the major leagues,” he recalled. “After the last game, Jeff Datz called me to his office and told me ‘You’re going to the big leagues. You really deserve it. You did a tremendous job and now is your time.’”
After one appearance pinch-hitting against the Royals in Cleveland, Ramírez got his first major-league start – playing left field against the Yankees in New York. He made the game even more memorable by collecting his first major-league hit.
“I got my first hit against Andy Pettitte,” he recalled. “It was a line drive to left field. It was a great feeling.”
“The Cleveland Indians at that time had so many great players, that I was just happy to be there. With all those great players, I didn’t care if I played or not.”
He continued with a chuckle: “I remember, I was telling Manny Ramirez and Albert Belle – ‘Hey, if you guys need to take a day off in the outfield, I can fill in for you.’ But I was just happy to be there. It was just a great experience.”
In 1999, Ramírez was hoping to make the big-league roster coming out of spring training, but ended up starting the season back in Triple-A.
“I started Spring Training with the Indians and I believe I hit over .300 with three home runs and 12 RBIs,” he said. “I even traveled with the team to Arizona. I thought for sure I’d already made the team. But Mike Hargrove told me ‘You’re going to go down to Triple-A, just go down there and do your best. Once somebody gets hurt, or something like that, we’ll call you up.’ So I went down. I remember I drove to Buffalo – a couple days drive. When I got there, everything was good. I was kind of happy to go there because I thought, if I’m not going to be in the major leagues then it’s best to be in Triple-A and get some playing time.”
Ramírez's '98 season was one of the best in Bisons history. Photo courtesy of the Buffalo Bisons Baseball Club.
He got off to another great start for the Bisons, hitting .305 with 12 home runs and 50 RBIs in 75 games. He was poised to represent the Bisons in the Triple-A All-Star Game in New Orleans, along with Russell Branyan, Dave Roberts, and manager Jeff Datz, when fate intervened and he was called back up to Cleveland.
He appeared in 48 games for Cleveland that season, hitting .299 with three home runs and 18 RBIs in 97 at-bats. He started 2000 back in Cleveland, but wasn’t playing as much as he’d hoped. His chances of getting into the lineup were further limited when Russell Branyan, one of the organization’s top prospects, was called up to Cleveland from Buffalo in late May.
“So I was there in the major leagues and Russell Branyan came up,” he recalled. “He was a first baseman, third baseman. Kenny Lofton had gotten hurt, so I was thinking that I was going to get some playing time. But they put Russell Branyan in right field. They shifted the outfielders and put him in right field. Then he started hitting home runs.”
Ramírez remembers going to Cleveland manager Charlie Manuel’s office and asking why he wasn’t playing more. He recalls Manuel saying: “Hey Alex, I like you, but you’ve got to understand, he (Branyan) is the top prospect. You’ve got to wait for your opportunity.” Ramírez responded, “Charlie, if I’m not going to play, I think it’s better if I get traded.”
Ramirez continued: “I remember, we were playing in Baltimore and after the game Charlie called me to his office and said ‘You’ve been traded to Pittsburgh and this is going to be good for you because you’re going to get some playing time. I believe you can do it.’ Charlie and I never lost contact. He was my manager and my mentor. Even now, we still communicate. I believe getting traded to Pittsburgh was a turning point in my career.”
After finishing the season with the Pirates, Ramírez made the decision to play overseas in Japan.
“Once I got traded to Pittsburgh I played a little bit, but in September they told me they wanted to see some young players,” he said. “I was thinking, I don’t think I’m going to be able to play here anymore. I talked to my agent and told him to talk to the Japanese teams to see if they were interested in me.”
“We were making good money in the major leagues but at the time it was 10 times more in Japan. So I was thinking, come to Japan and make some good money and then come back to the major leagues or even Triple-A and I should be okay. That was my first thought before coming to Japan. Also, Charlie Manuel had always talked to me about playing in Japan, since he also played here.”
“The Yakult Swallows had an agreement with the Cleveland Indians at that time to bring players to train with the team in Winter Haven. So I knew some of the guys, the players and scouts from the Yakult Swallows. There were some connections and that’s how everything started. They were very interested and bought my contract.”
What Ramírez thought might be a season or two overseas became much more than that, as he fell in love with Japan and its culture and ended up making the country his permanent home.
“Right from the beginning, I said that for me to become a good player in Japan and to get adjusted, I have to learn Japanese culture – and that’s what I started doing,” he explained. “I started learning Japanese culture and that helped me a lot in my first couple years. I ate everything. I tried everything. The people were also very nice. They made me feel like one of them. So I got adjusted quickly.”
Ramírez, who already spoke Spanish and English, felt that he should learn Japanese in order to maximize his experience in Japan.
“It takes time,” he said. “Right from the beginning we have interpreters, so we don’t have to force ourselves too much because the interpreters are always there with us. But yeah, it took a couple years to pick it up. I’m not fluent in Japanese yet. But I can communicate with players in Japanese no problem.”
He also had to adjust to a new style of baseball.
“There are differences in how the game is played,” he explained. “For example, in Japanese baseball, if the first guy gets on base in the first inning, the second hitter is bunting 70 to 80 percent of the time. In the states, you may bunt with the eighth hitter or ninth hitter, but not the second hitter in the first inning. Also, the way they use pitchers and the way they use players – it’s totally different than the states.”
