Baby Boomer

Former Hankyu Braves star Greg ‘Boomer’ Wells was raised to be an overachiever. That mentality and a willingness to focus on the positives allowed him to fashion a career in pro baseball where none might have existed. In a recent conversation, Wells touched on a wide variety of subjects, and rather than cover them all at once I’ll present them in a series of posts.

Football was one of the dumbest games

The son of a baseball-loving school principal father and a school teacher mother, baseball and good grades were a way of life for Wells as a child in Alabama. Although later drafted by the National Football League’s New York Jets out of college, Wells had no interest in high school football and didn’t play until coerced.

“I thought football was one of the dumbest games I’d ever seen,” he said.

“When I was in high school, I played baseball, basketball and saxophone in the band. I just didn’t like football. My senior year, the football coach was the P.E. instructor and he gave me a ‘D’ one grading period. I said, ‘What the heck?’ He gave one of the best athletes in the school a D in P.E. I didn’t bring home nothing but As and Bs. My dad wanted me to play football, too, but he wouldn’t force me. So, he looked at my report card, handed it back to me. I couldn’t bring a C home, but I bring home a D in P.E. and he don’t get upset?”

“I passed it to my mom and she went insane. I thought she was going to pick up a knife and go find the football coach and stab him to death. ‘How you going to get a D in P.E.?’ ‘I have no idea Mom.’ ‘That fool just wanted you to play football. That’s all it is.'”

“So, when I saw the reaction from my dad. He didn’t get upset or nothing, I said, ‘O.K. They want me to play football,’ so I went on out there.”

“I went on and played football and I wanted to make him kick me off the team, so then it would be no problem. I’d be practicing, and when I get tired, I’d just walk off the field and go to the sideline and sit down on one knee. The assistant coach would be screaming and yelling to get back on the field, but the head coach would be like, ‘Leave him alone.'”

“When Friday night showed up and we were playing. I started at offensive tackle and nose guard, and I didn’t like getting beat at anything so I played hard.”

Another country

Warren Cromartie asserted in a recent live chat that Japanese all play the same way, and there is some truth to that. But what makes Japan confounding to many is that so much of what is common here is rare back home. Imported players who succeed here, learn to deal positively with the unexpected, which brings the story back to Boomer.

Playing baseball as a child, Wells said, was a lesson in baseball improvisation, and I would argue, great training for a career in baseball where one’s old ways of doing things don’t always apply.

“Where I grew up, you’d play either little league or you’d play with the men. So at 10-years-old, you’d be playing against guys who were 16. If you were older and you were around our same size and you’d play little league if you weren’t good enough to play against the men.”

“When I was 10, 12 years old, I’d play a little league game during the day, and if my dad had a game at night, I would throw my bat and glove in the trunk of the car and go to the game with him. If one of his players didn’t show up and he was a player short, I’d play right field or second base with the men, and believe me, the men on the other team did not want the little boy hitting them because they’d be talking about them, so they’d bear down. I didn’t care, though, because I could hit. So, after the game, guys on the other team would come up to my dad and say, ‘Mr. Wells, that little boy can hit.'”

“My dad was the high school coach, and during the summer he would move our high school team into the men’s summer league and we used to beat these men down. We had a serious team. In the country, we played in places most of the time in places that didn’t have a fence. The field would go so far and then you’d have woods all around. I hit a ball way over into the woods and be jogging, thinking it’s a home run, there was no way the outfielder could find it. He disappeared into the woods no more than 10 steps and here comes a ball flying out of the woods. We’d be going, ‘Wait a minute.’ They knew we could hit so they’d have balls hid out in the woods. It was some of the craziest stuff.”

Some of the fields were really big. And they had a center fielder who could run, they’d put that guy out there. You’d hit the ball a mile and if it stayed in the air long enough, he was going to run it down and catch it. Man, you just don’t know. We had some stuff going on.”

“My coach and somebody he worked with was a coach of another team. They’d get to arguing about who’s got the best team, they’d get off work, both of them had pickup trucks, they’d go round and pick up their players. We’d jump on the back of the truck. We’d go to some man’s cow pasture, herd the cows into another section of the field and lock the gate, and drop some bases, and they always had a home plate carved out, dropped the plate and we’d play to see who had the best team.”

