The Japan News The long-awaited start to the baseball season has arrived. One manager receiving ample attention is Alex Ramirez, who last season led the Yokohama DeNA BayStars to the Japan Series for the first time in 19 years. Heading into his third season as a manager, Ramirez seeks to grab the Central League pennant and win the Japan Series — the two goals the team fell short of in 2017. Before assuming the managerial role, he spent 13 seasons in Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) as a player, winning many individual titles and becoming the only foreign-born player to amass 2,000 career hits in Japan. The BayStars skipper discussed the secrets to his success with The Japan News.
Q: What was the key to your success in Japan?
Ramirez: One of the things that was very, very key to success here in Japan is to learn Japanese culture. That was the No. 1 thing. There were so many obstacles that we have to go through, throughout our career. Not only in baseball but outside baseball, things that we need to go through on a daily basis. Learning the culture was a very, very good factor in becoming a good baseball player here in Japan. Of course, we have the talent, because we come from the United States or Latin [America]. They bring us over here because we have the physical talent to play the game. But to be able to adjust to the Japanese way, that is very difficult.
Q: What were your philosophies or mottoes in adapting to Japanese baseball?
A: There’s a couple of things. I always have to remember that I’m in Japan and not in my country, and Japanese people do things a different way. So I have to change my mentality to the Japanese way. Of course, I still have to think a little bit about Venezuela, maybe 5 percent Venezuela or even the United States, but 90 percent has to be Japanese for me to be able to adjust here.
There’s three things that I always tell people. Number one: shoganai [it cannot be helped]. Number two: Hai, wakarimashita [Yes, I understand]. Number three: Gambarimasu [I will work hard]. On a daily basis you go through those things. To be able to accept those things in your life is not easy to do. But once you accept those things in your life, then you can say, “I’m established, I already know Japanese culture.”
Q: Why did you choose those three words? Especially shoganai?
A: Because everybody every day, especially for a foreign person, once we learn the system, we’re in a lot of shoganai situations. As a gaikokujin person, we think that things should not be that hard. If you just do it this way, you should be OK. But in the Japanese way, it’s a process, everything is a process — It’s going to take a little process. We have to go this duration, so it becomes a shoganai situation for me. Why do I have to wait, when we think it’s easy? No, no, no, you have to do it this way, you cannot cut corners — it’s a line and you have to follow the line, you cannot go around it. So, it becomes a shoganai situation every day.
Q: Did you find some sort of Japanese culture in the word shoganai?
A: The way Japanese people use it is: There is nothing you can do about it. Basically, even though you want to do something else, or you feel you can do something else, there is nothing you can do about this situation, you just have to deal with the situation. So that’s what I see in that word.
Q: Have you seen foreign players who cannot do shoganai?
A: Oh, a lot of foreigners cannot do shoganai, a lot of foreigners [just] complain. Because I was the first player, I was the first foreigner to start complaining about shoganai, until I learned how to use it, until I learned that I need to apply that in my life every single day. I used to complain a lot. But that is just the way it is. And when all the foreigners meet and we talk, most of the time that’s what we do, we just complain about many things. Especially first year, second year. We have to tell them, it’s a shoganai situation, you’re in Japan, there’s nothing you can do about those things. You just got to do what you need to do.
Accepting shoganai is very important to be a successful person in Japan.
Q: Were people around you using the word shoganai?
A: A lot of people, a lot of foreigners, most of them, use shoganai. Not only baseball players but also outside the field, just regular friends, also go through the same. They work in a Japanese company, and we always have the same things in common that we go through. Some people want to teach, they come from the United States or different countries, because when they come here they come with a title, “I’m a professional in this area.” And then they bring them over here and then they cannot do what they know how to do. So that becomes a shoganai situation.
Q: Now, the next step is “hai, wakarimashita.”
A: Yes, the next step is wakarimashita — hai, wakarimashita. To be able to accept that, that takes courage to say, hai wakarimashita.
And the hardest thing is gambarimasu. That’s the ichiban hardest. Why? Because a lot of people will say, hai wakarimashita, to get it out of the way — OK, no problem, hai wakarimashita. But who is going to do the best at something that he doesn’t believe sometimes? That is the hardest thing. Because sometimes we don’t believe a lot of things but we still got to do our best at that and perform well. That becomes the hardest thing.
So, the shoganai situation, hai wakarimashita, and then OK, gambarimasu — and then show that you really mean it, that is the hardest thing.
Sometimes it’s frustrating, but I have to swallow my pride and, hai wakarimasu. Gambarimasu. Forget about my personal thinking, forget about it, I’m going to do your thinking 100 percent and make the best out of it. That is the hardest thing to me. You cannot do two things out of three. You have to do three things, it’s a combination thing, I believe.
Q: I suppose without it, you can’t play for 13 years, can you?
