The 2023 Hall of Fame

Alex Ramirez waltzed into Japan’s Baseball Hall of Fame and was joined by Randy Bass, as the hall’s voters ended a 29-year drought to induct its first import players since Wally Yonamine in 1994.

Ramirez put together a 13-year career in which he won two MVP awards and two Japan Series rings and reached Japan’s iconic 2,000-hit mark, while Bass had a seismic impact in just five-plus seasons, leading the once-mighty Hanshin Tigers to their first Japan Series in 21 years and their only Japan title since the two-league era began in 1950.

It took Ramirez less than 10 years between his last NPB game and his arrival at the Hall, while Bass waited 35 years. The difference in those figures is attributable not just to the length and quality of their careers but also to the horrid selection process that was used until the last decade or so, and the amount of controversy that stuck to the two.

Not only has Ramirez embraced the Japanese way like few others, he has mastered the accentuating the positive and eliminating the negative. If you’ve been following my work for any length of time, you’ll know I’m convinced that avoiding negatives, or even the whiff of any suspicion of negatives, is a fundamental strategy for advancement in Japan.

Players can have historically brilliant careers here only to be ignored in the Hall of Fame voting if they are not popular enough with the electorate. Sure, there is a line where a player is so accomplished and historically significant that he can get in despite not sucking up to the media in the slightest, see Hideo Nomo, but for most great players, it’s important to appear humble to the point of being obsequious.

Ramirez is a worthy selection, although I didn’t vote for him this year on the grounds that there are seven even better qualified candidates in my eyes: Tuffy Rhodes, Atsunori Inaba, Nobuhiko Matsunaka, Kenji Jojima, Hiroki Kuroda, Tadahito Iguchi and Michihiro Ogasawara.

Ramirez: Open the doors

During his press conference, Ramirez admitted that there are many other deserving imports and that he hoped his admission would open the doors for them.

Ramirez had one of the two best careers by an import in Japan, but the guy who had the best, who was 22nd all-time in runs, 24th in home runs, 22nd in RBIs, 22nd in walks and fifth in slugging average, finished ninth in this year’s voting.

The player’s division ballot was led by Ramirez at 81.7 percent, with evergreen catcher Motonobu Tanishige missing selection by 14 votes at 71.3 percent. Hiroki Kuroda also moved to within shouting range at 69 percent, while Japan’s career sacrifice bunt leader Masahiro Kawai with 61.1 percent. Kawai will never get in but some voters are going to die on that hill that bunts deserve a spot in the hall.

I don’t want to be rude, but thinking Tanishige deserves to be a Hall of Famer and Kenji Jojima doesn’t requires some serious well-oiled facility for ignorance.

Jojima is not a particularly likeable guy, while Tanishige is as friendly as they come. That equation makes Tanishige a Hall of Famer and Jojima a guy who will get in 20 years through the expert’s division.

Bass’ selection was the expert’s first in three years, and I think he got in because the voters were tired of hearing about how they weren’t picking anyone. Bass’ Tigers teammate Masayuki Kakefu got 66.2 percent of the vote and will probably go in next year.

Going the other way

Both Ramirez and Bass, who delivered a video-recorded speech for the announcement ceremony and answered questions in a taped interview during the press conference afterward spoke of how important their first managers were in giving them the space they needed to adjust.

“(Motoo) Ando-san was the first manager I had who really stood by my side,” said Bass, whose fearsome minor league numbers earned him numerous trials but never a commitment from any of the five MLB teams he played for.

Bass said he’d never had trouble pulling the ball, but ran into a roadblock in Japan, one that was fixed through the his working with Teruo Namiki, who was not then an official Tigers coach.

“When I had a slow start, he (Ando) turned me over to Namiki-san who worked with me on how to go to left and center,” Bass said.

“I could walk up to the plate and it was six inches outside, and then the umpire would say, ‘That was a gaijin strike,'” Bass said. “So I had to have some way to get to that ball, or I was going to walk up there and strike out a lot of times.”

“Once I started to hit home runs to left and center, I became a dangerous hitter.”

Try it, you might like it

Ramirez had the same good fortune when he arrived with Yakult in 2001 under Tsutomu Wakamatsu.

“When I started my career with Yakult, it was very special,” Ramirez said. “I struggled early, and if I hadn’t started with someone like Wakamatsu, I wouldn’t be here in Japan today or standing here at the Hall of Fame.”

Ramirez said his big adjustment was getting over the idea that he was there to show the Japanese how it was done in MLB.

“One of the things I thought…was, ‘I’m coming from the major leagues so I’m coming to teach the game of baseball,” he said. “But Japanese baseball is a totally different game. The way they play here is a very unique baseball so it was very hard in the beginning.”

“So I needed to change my mind into Japanese baseball and not thinking major league baseball.”

He compared his baseball experience with that of experiencing different kind of foods, and how important it was for him to try things before judging whether or not they worked for him.

“Sometimes we ask ourselves too many ‘Whys.’ ‘Why do we have to do this or do that. You might like it or you might not but there’s nothing wrong with trying.”

Two years and out

Talk to people who’ve lived in Japan for more than a few years, and you’ll hear a pattern repeated about someone who came for a specific purpose and had a timeline in mind for their return home only for plans to change.

Ramirez said he was the same, that he saw Japan as a bridge toward a better future in America. He’d learned about Japanese ball when he was with Cleveland, a team where former Swallow Charlie Manuel coached, and which had a working agreement with Yakult that brought him into contact with Swallows players and scouts.

“At the end of my career I was with Pittsburgh but I was not playing, so I asked my agent, ‘Please see if I can go to play in Japan.’ And the Yakult Swallows had an interest.”

“The first thing I had in mind was I want to go to Japan, make good money, play baseball a year or two years and come back to the minor leagues or the major leagues, but I fell in love.”

“I fell in love with Japan and the way the Japanese people treated me was No. 1 and that this was the place for me. In the end the major leagues…were the bridge, the help, that brought me to Japan to establish my career.”

If dad were alive this would have killed him

Each of the hall’s three divisions elected a new Hall of Famer. The special committee, which votes on those outside the game who influence it in some way, inducted the late Yuji Koseki, the composer of numerous anthems that have become ingrained in Japanese baseball, including the Tigers’ iconic “Rokko Oroshi” sung during their seventh-inning stretches and after their victories.

Accepting the honor in his father’s name, his son Masahiro delivered the quote of the day.

“My dad had zero affinity for playing sports,” said Masahiro. “He was really unathletic. I think that if he were alive today, the surprise of being named to the Baseball Hall of Fame would likely kill him.”

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