They taught us to catch the ball

Although Wells was drafted to play in the NFL, no MLB team took him out of Georgia’s historically black Albany St. College, and he only caught a minor league deal with the Toronto Blue Jays after they agreed to try him out.

And while his background in country ball prepared him for many things, he said his first year in pro ball in 1976 with the Single-A Beeville Bees in Beeville, Texas, was an eye-opener.

“My first year as playing professional with the Blue Jays, I was getting dressed, and my locker and my manager’s office was at an angle where he could see me getting dressed at my locker. So, I’m getting dressed and he comes out of his office and says, ‘Boomer. Where’s your cup?’”

“So, I reached up into my locker to get my drinking cup, and I said, ‘Here it is right here.’ And he said, ‘Nah. Your protective cup.’ I said, ‘What do you mean protective cup? What is a protective cup?’ He went back to his office and brought back a cup. And I said, ‘What am I supposed to do with that?’ He said, ‘You’re supposed to put it in your jock so you won’t get hit.’”

“’You’re telling me you played little league and high school and four years of college and you don’t know what a protective cup is? You never wore a protective cup?’ And I said, ‘Nah. Skip, where I’m from they taught you to catch the ball. They didn’t teach you to let the ball hit you. Where I grew up, we’re playing in corn fields and everywhere else and we caught the ball.’”

“We caught the ball because my dad would be coaching and if a bad hop came up and hit you, he might holler out of the dugout, ‘Beat him up ball, he jumped on you first,’ and everybody started laughing. He’d say, ‘That’s right son, save your glove,’ if a ball came up and hit you. ‘Save your glove. Leather costs too much now,’ stuff like that. So we made sure we caught the ball.”

“The reason I didn’t strike out so much is because you’d strike out and my dad would be standing at third base and say, ‘Whew. It really was hot out here son, but thanks for the fan,’ and stuff like that. He just liked teasing us. It was fun. It was crazy.”

“I used to let the manager see me put the cup in and he would leave and I’d hide it in my locker and play without a cup. The next year during the offseason, I saw I was going to have to wear a cup, so I did my running in the offseason with a cup so I could get used to it. And the funny thing is I never got hit in the crotch until I started wearing a cup. I had never took a bad hop to the balls until I started wearing a cup. I don’t know if it started making you get complacent.”

“Even in Japan, I never took ground balls in practice with a cup on. I only put in a cup when I got ready take infield and play the game.”

“They teach you to catch the ball. If the ball takes a bad hop, the glove is supposed to go to your crotch and your hand is supposed to go in front of your face and you sacrifice the rest of your body. But one hand goes one place and the other hand goes the other place. We never wore cups. Back then we played a lot of ball. It was something else. It was a different game then.”

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10 Eagles fans drop $17,000 each to join Tanaka club

The Rakuten Eagles on Thursday needed just 14 minutes to sell all 10 memberships — at nearly $17,000 a pop — in an exclusive Masahiro Tanaka VIP club category of the Pacific League club’s Team Eagles fan club, Full-Count reported.

It’s the first time the team has had a club for an individual since its “1001 Club” for late Hall of Fame manager Senichi Hoshino. One thousand other memberships to the “Maa-kun Club” at $170 a piece also went on sale Thursday morning, with the team needing just 30 minutes to move 500 of those.

The prices in Japanese yen, 1.8 million and 18,000, are multiples of Tanaka’s No. They went on sale not at 10 a.m. when Japanese business typically open, but at 10:18.

“Franky, it took some guts to price the VIP at 1.8 million yen,” a team spokesperson said. “But that’s how much value the team believes Tanaka and Tanaka merchandise are worth, still there were those who thought it were opposed, saying it was ‘too expensive.'”

“We were taken back by the speed at which they sold, and were told that some thought 1.8 million was cheap.”

VIP members will receive a signed replica uniform, an official cap, and a one-day VIP pass priced at nearly $5,000 and other gifts, including an “MT18xNewERA pullover hoodie.”

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Yabuta’s ‘cheap trick’

Kazuki Yabuta made headlines on Thursday when Hiroshima Carp manager Shinji Sasaoka ended the first inning of an intrasquad game because he couldn’t bear to watch any more from the right-hander, Nikkan Sports reported.