A: Without that, it’s hard. So many players have good numbers, good career, four, five years, six years, but their career stopped. Why? Because at some point, even if they had it in the beginning, they let it go. “I’m an established baseball player, I don’t need to shoganai, I don’t need to say, wakarimashita. I’m going to do my own thing.” So, what I did was I mastered that area, I became better and better and better, after using it more and more and more, so I became more Japanese-like.
Q: What are the cultural differences you struggled to adapt to in the early days of your life in Japan?
A: Especially in baseball. Japanese baseball is cultural baseball. The baseball that was played 30 years ago is still played right now, with certain principles. It was hard for me to learn to adjust to the Japanese way. Especially in the first inning, the guy gets a base hit, and the next batter is bunting. Why? In our countries, we don’t play like that.
Also, outside baseball, how can we adjust to the daily basics in Japan? Eating the food, little things. Like when you get in the taxi you’re not supposed to open the door, the taxi driver will open the door for you. When you use the toilet, sometimes ... [you find] washlets. That is a cultural thing, it was normal for Japanese people, but for us it was kind of difficult.
Understanding Japanese humor
Q: As a baseball player, you were very keen to interact with fans. You were famous for your home run performances using such comedians’ gags as “Aiin” and “Gets” with unique gestures. How did you come up with these ideas?
A: In my first year when I came, [Yakult teammate Hirobumi] Watarai introduced me to “Aiin.” I didn’t know at that time what it was, but once I started doing it, the fans started laughing and having fun, so I thought wow, if I can make somebody happy doing this, hey, no problem, I can do that all day. And then [catcher Atsuya] Furuta introduced me also to “Gets.” So that’s how I was introduced to doing performance. Every year I would do a different performance.
Q: Was the performance part of your effort to adapt to Japanese culture?
A: That was part of my adaptation to Japanese culture because the sense of humor of Japanese people is very unique. You have to learn the Japanese sense of humor, and then use that in your life every single day. So, for me, I grabbed that, the sense of humor. I became very, very good at it, and so that was part of learning the culture.
Q: What do you think is the essence of NPB?
A: When you talk about Japanese baseball, it’s based on strategy — Japanese baseball has a pretty good strategy. I mean, when you talk about Japanese baseball, it doesn’t have too many power hitters. They tend to study more about the game, playing small baseball more.
One thing that pops up from Japanese baseball, the defense is very good, one of the best in the whole world. When you talk in the United States about Japanese players, automatically you say, he has a good defense. They play good baseball, sound baseball. That’s what I get from Japanese baseball.
Building good communication
Q: Before you took over, the BayStars were hovering between fifth and sixth in the Central League, but after you became manager the team has finished third the past two years. What changes did you bring to the BayStars?
A: Basically, many changes. Of course, it was a little bit hard for me to install my mentality into the players’ mind. I knew it was going to take a little bit longer, so little by little I was trying to teach a new baseball to the team, to the players. The players were adjusting very good. For example, bunting. Some newer strategy — instead of using a sacrifice bunt, I use a safety bunt; instead of using a hit and run, I used a line hit. It’s almost the same, but it has a different image. I wanted to install something new in the team.
I also wanted to build very good communication with my players. A lot of people think that communication is just talking to your players, but I believe communication is not only that: communication is asking questions to your players, listening to your players and then answering your players to try to find the best way for you to fix their mistakes. So, listening to the players is communication.
Q: Compared to your time as a player, you have more authority as a manager. Are their some shoganai things you are now able to change as a manager?
A: Of course, there are a couple of things, little things here and there you can change as a manager, maybe we do it this way it’s probably better, I feel you do it that way it’s better. But of course, I still have to talk to my boss and get permission from my boss, as anybody else does. But I always request, give my ideas, and then if they think it’s the best way we go that way. But if they think no, we need to wait a little bit longer for this, then that’s it. So I created new rules of communication with the coaching staff in the top team and farm team. And that is working very, very well at this moment. So that’s something I can see is changing, and it’s going in a very good direction.
Q: Putting aside baseball, are there any other cities or noted spots in Japan you particularly like?
A: I really like Gunma [Prefecture]. I really like to go to onsen [hot springs], I’m always in the onsen, Ikaho Onsen. That’s the place that I always go to, my wife also likes it. I’ve started to like sumo as well, because of my good friend [sumo wrestler] Yoshikaze.
(This interview was conducted by Japan News Staff Writer Hiromu Namiki.)
Born in Venezuela. Ramirez joined the Yakult Swallows in 2001 after playing for the Cleveland Indians and Pittsburgh Pirates in the major leagues. During his 13 years in the NPB, he became the only foreign player in history to record 2,000 career hits in Japanese professional baseball. He won the Central League home run title twice, the RBI title four times, the batting title once and the league MVP twice.
After playing for the Yomiuri Giants and the Yokohama DeNA BayStars, he became the BayStars manager in October 2015, leading the team to third place finishes in 2016 and 2017. The team advanced to the Japan Series for the first time in 19 years last season.Speech