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Ichiro from start to finish, part 2

Ichiro Suzuki announced his retirement at a press conference after midnight in Tokyo on Friday, March 22. I have translated the entire press conference from start to finish to give you a sense of how it went down. I hope you enjoy. I have included the original Japanese text. The questions have been mercilessly shortened, however.

He made two curtain calls, once after he left the game at the start of the bottom of the eighth inning, and again after the Mariners’ extra-inning win over the Athletics. What follows is the Japanese and English text of his retirement press conference early on the morning of March 22 in Tokyo.

Ichiro Suzuki tips his cap to fans at Tokyo Dome as he leaves his last big league game. on March 21 ,2019. Photo by Seito Takamizawa



–Because we could only see smiles rather than tears, isn’t it the case that you enjoyed this series?

“Even this was not purely joyful. After all, you’re carrying the weight of other people’s thoughts on your shoulders, so it was not a simple thing just to go up and bat each time. For that reason, it was extremely exhausting. I so wanted to get at least one hit. That’s a natural response.”

“It seems there are people who think I have no feelings, but I do. More than many people might imagine. So as I approached the very last (plate appearance) , I felt getting a hit would be the greatest, but it didn’t happen. Despite that, the fans stuck around for me. Don’t worry I’m not going to do it, but I thought at that instant what it means when someone says, ‘I could now die a happy man.’ I think that expression was made for a situation like that.”



–You had said you would play at least until you are 50. Was coming back to play pro ball in Japan an option for you?

“No. it wasn’t.”



–Why not?

“I don’t really want to get into that here. However, the ‘playing until 50,’ or until 50 at the least was really my intent. It didn’t come to pass and as a result I’ve been someone who can’t back up his words with actions, but had I not said it, I don’t think I would have made it this far. It may be difficult, but putting something into words is one way to get yourself closer to achieving your target.”



–You’ve spent most of your life playing ball. What are you going to do now?

“I don’t know right at this moment, but maybe I’ll be working out again tomorrow. That’s something that won’t change because I’m someone who can’t stay still, so I’ll be moving around. So I’m not going to be taking it easy. I’m going to stay in motion.”



――Would you like to tell fans about your philosophy of life

“I don’t know much about a philosophy of life, but when I think of it as the way I go through life … As I said earlier, I can’t work harder than everyone else. Right until the end, you are only measured against yourself. As you do that, as you see your limits, you try over and over to surpass yourself a tiny bit. That’s how I eventually become who I am. One can only do this in small increments, but that is the way to surpass yourself. If you try and change in leaps and bounds, that gap between where you are (and your target) becomes to large and I think unsustainable, so the only way is the steady way.”

“But progress is not the only result. There are setbacks, too. And it’s not like every path I choose is the right one, but I believe in myself and my decisions. Sometimes I get on the wrong track and keep at it. However, when I do find I’ve taken a detour, I feel like without it, I would not have come face to face with the real me.”

“The emotion of the fans after today’s game resulted from that body of work done in my own way. I thought that possibly, they were seeing that (work). That (thought) made me happy. If it were true, I’d be exceedingly happy, but even if it weren’t I’d still be happy.”




「何になるんだろうねぇ。そもそも、カタカナのイチローってどうなんですかね? いや、元カタカナの一朗みたいになるんですかね。あれ、どうなんだろう? どうなんだろうね、あれ。元イチローって変だね。イチローだし僕って思うもんねぇ。音はイチローだから。書くときにどうなるんだろうねぇ。どうしよっか。何になるか……。監督は絶対に無理ですよ。これは絶対が付きますよ。人望がない。本当に。人望がないですよ、僕。うん」

–This is a simple question, but now that your playing career is over, are you going to become a manager or a coach or perhaps take a completely different course and be a media celebrity?

“That’s not a very simple question.”

–So what is the player Ichiro going to become?

“I wonder what I’ll become.”

“In the first place what am I going to do with ‘katakana (phonetic script) Ichiro?’ I could become the player who formerly used katakana for the name ‘Ichiro.’ How would that be? I wonder. ‘The player formerly known as Ichiro’ would be weird, wouldn’t it? I think of myself as Ichiro, because that’s how it’s pronounced. How will I write it I wonder? I wonder what I’m going to do. Being a manager is impossible. You can add ‘absolutely’ to that. I’m not popular enough, truly. I lack the popularity for that. Yes. That’s It.”


「いやぁ、無理ですね。それくらいの判断能力は備えているので。ただ、どうでしょうねぇ。プロの選手とかプロの世界というよりも、アマチュアとプロの壁がどうしても日本の場合は特殊な形で存在しているので、今日をもって、どうなんですかね、そういうルールって。どうなんだろうか。今まではややこしいじゃないですか。例えば、極端に言えば、自分に子どもがいたとして、高校生であるとすると、教えられなかったりというルールですよね。確か。違います? そうだよね。だから、そういうのって変な感じじゃないですか。だから、今日をもって元イチローになるので、それが小さな子どもなのか、中学生なのか、高校生なのか、大学生なのか分からないですけど、そこには興味がありますね」

–I don’t think that’s really true.

