My favorite things

I wish I could get Julie Andrews out of my head. But after reading this story from the Sports Nippon, I can’t help but hear her tune from “The Sound of Music” about life’s little pleasures.

The offseason brings a quote flood streaming from players exiting team offices after negotiating next year’s contracts “I’m going to fight for a pennant next year” and “I still want to play (after being released” and “I’m going to play every game next season.”

It all gets quite numbing. Until you see these stories not as dull work for the reporters required to churn out five grafs but as something that is really beautiful about Japan’s game.

Today’s subtle nugget was about Hanshin Tigers shortstop Fumiya Hojo’s plans to bounce back from a partial dislocation of his left shoulder. Hojo earned the starting job with a brilliant rookie 2016 rookie campaign but then slumped for the next 1-1/2 seasons.

Hojo spent most of 2017 and the start of 2018 in the Western League, where he didn’t hit. BUT despite the WL being notoriously pitcher-friendly, Hojo drew 46 walks this year while striking out 38 times this year and posted a .391 OBP.

They brought him up to pinch hit, and that went about as well as it usually does. He didn’t hit and was sent back to the farm. When he came back up soon after on June 22, the Tigers were still in the pennant race, 4-1/2 games back, and they just started him at short, where Hojo just hit and hit and hit.

He didn’t draw walks like he had in the WL, but he did bat .322 in 239 at-bats, and post a .370 OBP. Then he got hurt.

But that’s not the story. Sorry for the buildup. The story is that he is going to continue working out in the offseason with Tetsuto Yamada, the star second baseman of the Central League-rival Yakult Swallows.

Yamada has now returned to the form that in 2015 saw him put up one of the best seasons in NPB history. For more than two years, Yamada slumped after getting hit in the back with a pitch in the summer of 2016.

What’s so cool about this, and a host of other stories just like this, is what really good guys so many players in Japan are. They help each other out, pick each other up, root for each other to do well.

“Last year, Yamada wasn’t any good,” Hojo said. “But he played really well again this year. “I want to pick his brain and understand the process.”

It reminds me of a similar story about Yomiuri Giants veteran Shinnosuke Abe taking a youngster with next to no experience under his wing in the offseason. The player was Hayato Sakamoto. Just up from the farm team as a relative unknown, Sakamoto had an at-bat that so impressed Abe that he invited him to join him on his annual winter training in Guam.

These are small stories, sure, but these human highlights are so hard to miss even when they’re in front of your face.

Jim Allen

sports editor for a wire service in Tokyo

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