Sasaoka sent him back out for the second inning and by the time Yabuta got a reprieve, he’d allowed nine runs in 2-1/3 innings of work… although I’m not sure if they gave him credit for three outs in the first or only counted that as a third of an inning.

“He looked like he was pitching halfheartedly,” the skipper said, which allowed me to learn the word “kotesaki” (小手先) which jisho.org defines as:

  • 1. Noun: tip of the hand; (use of) one’s hands​
  • 2. Noun: cheap trick; superficial wit; superficial cleverness​
  • 3. Adjective: cheap; makeshift (e.g. measures); shortsighted; perfunctory; halfhearted.

“Half-hearted” is my guess, but if Rolling Stones Magazine were ranking starts this spring by Carp pitchers the way they ranked the 500 greatest rock albums, Yabuta’s might rank, like Cheap Trick’s best-selling album “Cheap Trick At Budokan,” as No. 426 on the list.

Sasaoka, said he was in mood to hear explanations from the 28-year-old, so Yabuta might have pause before he breaks into a cover of “I want you to want me.”

“In the final phase of camp, pitchers are each getting one live game apiece to compete for roles,” Sasaoka said. “I wonder what he was thinking. It just looked like halfhearted pitching to me. He wasn’t using his lower body, so his pitches had no late movement, no zip, and were easy to hit.”

“When you’re in the final competition for a spot, excuses won’t do. At this stage, there are no guarantees you will get another chance. If you flame out, there are no more chances.”

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Warren Cromartie speaks

Warren Cromartie recently met with subscribers to talk about his experiences in the majors and in Japan and share his opinions on a variety of topics from “insensitive” comments by former Seattle Mariners CEO Kevin Mather to baseball in Montreal and new Red Sox reliever Hirokazu Sawamura.

Have a listen. If you want to take part in one of the live chats, you need to join jballallen.com on either a free or paid subscription.

Slugging it out in Japan, again

For the last two years, Cromartie has been living in Japan with his wife and child, and spent much of the 2019 season as an on-field advisor to the Giants.

Getting by in a foreign language

Asked about former Mariners CEO Kevin Mather’s candid comments about service-time manipulation and his characterization of players by their language skills, Cromartie talked about the challenges of playing in a country where many don’t speak your language.

Lost in translation?

Banzai

On-field celebrations can be a tricky subject for MLB players, but in Japan they are welcomed by fans and part of the scenery. So when former major leaguers get in the act there is sometime friction.

Japanese fans customarily cheer the players who drove in runs in the previous half inning as they take the field, upon which the players respond by tipping their caps, bowing or waving. Cromartie tells how his response became one of his trademarks.

Going to America

Asked about Japan stars back in the day that he thought could play in America. Of course prior to free agency, players couldn’t go during their career. And until Hideo Nomo proved otherwise, the prevailing belief both here and in the majors was that Japanese weren’t good enough.

Sawamura goes to the Sox

During his time with the Giants, Cromartie became familiar with right-handed reliever Hirokazu Sawamura, who recently signed with the Boston Red Sox.

Making adjustments in a new country

Everybody goes to Nicks…

…to paraphrase the line from “Casablanca.” On those few nights a year when all of NPB’s teams were in town, the imported players would all gather at Nicola’s Pizzeria in Roppongi, whose owner, Nick Zapetti, was the intriguing anti-hero of Robert Whiting’s “Tokyo Underworld.”

“There used to be two foreign players on a team. There would be times when all the teams would be in Tokyo at the same time, about two times a year, and we would all meet up at Nicks, this pizza place in Roppongi. It was like a brotherhood. We couldn’t wait to all get together. Whenever we played each other during the season, we’d always go out to dinner. We’d get the chance to see two other foreigners, the four of us would go out to dinner.”

–Greg “Boomer” Wells

Here’s what Crow had to say about those nights.

Bring back the Expos

On baseball in Montreal, it’s history and its future.

Should kids from America go straight to Japan?

Crow on conformity

Conformity is certainly a topic in Japan. Do all Japanese play the same way? I’m not convinced but there are times when watching a series of NPB at-bats is like a video representation of those “Can you spot the 10 differences” picture puzzles.

Sadaharu Oh

Ok. This time’s it’s Cromartie’s turn to talk about Sadaharu Oh.