“No. It’s beyond me. I think I have the decision making ability. But how should I say it? In Japan there is a peculiar situation, in that a wall exists between amateurs and pros. Even now, how is it, that rule? I wonder. Isn’t it still complicated? To take an extreme example, if I have a child in high school, there had been a rule that I couldn’t teach him. Am I wrong? That’s why it feels weird. Today as the former Ichiro, if it were small kids, or junior high school or high school or maybe even college students I would be interested (in managing).”



–Was there a time when the word “retirement” troubled you?

“More than the word ‘retirement,’ it has been getting released. That’s how it’s always been. Since I moved to New York, I’ve felt that every day. It was the same in Miami. I do not know if everyone here knows New York. It’s a special place. Miami is also special although in a different way, so I lived with that every day, that I could be fired and at that time it would mean (retirement), so it was constantly on my mind.”





–Why did you decide to retire now?

“I didn’t want to go anywhere except to the Mariners, so that was big. I was really happy to return to Seattle last year. I already mentioned how it was before that offer came during spring training, but then May came and I was unable to play anymore. It wouldn’t have been unusual if I had retired at that time. But I was told that there was still a possibility for this spring, so I had the chance to work hard and was able to come here. I’m sorry what was the question?”

–What is your reason for retiring now?

“I see. I think I’ve already answered that.”







–When you returned to the dugout during the eighth inning, Kikuchi was sobbing.

“That was sobbing to end all sobbing. That really surprised me. I couldn’t help but laugh a little.”

–What did you say when you gave him a hug?

“That’s private. I don’t mind if Yusei tells you. I’m not going to.”

–Because it’s a secret?

“Of course it is. It’s private conversation between two people. Furthermore, it would be asinine if I were to tell him something (in private) and then come here and say ‘This is what I told him.’ No one would trust somebody like that. You can’t do that.”




–Do you have any thoughts about the fans in America or a message for them?

“The American fans were really harsh at first. During my first spring training in 2001 they often said, ‘Go back to Japan’, but there is respect once you produce. I don’t know if I should grade them on this or not. I guess you can say that they can change their opinion of you very quickly.”

“My take is that they respond with a powerful demonstration of respect to your deeds as opposed to what you say. So they don’t let you in easily, but once they do, you get the feeling that they are very close to you, making for a strong relationship. I think maybe I was able to achieve that in Seattle, though that’s just my impression.”

“Some things about New York are hard. But, if you do make a connection, you feel they are more passionate than anywhere else. Miami has a strong vibe of Latin culture and you don’t much pressure, but if you don’t produce, they won’t let you in either. Every place has its own character, it was really interesting, and I was able to build relationships in those different places. Because every place has some special feel to it, you get the feeling how big America is. Just seeing at the characteristics of the fans impresses you with America’s size. At the end I wore a Seattle uniform, but feel I owe an apology to those fans for not wearing it at it’s not Safeco Field anymore…”

Read Part 1 of the press conference HERE.

Ichiro from start to finish, part 1

Ichiro Suzuki announced his retirement at a press conference after midnight in Tokyo on Friday, March 22. I have translated the entire press conference from start to finish to give you a sense of how it went down. I hope you enjoy. I have included the original Japanese text. The questions have been mercilessly shortened, however.

He made two curtain calls, once after he left the game at the start of the bottom of the eighth inning, and again after the Mariners’ extra-inning win over the Athletics.

Ichiro Suzuki tips his cap to the Tokyo Dome crowd in what became his sayonara game. Photo by Seito Takamizawa.

「こんなにいるの? びっくりするわぁ。そうですか。いやぁ、この遅い時間にお集まりいただいて、ありがとうございます。


“So many people here. That’s a surprise, but I want to thank you for gathering at this late hour.”

“With today’s game, I brought my time as a pro, nine years in Japan, 19 years in America, to and end, as I have retired. I felt extremely blessed to wear this uniform approaching this day. These 28 years cover such a span that it’s hard to recall each and every detail. I am grateful to all those who have cheered me on. Also to the people in the organization, and to my teammates I want to express my gratitude. Now I want to answer each of your questions to the extent I can.”



–What was the reason behind the timing of your decision?

“As for when I knew, it was at the end of camp, a few days before I was to come back to Japan. I can’t exactly say how many days before that was, but just some point toward the end of camp. My contract stipulated I would be able to play this time at Tokyo Dome, but I couldn’t hide the fact that I wasn’t getting it done.



–Is there any lingering regret or remorse?

“After that response at the stadium tonight, what they showed me, no I don’t think there will be any remorse. Of course, I feel I could have done more, but all the things I did in order to get good results…I can’t say I worked more than anyone else, because that’s not the case. But what I can say clearly is that I did things my way as well as I could. If you keep grinding and grinding like that, then I have to think there’s no room for regret.”



–Do you have any message for the kids?

“It’s a simple message, although I’m not good at such things. If you find something you’re passionate about – it doesn’t matter whether it’s baseball or not – then you can pour your energy into that. The sooner you find that the better. If you find it, you can tackle the obstacles in your way. You can go beyond them. Because people give up when they get to an obstacle if it’s not (something they have discovered a passion for) . I think you should try different things, and chose something you like rather than chosing something based on whether it’s easy or not.”