“The way they practice is a lot harder than the states. The way they think about the game is totally different. The mentality is totally different. In the beginning, it was a little hard for me because I thought – Why do we have to do this? Why do we have to do that? I finally just started saying – You know what, I’m just going to do whatever you guys want me to do.”
He went on to have an incredible 13-year career in Japan. He played seven seasons for the Yakult Swallows, four for the Yomiuri Giants, and two for the Yokahama Bay Stars. He was a two-time Central League MVP (2008 and 2009), eight-time NPB All-Star, and four-time Best Nine Award winner (awarded annually to the best player at each position). He was the 2009 Central League batting champion, three-time Central League RBI leader, had a record eight-consecutive 100 RBI seasons, was the 2003 Central League home run leader, and set what was then a league record with 204 hits in 2007. He was also a two-time Japan Series Champion (with Yakult in 2001 and Yomiuri in 2009) and was the 2008 Central League Climax Series MVP.
Ramírez with the Yomiuri Giants. Photo from Wikimedia.
Perhaps his greatest career achievement was becoming the first foreign-born player to collect 2,000 hits in Japan. The 2,000 hit plateau is celebrated in Japan the way 3,000 hits are recognized in MLB due to NPB teams playing a shorter schedule than MLB. Ramírez’s historic 2,000th hit came on a solo home run when he was playing for Yokohama against the Yakult Swallows, the team where his Japanese career began.
“That was the greatest feeling,” Ramírez beamed. “That put a stamp on my career in Japan. Getting 2,000 hits made me the only foreign-born player that reached that milestone. I didn’t want to combine (stats from) major-league and Japanese baseball. I wanted to do it all in Japan. That made it more prestigious. That was very emotional.”
Reaching 2,000 hits made him eligible to join the Meikyukai, a private club that recognizes the best players in Japanese baseball history.
“The Meikyukai is the Golden Players Club,” he explained “There are only 64 players. To enter this club, you have to reach 2,000 hits as a hitter, or, as a pitcher, you have to get 200 wins or 250 saves. Only these three accomplishments get you in. I got my 2,000 hits in Japan and right away they opened the doors for me and they invited me to join as the only foreign-born player to ever enter the Meikyukai.”
“I’m very happy and very blessed. That’s why it was so important for me to get all 2,000 hits in Japanese baseball, because many players come here from major-league baseball and they get 1,000 hits here (and 1,000 in the U.S.) and then say – wow, I already have 2,000 hits.”
Ramírez finished his playing career in Japan in 2013. In 13 seasons in the NPB, he slashed .301/.336/.523 and finished with 2,017 hits, 380 home runs, and 1,272 RBIs.
In 2016, he became the first Latin American to manage in Japan, when he took the helm of the Yokahama Bay Stars, where he managed until 2020. While with the Bay Stars, some of his players included Shun Yamaguchi, who pitched in Buffalo for the 2020 Blue Jays, and former Bisons outfielder Yoshi Tsutsugo.
“It was a big challenge for me and maybe helped open some doors for other Latin American managers in the near future,” Ramírez said. “I took the team from the bottom to the playoffs and all the way to the Nippon Series. I feel that the Japanese people will consider another Latin American to be a manager here because of what I did.”
Ramírez with the Yokahama DeNA Baystars. Photo from Wikimedia.
Ramírez still lives in Japan. He recently became a Japanese citizen and he’s involved in many different projects in the country.
“I married a Japanese woman and I have four kids,” he said. “I became a Japanese citizen two years ago. I live in Yokohama now – one of the biggest cities in Japan. It’s been a blessing here. This year I became the general director of the international division for Meikyukai. We want to expand and we want to go abroad to bring the Meikyukai players and show the world the legends of Japanese baseball. My job is to set up games, set up baseball clinics outside Japan.”
“I own my own CrossFit gym here in Yokohama. I also have my own special needs organization called Vamos Together that we do a lot of activities with.”
“Now that I’m not in baseball, I became co-president of the Grits ice hockey team in Yokohama,” he continued. “When I think about hockey, I always think about that Buffalo team. That was my motivation to get into hockey here. I never went to watch a hockey game in Buffalo. I always think I should have gone when I had the opportunity to watch games there. That’s the thing, Buffalo has so many great things, but I was so involved in baseball that I never had the opportunity to visit all the great places that Buffalo has. I wish I could have.”
He may not have seen as much of Buffalo as he would have liked, but Ramírez certainly made his imprint on Buffalo baseball history while he was here. Besides owning the Bisons single season modern-era records for home runs and RBIs, his name also fills the team’s career record book for the modern era. He is fourth in the modern era in career home runs (57), fifth in RBIs (197), fourth in hits (368), fourth in runs scored (203), fifth in triples (18), tenth in doubles (60), and eighth in slugging percentage (.511).
Ramírez was honored for his success with the Bisons when he was inducted into the Buffalo Baseball Hall of Fame in 2016.
“It is an honor for me to be inducted into the Hall of Fame in Buffalo,” he said. “The Bisons for me were the beginning of a successful career before I went to the major leagues and came here to Japan. The people there treated me very, very nice and I really appreciate everything that everybody did for me while I was there.”
It was recently announced that Ramírez will be joining another Hall of Fame. Just days after his chat with The Herd Chronicles, the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame announced he will be part of its 2023 induction class. It is yet another well-deserved honor for an incredible career that had some of its earliest roots right here in Buffalo.