That’s a hit in Double-A rookie

Cromartie talks about his rookie debut with the Expos against the then power Pittsburgh Pirates.

Is Japan’s hustle for show?

The balance of power in Japan

Cromartie expresses his views on the differences between Japan’s two leagues.

Kuwata’s back

Giants manager Tatsunori Hara this year brought former ace Masumi Kuwata onto his staff as a pitching coach, and Cromartie couldn’t be happier.

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Silent knights

From fans’ non-stop chanting to shouts that accompany every practice swing in every sport in every school across the nation, noise is such a prominent feature of sports in Japan, that one almost expects competitors in Shogi (Japanese chess) matches to shout every time they slap a piece onto the wooden board.

But on Monday, Hanshin Tigers manager Akihiro Yano and his coaches asked players to focus on the task of catching and throwing the ball without the seemingly obligatory shouts that ring reverberate through Japanese practices, the Nikkan Sports reported.

“It’s become second nature for players to shout, but even when doing that they seem to move lazily. We wanted to see how they looked without the shouting,” said Kazuki Inoue, whose job as head coach is primarily to keep players from being lazy and to ride them when they make mistakes–something that might not be a natural fit for the easy-going former Dragons outfielder.

Manager Yano said, “I thought the outfielders were more conscious of their throws, rather than shouting ‘Oi’ when they released the ball. I want them focused on executing and thinking, ‘That’s where I’m going to put the ball.'”

And when the ban on shouting was lifted, the story said, the players cheered loudly as if a weight had been lifted from their shoulders.

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Eat your Wheaties

One doesn’t make light of the coronavirus pandemic, but it has given us some great moments by making coaches’ and players’ audible during games, as happened Monday in a Yomiuri Giants intrasquad game at Okinawa Cellular Stadium.

Hiroyuki Nakajima hit a ground rule double he thought was a home run and as he was ordered back to second by the umpire, one could hear voices from the dugout giving him — as they used to say on “Leave it to Beaver — the business.

“You should drink protein,” and “Eat more rice,” were two of things shouted at Nakajima as he retreated to second base.

As a young shortstop with the Seibu Lions, Nakajima had a tremendous physique and generated a lot of power, so in a March 2011 interview I asked about his training and nutrition regimen.

“I lift, but I don’t take any extra nutrition or supplements, unless my teammates give me amino acid stuff, and then I take those to humor them,” he said then, making me wonder if that is still his routine and if a teammate might have been on the money.

In Monday’s live chat with Warren Cromartie, I mentioned how new pitching coach Masumi Kuwata was ridiculed by former players for doing weight training in the 1980s. There is a suspicion of weight training among older players in Japan, which makes little sense. It’s almost as if to engage in strength training goes against the nation’s snobbish assertion that Japanese players are good, despite lacking physical strength, because they practice to the ends of the earth to execute in games.

Japan’s Colonel Curmudgeon, Isao Harimoto recently said of players doing weight training in camp, “The game is about hitting a ball with a bat. The time spent building muscles that might hinder you as a hitter or a pitcher would be better spent practicing hitting and pitching.”

Every team has weight rooms and strength coaches, but many teams see them as more of an accessory for the players who want to make use of them. I used to think all the teams hired strength coaches based on expertise, but according to players, some teams apparently use that position as just another way to employ a former player with few other job prospects.

Had Shohei Ohtani played for a different team than the Nippon Ham Fighters, it’s possible he would have only acquired more knowledge about strength training on his own. In 2018, Hanshin Tigers pitcher Shintaro Fujinami revealed he’d been a pro for five seasons and had never been taught about the need for nutrition or recovery.

With the Fighters, the organization sets the strength and fitness programs, but Japanese style is for the manager to make changes if he doesn’t like what’s going on. A few years ago a Lions trainer told me that nothing had changed in the way Lions players were expected to train in his five seasons there.

The Hawks did a 180 when Kimiyasu Kudo, who studies sport science, became manager. Their previous GM, Itaru Kobayashi, had expanded the club’s medical and training staff base, but under old-school manager Koji Akiyama, the staff’s input was limited. Kudo changed things.

Whether Nakajima takes protein now or not at his age is no big deal, but it perhaps a good sign that some on the Giants bench at least knew enough to rib him about it.

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writing & research on Japanese baseball

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