「今日を除いてですよね? この後、時間が経ったら、今日のことが真っ先に浮かぶことは間違いないと思います。ただそれを除くとすれば、いろいろな記録に立ち向かってきた……ですけど、そういうものはたいしたことではないというか、自分にとって、それを目指してやってきたんですけど、いずれそれは僕ら後輩が先輩たちの記録を抜いていくというのはしなくてはいけないことでもあると思うんですけども、そのことにそれほど大きな意味はないというか。そういうふうに、今日の瞬間を体験すると、すごく小さく見えてしまうんですよね。

「その点で、例えば分かりやすい、10年200本続けてきたこととか、MVPを取ったとか、 オールスターで獲ったとかは本当に小さなことに過ぎないというふうに思います。今日のこの、あの舞台に立てたことというのは、去年の5月以降、ゲームに出られない状況になって、その後もチームと一緒に練習を続けてきたわけですけど、それを最後まで成し遂げられなければ今日のこの日はなかったと思うんですよね。今まで残してきた記録はいずれ誰かが抜いていくと思うんですけど、去年5月からシーズン最後の日まで、あの日々はひょっとしたら誰にもできないことかもしれないというような、ささやかな誇りを生んだ日々だったんですね。そのことが……去年の話だから近いということもあるんですけど、どの記録よりも自分の中では、ほんの少しだけ誇りを持てたことかなと思います」

–What scene stands out as the most impressive scene (in your career)?

“Excepting today? As time goes by, I think it will be clear that today was No. 1. If I exclude today, I’ve surpassed different records, but how special are those? For me, I aspired to achievement various things, but records of players from past generations are made to broken by future generations. So how meaningful are they in that sense? Having physically experienced that moment today makes those other things seem exceedingly small.”

“In that respect, 200 hits for 10 years, winning an MVP, being an All-Star Having physically experienced that moment today, makes those other things seem exceedingly small. To be standing where I was, after last May when I was unable to play. I was still, however, able to practice with the team. Had I not kept at it, today never happens. Someday, someone will eclipse my records. I’m sure of that. But what I was able to do last year from May until the final day of the season was an opportunity that perhaps no one else gets and I felt some measure of pride in that. More than my records, I think how things went last year (after May) is something for me to be a little proud of.”







–How about the fans who have supported you?

 “I never imagined something like that might happen after the game. I was preparing for my 19th season in America, where one doesn’t normally sense the amount of heat Japanese fans generate. Playing for the first time at Tokyo Dome in such long time, the game proceded quietly in general. There’s a general impression that Japanese are not good at expressing themselves, and I had felt that, too, but the fans that whole image on its head.”

“We definitely have passion inside us, but when we express that passion the force of that was something I could never imagine until now. Because of that, that will always be the most special moment.”

“There was a time when I played only for myself and for my team. I kind of suspected that I could give joy to spectators, but that was something that really only took hold after I got to New York. My greatest joy became making other people happy. I think it’s fair to say that from that point, I could not generate my own energy without the fans.”

“OK that was kind of a weird thing for me to say.”



–Is there something you are really determined or were determined about?

“I’ve loved baseball, and that’s something that has never changed.”


「プロ野球生活の中ですか? ないですね。これはないです。ただ、子どもの頃からプロ野球選手になることが夢で、それが叶って、最初の2年、18、19の頃は1軍に行ったり来たり……。行ったり来たりっておかしい? 行ったり行かなかったり? え? 行ったり来たりっていつもいるみたいな感じだね。あれ、どうやって言ったらいいんだ? 1軍に行ったり、2軍に行ったり? そうか、それが正しいか。そういう状態でやっている野球は結構楽しかったんですよ。で、94年、3年目ですね。仰木監督と出会って、レギュラーで初めて使っていただいたわけですけども、この年まででしたね、楽しかったのは。あとは、その頃から急に番付を上げられてちゃって、一気に。それはしんどかったです。


–Ken Griffey Jr has said that when he was able to just unburden himself, he was able to see baseball differently, that it became fun again. Did you experience that kind of moment?

“As a pro? No. That has not been the case. When I was a boy, my dream was to become a pro. Then when I realized that, the first two years, when I was going to and coming back from the first team. Is ‘going and coming back’a strange way of saying it? How about ‘going and not going?’ It felt like I was always going and coming back. Hold on a second. How do you say that? ‘Going to the first team, and then going to the second team?’That sounds right. Is that right? In that context baseball was pretty fun. Then in 1994, my third season, having met manager (Akira) Ogi, I was used as a regular for the first time. Until that year, baseball was fun. After that, I shot up the ‘banzuke’ (sumo rankings). That was brutal. It’s very tough. ”

“You begin to be evaluated based on things that have nothing to do with how well you play. That is really hard. After that was it purely fun? Of course, it was worthwhile. I could derive a sense of accomplishment and a lot of satisfaction. But fun? No it was different. However, after having spent all this time (playing baseball), in the future I still have a notion about simply having fun playing ball. It’s somewhat ironic, but once I’d realized my dream of playing pro ball, I’d sometimes dream of baseball that wasn’t like in the pros.





