It was August, 1998 and the Bisons were red-hot, on the road to wiping out an 8½-game deficit in the final 27 games of the season to win the International League North. For some reason, I can’t remember where we were, other than I know it was on the road. So it had to be Syracuse, Scranton or Rochester.
But the moment is indelible. Like it was yesterday.
Slugger Alex Ramirez was walking toward the cage during batting practice, greeting teammates and then broadcaster Jim Rosenhaus. Then the Venezuelan walked over to me smiling. He always called me “Harringtone,” giving an Hispanic accent to my Irish surname. He had a message ready.
“Harringtone, be ready to write today,” he said. “Because I feel dangerous. Very, verrrry dangerous.”
He asked for a fist bump and who was I to argue with that kind of message? He headed into the cage and started swinging. Balls went all over the park, like they did that entire summer.
Ramirez made dents in the franchise record book that still stand today, 18 years later. Come Friday night, he’ll join 1961 IL MVP Ted Savage as the latest inductees into the Buffalo Baseball Hall of Fame.
Neither man will be attending, with Ramirez serving as the manager of the Yokohama BayStars in Japan and Savage, now 79, reportedly in ill health in St. Louis. They will both be honored in video tributes during the Bisons’ game against Syracuse.
Most current fans don’t know much about Savage, who hit .325 with 24 homers and 65 RBIs in his lone Buffalo season and played 642 big-league games for eight teams. Lots of folks in these parts remember Ramirez and the role he played on Buffalo’s 1997 American Association champions and the ’98 IL champs.
Ramirez made his Triple-A debut with the Bisons in 1997, batting .286 with 11 homers and 44 RBIs in 119 games. But he went wild in ’98, batting .299 and setting single-season team records of 34 home runs and 103 RBIs that still stand.
What also stands is his modern-era record 28-game hitting streak – which was snapped only when he willingly pinch hit in the eighth inning of a 6-4 loss to Toledo on May 21, 1998. He did not extend the streak when he grounded to short and the longest run by a Bison since 1927 was over.
Ramirez had been serving as a DH and battling a nagging knee problem but told manager Jeff Datz he could provide an at-bat.
“We had a situation where we were losing the game and I wanted to be there,” Ramirez said that day. “I wasn’t worried about the streak, I was worried about the team winning. I’ve got to think about the team.”
“A-Ram” as he was known to all, did plenty to help the team that season. In Game One of the playoffs against Syracuse, he hit for the cycle and is still the only player to do that downtown. He went 10 for 32 in the playoffs with three homers and nine RBIs in eight games.
And after the Bisons wrapped up the league championship in Game Five in Durham, there were celebrations all over the clubhouse and tears of joy from Ramirez in an adjacent hallway after being told by Datz he had earned his first big-league callup to Cleveland.
“That was the most exciting conversation I’ve ever had,” Ramirez said, his voice cracking. “He told me, ‘You’ve been ready for this in May and in July, but this is it right here.’ I was ready for this call all the time. I was hoping I would get it.”
Ramirez hit 12 more home runs and averaged .305 in 75 games for the Bisons in 1999, earning an IL midseason All-Star selection. He stands fourth in the modern era in home runs (57), fifth in RBIs (197) and 14th in batting (.286)
Ramirez’s big-league career didn’t amount to much, just 135 nondescript games with Cleveland and Pittsburgh. But he became a legend in Japan the likes of which few Western players can say.
In 13 seasons in Nippon Professional Baseball, Ramirez hit 380 home runs with 1,272 RBIs in 1,744 games, winning the 2008 Central League MVP Award. Ramirez became the first foreign-born player to record 2,000 hits in the NPB and the first ever to join Japan’s Meikyukai, an elite private club that recognizes the best players in the country’s history.
Come Friday night, he’ll be recognized as one of the best players in Buffalo history. It was all about some summers here living dangerously in the late ’90s. A richly-deserved honor. And all these years later, I’m still writing about him.
With Indy, Bautista burned
Blue Jays star Jose Bautista is back in town this weekend playing for the Bisons, nearly 11 years after burning the Herd at a key point in its history.
While playing as an unknown prospect in the Pittsburgh chain for Indianapolis, Bautista slugged a three-run homer off Buffalo starter Jason Davis in Game Five of the IL semifinals on Sept. 11, 2005 at then-Dunn Tire Park.
The three-run blast gave Indy an early 3-0 lead but the Bisons rallied to take a 4-3 edge. The Indians, however, won the game, 6-4, on Ronny Paulino’s three-run homer in the eighth off Herd closer Jake Robbins.
Indy won the series, three games to two, becoming the first IL team to lose the first two games of a set at home and win three straight on the road since 1984. The Bisons’ hopes of a second straight championship were derailed -- and Buffalo hasn’t been back to the postseason since.
“When I got here, I met some of the front office and reminisced a little bit,” Bautista said of his arrival at the park for Friday’s game. “It was a fun moment.”
UB’s Murphy on fire
Former UB catcher Tom Murphy has been red-hot of late at Triple-A Albuquerque in the Rockies chain. Murphy opened July batting just .222 for the season but entered the weekend at .296 after an incredible eight-game hitting streak.
In that stretch, Murphy went 22 for 30 with five doubles, two triples and five RBIs, drove in 13 runs and scored 11. His slugging percentage in July is 1.378, his on-base percentage is .675 and his OPS is a whopping 2.053.
The month was topped by Murphy’s cycle in a 12-8 win July 14 over Memphis. Murphy went 4 for 5 in the game, completing his team’s first cycle since 2008 with an eighth-inning triple.
Murphy, Colorado’s third-round pick in 2012, was the first UB player named a two-time All-MAC selection. He made his big-league debut last season, batting .257 with three homers and nine RBIs in 11 games for the Rockies. He is from West Monroe in Oswego County, north of Syracuse.
Around the horn
• When the Padres hit the Rogers Centre for a series against the Blue Jays on Monday, it will be the final interleague matchup to be played for the first time after 20 years of games between the leagues. The Blue Jays’ three previous trips to San Diego (2004, 2010, 2013) were all in Petco Park.
• Has there even been a more bizarre set of division standings at any level of baseball than what we’re seeing this year in the International League South? Charlotte and Durham entered Saturday at 45-56 – and tied for first place. Gwinnett entered Star Wars Night against the Bisons 44-56 and just a half-game out.
How dubious have things gotten for these teams? Charlotte’s Chris Volstad threw a one-hitter Thursday at Indianapolis – and lost, 1-0, because the hit was Jose Osuna’s fifth-inning home run.
• Durham’s Justin Marks threw the IL’s first no-hitter of the season last Saturday in Syracuse, an unlikely 2-0 victory that saw him strike out seven, walk two and take 130 pitches to complete. A free agent signee over the winter, the 28-year-old is just 4-9 with a 4.03 ERA in 17 games for the Bulls this season.