–From now one what kind of gift are you going to give us?

“Please don’t ask those announcer-type questions.”

–You said this opening series was a great gift, but this feels like we’ve received a great gift.


“Please don’t say absurd things. But, still this (experience) was an amazing gift. In March of last year, I received an offer from the Mariners, and that has led me here today. Had my career ended there (in March), it wouldn’t have been unusual in any way. The same goes for the end of last spring. It would have been normal (to end it then). For things to turn out like this is unbelievable. I was thinking about it during the offseason (prior t o 2018), when I was preparing at the ballpark in Kobe to play in America. Practicing there in the cold was disheartening. My heart was broken.

“At that time, I was also supported by my friends, but at the end of the day I was thinking that my career would end quietly at the ballpark in Kobe, where I worked out by myself. Something like this is dreamlike. This is also a big gift for me. I’m not quite answering the question, but I have no gift for you.”

Thinking man’s game

When Ichiro Suzuki debuted in the majors in 2001, he was a joy to watch, a speedy highly-skilled, athletic antithesis to the performance-enhancing drug revolution, a player who bucked the trend and succeeded despite an aversion to honing his home-run hitting skill.

At his retirement press conference in the early morning hours of March 22 in Tokyo, Suzuki lamented American Baseball’s newest thing, an obsession with launch angle that has fueled home run and strikeout rates.

“The baseball played in America in 2019 has completely changed since I arrived in 2001,” he said. “It’s moving toward a game where you can now get by without using your head. I wonder how this might change. I don’t see this trend stopping over the next five years, or 10 years or for the forseeable future. Fundamentals mean nothing. Perhaps saying that might cause trouble. (Saying) that looks like it definitely will be a problem.”

“On a fundamental level, baseball is a game that requires thinking. That it’s losing that makes me sick. America is baseball’s birthplace, and I believer that a lot of people have a sense of urgency over what the game is becoming. So I think there is no need for Japan’s game to follow America’s. The Japanese game should be a thinking, interesting brand of ball. As long as this trend in America does not stop, I hope Japanese ball doesn’t change and that we remember to cherish it.”

This is hardly an unusual opinion from someone steeped in the Japanese game and the thread of Japan’s cultural narcicism that claims Japanese have unique attributes. Ask any Japanese baseball person about what defines major league baseball, they will say, “speed and power,” and if they don’t I’ll give you a dollar.

Japanese baseball, they’ll tell you, is “komakai” – detailed. Saying major leaguers have “power and speed” is at best a left-handed compliment, like saying black players are “natural athletes.” The implication is that American players don’t have to hone their craft the way less genetically blessed Japanese players do. In other words, our players work to get good, theirs are just bigger.

It perfectly suits an ideology that dictates every amateur game be treated as a war in itself. No amount of practice is too much, no concern for your best pitcher’s arm too great to prevent him from pitching when not doing so would increase the chances of losing.

While Ichiro is considered a paragon of Japan’s small game of “kowazara” or subtle techniques, and is a master of fundamentals, those things – as much as yakyu apologists would have you believe – are not the same as “thinking baseball.”

Indeed, Japanese amateur baseball activists will tell you that “thinking” is an endangerd concept in the Japanese game, because children are being taught not to think but to execute orders in order to minimize the risk of errors that could cost games.

Ryunosuke Seto, the chief executive of the Sakai Big Boys sports club in Osaka, said Japanese baseball programs kids to play according to fixed routines, instead of teaching them to adapt.

“Kids need learn to build their own software, but if you just give them the answers, they don’t learn to solve problems. When they get older, they can’t figure things out,” Seno said.

While Suzuki is an advocate of cultivating various different skills that Japanese doctrine says can be used to exploit opponents’ weaknesses, and being precise in execution, he was never one to play by the unwritten rules. While his slash-hitting and speed game is not far from Japan’s ideal, he succeeded with an unorthodox batting style that flouted convention.

As a left-handed hitter with speed, he would have been expected to not try and drive the ball, but to hit grounders to the left side of the infield and hope to beat them out, because that is what fast left-handed hitters are trained to do in Japan.

Smart, quick-thinking players like Ichiro are a huge advantage on the field. Equating Japanese baseball with quick thinking because of Ichiro, however, would be a mistake.

Spring break

I want to apologize for the lack of posts these past few weeks. I was just hyper busy since coming back from the States, finishing one assignment for Kyodo and two stories on Ichiro Suzuki. Then I caught one of my colds from the netherworld. The doctor didn’t believe my influenza test was negative until I’d had three of them, but after two days he ruled out the flu and pneumonia to account for my 39.2 C temperature and other symptoms.

After 72 hours and medication I was feeling fit enough to do a podcast, our PL prediction show, on Sunday night, my not so happy birthday — to be aired March 25.

I almost made it to the ballpark on Monday but my fever came back a little in the morning, as it did again this morning, and I’m back to the office after seven days off — the first four of which I could barely concentrate for 5 minutes at a stretch or eat or taste anything.

But enough about me. Since I returned to Japan on March 6, I’ve interviewed the head of Yoshitomo Tsutsugo’s youth baseball club in Sakai, Osaka, Ryunosuke Seno, the head of the Japan Rubber Baseball Association, Toyomi Munakata, as well as Lotte Marines manager Tadahito Iguchi. So, there is lots in the works that I need to get cracking on.

The months matter

A recent discussion in the “Hey Bill” feature in billjamesonline discussed why some players do better than others and brought up the topic of relative age effects. I did a study about 10 years ago about the effects of NPB players’ birth months that was published in the Daily Yomiuri, which means it’s disappeared from the web. The upshot of that study was that players born from April 2 to June 30 are over-represented in the NPB amateur draft and, on average, have less valuable careers than player born from July 1 to April 1–the cutoff date for school admissions.

Children born on April 1 will enter school in Japan a year before a child born the following day.


I replicated the study using every domestic player signed by an NPB team from the end of the 1965 season through the start of the 1997 season. Omitting four players I don’t have birth dates for, that remaining group of 2,160 players contains two active players, Ichiro Suzuki and Kazuya Fukuura. And whatever they produce in 2019 is not going to affect anything one way or another. The starting point of the study was set by the introduction of NPB’s first draft in 1965.

Breaking down each quarter of a year by birth month — with April 1 counting as March — and draft round. The most populous cell is the 127 signed first-round picks signed who were born from April to June. The second most is the 121 players born in those months taken in the second round. As expected, the 341 “haya umare” or early-born players whose birthdays go from Jan. 1 to April 1, make that quarter the least populous.

The table below gives the career win shares produced by players born in each quarter and the total number in each group, without reference to draft round.

The last thing that needs to be mentioned is the problem of value in the major leagues. Major League win shares are given 20 percent more weight in the calculations. It’s just a guess. They could be 50 percent more valuable for all I know.

Distribution of domestic players by birth-month quarters

Avg WS210.0230.5306.8223.0
Percent of total34.930.119.215.8

The favoritism in the draft show players born in the April-June quarter is exacerbated by an even higher share of those players taken in the first two rounds, and by the performance of those players.

Value rank of birth-month quarter by round

RoundQuarter starting Avg WS Best career
1stJuly68.8Kazuhiro Kiyohara, 1B
1stJanuary60.2Masaki Saito, P
1stOctober59.7Koji Yamamoto, CF
2ndOctober55.6Taira Fujita, SS
3rdOctober54.7Hiromitsu Ochiai, 1B
2nd January48.1Hiromitsu Kadota, DH
1stApril44.6Hideki Matsui, CF
2ndJuly44.5Keishi Suzuki, P
4thOctober39.0Ichiro Suzuki, RF
3rdJanuary38.8Yoshihiko Takahashi, SS


Another thing that needs to be mentioned is that the birth-month quarter starting in January is largely populated by pitchers and catchers. In my previous study, I found that more than a quarter of the players drafted as catchers were born between Jan. 1 and April 1.

When I first did this study, a number of people gave me what I’d snarkily call “baseball announcer explanations” for why players born from October to April 1 outperform the players who are chosen more often by pro teams. The most popular one of these was, “Oh, they’re used to overachieving, so they try harder.”

All these guys try hard. I think there are three things going on.

  1. Accessibility
  2. Age bias
  3. Burnout


Players who are born after April 1 are larger and physically more developed than players months younger than they are. This gives them more time to play, more time to stand out and be noticed by coaches, who select them to play so that they can be seen by scouts.

Age bias

Because players born from October to April 1 are less physically developed than the players they are competing against, they are less likely to dominate competitions when scouts are watching.


This is something that hadn’t occurred to me until recently. According to people who know a lot about how youth baseball functions in Japan, many of the players who eventually turn pro in Japan are not the best in their age groups when they are young. Amateur sports in Japan are intense, year-round, meat-grinding wars of attrition.

The best players typically become pitchers, and because competition (with the exception of university baseball) is in single-elimination tournaments, those aces throw game after game until their bodies break down. They are then surpassed by those who were a step behind them a year or two earlier.

Many of Japan’s best pitchers were not aces in elementary school or junior high. Masahiro Tanaka was a catcher until high school. Koji Uehara ran track in junior high and was an outfielder until his senior year in high school, when his school’s ace, Yoshinori Tateyama began to break down from injury.

It is not that much of a stretch, then, to see many of those players born from April to June as being at the end of their physical tethers by the time the pros call on them.

I know I’ve talked about this before

If we make a top-25 of players in NPB’s draft era, the best single draft round was the first round of the 1968 draft, Hall of Famers Hisashi Yamada, Koji Yamamoto, a player who has curiously been overlooked for the Hall, Michio Arito, and another who will eventually make it, Koichi Tabuchi.

The second best group are three from the Fab 4, the fourth round of the 1991 draft, Ichiro Suzuki, Tomoaki Kanemoto and Norihiro Nakamura.

One happy camper

Billy Eppler

It’s been a while since my last post. I just came back from spring training in the Cactus League, the highlight of which was probably my interview with Los Angeles Angels General Manager Billy Eppler.

I listened in as Shohei Ohtani spoke to the media on Saturday, March 2, but it was fairly routine: “How many balls did you hit off the tee today? How many in toss batting?” So when speaking with Eppler I stayed away from the question everybody wants answered, “When is Shohei coming back?” and focused on other things.

Chat with the Angels GM

Below is part of my Q&A with Eppler that didn’t make it into the Kyodo News story HERE.

–Is he unique because he’s unique or because baseball has said it can’t be done?

 “I would think there’s a blending of both of those. However, you have to be blessed with the talent on both sides, the ability to work efficiently because you’re not going to have the same time that everybody else is going to have. So raw athleticism, size, speed, strength, efficiency in your work, discipline, those things are unique to him. So probably the majority goes to his uniqueness, I could arbitrarily throw out something like 70 percent is due to him and 30 percent to the other, but that’s cocktail napkin math. A lot of it is his uniqueness.”

–how much did his work habits play into your approach to acquire him?

     “We were mindful of that. We understood that. We tried to present that Southern California is a good place to be baseball obsessed. The weather cooperates.”

–How many guys are trying to be two-way players now?

“We have four in our organization. We drafted one in the fourth round, we drafted him as a two-way player. He went out and just hit and was doing his bullpen work on the side. He hadn’t done a ton of functional weight training so we wanted to make sure his strength was up.”

“Of those four, five including Shohei, two of those five are starters and three are trying to be relievers.”

Thanks for the help

In addition to Eppler, I want to thank all those people who took time out from their busy schedules to chat: Pitchers Jay Jackson, Matt Carasiti, Tony Barnette, Kenta Maeda, Yoshihisa Hirano, former NPB players Matt Murton, Terrmel Sledge, Jim Marshall, Torey Lovullo, Akinori Otsuka, Takashi Saito and Hideki Okajima. Two Angels players, Kaleb Cowart and Albert Pujols, also shared their time.

I also want to thank the media relations staff of the San Diego Padres, Milwaukee Brewers, Chicago Cubs, Arizona Diamondbacks, Seattle Mariners, and Los Angeles Angels and MLB. Because of their help, I was able to make good use of my time. A shoutout also to my Kyodo News colleagues in New York and Arizona for their input and assistance.

Fanning Japan’s flame

Barnette, Tazawa, Darvish
Just a small sample of the Chicago Cub’s Japan contingent in Arizona this spring, pitchers Tony Barnette, Junichi Tazawa and Yu Darvish.

Good cheer and good hustle

Chicago Cubs pitcher Tony Barnette on Friday paid tribute to an overlooked aspect of Japanese baseball, its passion and fan-fueled competitiveness.

Asked what aspects of the game helped shape him as a player, the former Yakult Swallows closer cited the non-stop cheering and noise-making as more than just a part of the atmosphere, but something that adds to the amount o fight displayed between the lines.

“One thing I haven’t talked about much is the competitiveness of every single game,” he said. “The fan atmosphere helps with that. It doesn’t matter if you’re 10 games above .500 or 15 games below, they’re still showing up. That attitude adds to the competitiveness of the game, because a dead stadium is a dead stadium. It’s hard to get into it.”

“But as a player, you feel, if they’re still into it, we’re still into it. They’re not going to quit, we’re not going to quit. The more and more you win, the better it gets.”

“The passion is there, the caring is there. The heart and hustle is still there. You see the way guys bust it down the line, sliding head-first. As bad as that is, it’s still there. That’s one of the things that has stuck with me, is keeping that competitive level all the way through the game and all the way through the season.”

Pitcher Chris Martin, Barnette’s teammate last season with the Texas Rangers, said last November, that playing for Japan’s Nippon Ham Fighters prepared him to play in the majors by getting him used to executing pitches in high-pressure situations.

“One of the things people don’t give Japan credit for is it’s a competitive league with competitive players. The talent level may fall off a bit quicker, but the fact of the matter is guys are out there to win every single night and it’s good baseball.”

“It’s June and it’s Hanshin and there are 45,000 people in the stands or it’s July or it’s Tokyo Dome, and it’s the ninth inning and – off the bench because he was supposed to have a day off, here comes (future Hall of Famer Shinnosuke) Abe in the ninth inning and that place goes nuts. You get in that situation in that atmosphere, you’ve got to make a big pitch with 50,000 people screaming.”

“That has the big game mentality. Now when you get to the major leagues, it’s like, I’ve been in a stadium this big before. I’ve been in a stadium that’s more full than this. It’s a development thing.”

Giving credit where credit is due

On a personal level, Barnette credited one of his managers and his pitching coaches as huge influences. Manager Junji Ogawa took a team with promising talent and made them playoff contenders, largely by being patient. Under him, the Swallows got big seasons out of Barnette, Lastings Miledge and Wladimir Balentien. All three got big multiyear contracts, and though Miledge fell off the radar, Balentien went on to break Japan’s single-season home run record in 2013, while Barnette established himself as an elite closer.

“Junji Ogawa was instrumental in bringing me back after that first failed starter year, him and coach (Daisuke) Araki. They brought me back.”

“Araki ended up moving on, but then coach (former major leaguer Shingo) Takatsu came. He was such a great coach. His temperament as a pitching coach is just remarkable.” “And then Tomohito Ito. I played catch with that guy pretty much every single day for two years. When it came to the development of the cutter, the split, he’s got his hands all over it. His finger prints are all over the way I pitch today. I can’t talk about Japan without talking about Ito. I think he’s phenomenal in his craft and caring about each individual pitcher to work and get better, that organic way he cares about people. It’s seamless to him. Some guys have to work at it. It comes naturally to him and it shows. Phenomenal charisma. He’s a great guy to be around.”

Maeda learns to change

Kenta Maeda
Kenta Maeda speaks to reporters on Thursday, Feb. 28, in Glendale, Arizona.

Los Angeles Dodgers right-hander Kenta Maeda spoke about what his three years in the big leagues have taught him about baseballs, climate and the honesty one experiences from American crowds.

Time for a change

Last year was a step forward in some ways for Maeda. After attacking the strike zone more in relief at the end of the 2017 season, 2018 brought the good news that his strikeouts overall were on the rise. The bad news was that the circle change he brought with him from Japan had become a non-factor in the majors and left-handed-hitters were killing him.

“The problem was left-handed hitters,” he said. “My old changeup was a circle change. It was a pitch to get contact, off-balance swings for easy outs. It worked in Japan because a lot of batters have big leg kicks. It was easy for me to get them to flail at pitches out in front. There are few batters in the majors who have that. They have better balance, and that pitch wasn’t working.”

He said he turned to split-fingered fastball grip that allowed the ball to drop a lot more and get misses from left-handed hitters trying to drive the ball — a huge adjustment every Japanese pitcher faces in America, where the Japanese slap-hitting subclass of (largely) left-handed hitters doesn’t really exist.

“In Japan, so many guys aren’t trying to drive the ball. They’re trying to slap it through a hole, hit it on the ground. But those kinds of hits are no big deal. It takes four to score a run. Here pretty much everyone is trying to hurt you from No. 1 to No. 8,” said Maeda, omitting the fact that he once surrendered two home runs in a game to Mets pitcher Noah Syndergaard.

No country for slow fastballs

Like Daisuke Matsuzaka and Masahiro Tanaka, Maeda was a pitcher in danger of not really having a four-seam fastball after he moved to the majors. He said a lot of his countrymen have to come to grips with the fact that no matter how slow their best fastball is, it is better than no fastball at all.

“I think that’s because the guys who come here are fast by Japanese standards, but (their velocities are) just average here, throwing 93 to 94 miles (150 to 151 kilometers) per hour, and they think therefore that those pitches are going to get hit,” Maeda said. “They think that especially before they come.”

“But once they get here, we eventually learn that no one is going to hit them just because their fastball is not as fast as other pitchers’.”

He said he also fell into the new trap among Japanese pitchers, who believe that in order to succeed in America one needs to have a two-seam fastball.

“We have an exaggerated belief that American pitching equals throwing that (two-seam) moving fastball. I thought I would have to have one, so I tried and tried, but could never throw it well enough.”

Climate change

And though his slider has proven to be a quality pitch for him in the States as much as it had been in Japan. Maeda had to learn how to trust himself and ignore the evidence when he first arrived in Arizona.

“Everyone told me before I got here, ‘You won’t be able to make your slider move in Arizona, so don’t worry about it,” he said. “And I couldn’t and that was the one thing that really puzzled me in my first spring training.”

“But I was really confident in the quality of my slider and since they weren’t getting away from me, and they were breaking a bit, I was able to move forward. When I got to Los Angeles it was normal. Since then, I don’t let that bother me.”

Not ready for prime time

He also came in supremely confident he could get batters out with the major league ball and pitch well here based on his experience in the World Baseball Classic in 2013, when he was named to the all-tournament team.

“That was false confidence on my part,” he said. “I felt really good coming here, because of the WBC. I’d used the ball, I’d gotten batters out. But what I didn’t realize was that the WBC is an anomaly. The opposing hitters were not ready for baseball to the degree we were in Japan (where spring camp starts on Feb. 1). That was kind of a shock.”

Read my Kyodo News interview HERE.

Ichiro, Shohei, Japan and the Negro Leagues

One of the winter meetings’ highlights was meeting Bob Kendrick, the president of Kansas City’s Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. At the mention of Shohei Ohtani, Mr. Kendrick’s face lit up, as it does on most topics related to baseball, and he talked about the parallels and links between the Negro Leagues, Japanese baseball and the majors.

Mr. Bob Kendrick, the president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, is keen to share America’s rich tradition of two-way players with Japan’s Shohei Ohtani.

While virtually every story about Ohtani’s remarkable season included a note that he was the last player since Babe Ruth to have done “X” as a pitcher and “Y” as a hitter. But that is the major league version of the story. It’s a big story, but it’s not the whole story.

“It’s a very important part of baseball and American history and a forgotten chapter of baseball and American history and that’s the rich, powerful and compelling story of the Negro Leagues which is documented, substantiated and celebrated at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City,” Kendrick said.

“It (Ohtani’s arrival) gave us a chance to talk about those great two-way players who played in the Negro leagues. I’m hoping this season when they come to town that we may be able to get him by the museum. There’s this great history between the Negro leagues and Japan that most people don’t know.”

“The Philadelphia Royal Giants go to Japan in 1927, well before Ruth and his all-stars. We’ve got a wonderful game day magazine. We actually have an original but we have a version of it hanging on the wall, and I showed the original to Ichiro when he visited the museum.”

“He’s a fan of the game. He’s a historian of the game. So I don’t think it’s a surprise that the Negro Leagues would appeal to him. The first time he came to the museum, he snuck in and we didn’t even know he was there. One of the clerks in the gift shop saw the credit card slip where he had bought some stuff.”

Suzuki may not look like the guy who attends SABR meetings, but he pays attention to detail. This is evidenced by Suzuki honoring the history of old-time star George Sisler and reaching out to his family when he broke Sisler’s single-season hit record.

Kendrick said Suzuki was also drawn to the museum because of his bond with the museum’s founder, former Negro League star Buck O’Neil.

“When Buck O’Neil passed away, who sent flowers? Ichiro Suzuki,” Kendrick said. “The next year his translator called and said they wanted to meet with me. We sat in a conference room and started to describe his admiration for Buck. He goes into his bag and writes a significant personal check for the Negro Leagues Museum in memory of his friend Buck O’Neil. They were two kindred spirits bonded by the great game of baseball.”

“Probably, the reason that Ichiro and Buck hit it off so well is because Buck could understand the skepticism (about Ichiro). The Negro League players heard that same skepticism. Can you do that (get hits) over here? So what does he do here? He puts 3,000 more hits up.

“That was the same air of skepticism that followed those Negro League players as they moved into the major leagues. You put those numbers up in the Negro Leagues but the world just seemed to believe that the highest level you could play was the major leagues, so can you do that in the major leagues. So what do they do? They do that in the major leagues.”

Kendrick said the attraction went beyond that. Like Ohtani, when Suzuki arrived in the majors in 2001, people were saying he was a throwback to the days of Ty Cobb. A player whose game was everything but home runs. But Suzuki’s game would have been right at home in the Negro Leagues.

“Ichiro talked about how he admired Buck’s style,” Kendrick said. “Buck hung out at the ballpark all the time. When they were taking BP, Buck would be chatting up everybody, showing love like he always did.”

“He (Ichiro) was a Negro Leagues player. He would have been a big star in the Negro Leagues. There’s no question about it. And we don’t say that lightly, because of the way they played the game in the Negro Leagues. The way he played, hitting the ball in the gap, taking the extra bases, the speed, the defense, the style. He has flair. He absolutely could have played in the Negro Leagues.”

Ohtani, too, would have fit in, Kendrick said. And he issued an open invitation to the Los Angeles Angels star.

“It would be awesome to have Shohei come in,” he said. “And again amidst that same level of skepticism, here comes this kid, two-way playing in Japan, big-time star. Can you do it in the major leagues? He does it in the major leagues. But his success also led us down the path where others wanted to talk about the great two-way players of the Negro Leagues. Ohtani is not new.”

“When we started talking about guys like Bullet Joe Rogan, Leon Day, Martin Dihigo, the list just went on and on of the great stars in the Negro Leagues who were two-way players. You have to understand that the roster sizes in the Negro Leagues weren’t as large as they were in the major leagues, so you needed those guys who were versatile. So the Negro Leagues had their fair share of great two-way players.”

National body shoots down Japan’s 1st high school baseball pitch limit

On Wednesday the Japan High School Baseball Federation asked Niigata Prefecture’s high school federation to reconsider the pitch limit it announced for this year’s spring prefectural tournament.

The rule, announced unilaterally by the Niigata body in December without consulting the national federation, would have prevented pitchers from working in another inning after they had thrown 100 pitches.

Niigata’s decision sent shockwaves through Japan, where the two iconic high school tournaments at historic Koshien Stadium outside of Osaka are the nation’s biggest spectacle, and marathon pitching efforts part of the lore.

In making its announcement in Osaka, the national federation said it would convene a panel of experts in April to study how to prevent pitching injuries. Although there had been some words of condemnation for Niigata acting on its own, the national federation’s decision should not be seen as an effort to turn back the clock. This month, Daichi Suzuki, the chief of Japan’s Sports Agency praised the bravery of Niigata’s authorities and called on the national high school federation to act.

Osamu Shimada, a high school vice principal in Niigata Prefecture who was the project leader behind the plan to curb injuries to baseball players, said by telephone, “We have pushed the hands of the clock forward.”

Shimada, who became a teacher and a high school baseball coach after his own playing career ended in university, said Niigata was uniquely situated to upset high school baseball’s apple cart.

“We were able to put together a committee of elementary, junior and senior high school baseball authorities. Because we are weak (in national tournaments) we could find common cause at all levels,” he said. “This is something other prefectures with strong local bodies couldn’t do.”

“We are a small prefecture in terms of population and the number of kids who want to play baseball is dwindling. We want to change that. but there are so many other sports one could play, so why would a young athlete choose a sport where a lot of players get hurt?”

“We don’t know that 100 pitches is the best solution, but our plan is to collect data, learn and move forward. We felt if we didn’t act it would be too late. There was a sense of urgency.”