Camp fires: Feb. 1, 2024

Camps opened Thursday for 10 teams in Okinawa and Miyazaki prefectures, with rain greeting the guys practicing in Kyushu. The Orix Buffaloes were not expected to practice until Feb. 2. But telling Japanese baseball players, who since they were small have probably spent close to 99.99 percent of their hours in uniform training rather than playing in games, to not practice is a tough sell.

One guy who is expected to be a tough customer with hard practices is new Yomiuri Giants manager Shinnosuke Abe, but on Day 1, he proved to be generous in his praise, while new SoftBank Hawks manager Hiroki Kokubo figures his position players are going to get the job done this year.

Buffaloes in volunteer mode

Although the Orix Buffaloes aren’t scheduled to hold their first camp workouts until Friday, the players decided to hold a voluntary workout at their spring training facility in Miyazaki, while manager Satoshi Nakajima and his coaches looked on.

Training outside the framework of baseball’s regular season, postseason, preseason, spring training and fall mini camps is called voluntary, even if it’s a standard practice such as when first-year players are “asked” to show up to a practice, handed vests with their numbers on them and ordered to practice while the manager and coaches watch from a distance in street clothes.

Breaking with tradition

A typical workday in a Japanese spring training camp has highly structured morning practices that taper off after lunch until players, on their own or in small groups, keep working until late in the evening, even swinging bats in dark parking lots where they can train after being ordered to stop.

After every four or five days, players get a day off to recover and enjoy their time in Okinawa or Miyazaki before picking up where they left off the next day.

Last year, Nakajima, who worked as a minor league instructor with the San Diego Padres after wrapping up his playing career with the Fighters, was concerned about an extended stretch of workout days on the calendar and one day ordered all the players to leave the ballpark after lunch, and had his coaches go around to see that players actually followed instructions.

When Orix opted to start its camp on Feb. 2, a day later than 10 teams, I figured that was a good sign, but I guess they started late for other reasons other than trying to be on the cutting edge of anything.

Free service

These voluntary practices remind me of something that used to be a staple of Japanese office culture, or so I’ve been told.

Back in the day, when I taught English at Pepsi Cola Japan, and my students were intimately familiar with the nature of Japanese offices, I heard horror stories of a common practice known as voluntary overtime, or “sabisu zangyo” in Japanese, in which workers were expected to pitch in to get a job done without reporting that time as is their right.

The word “service” has been coopted to mean “free” in Japanese. If a waiter puts food on your table and says, “service,” it means you’re not being charged. Stores and restaurants used to give out small cards called “service tickets” that would be stamped every time you spent so much money at their establishments, entitling you to a discount or a free meal or drink when you collected sufficient stamps.

Abe full of praise

New Yomiuri Giants manager Shinosuke Abe, who has won the praise of Japan’s baseball old farts by projecting an old-school tough-love image, displayed a fondness for hyperbole. Abe proclaimed that his players exceeded what they were capable of on the first day of camp. Employing the popular Japanese analogy of grading a perfect performance at “100 points,” Abe awarded his team 120, Daily Sports reported.

And to dispel any thought that he might be setting low expectations, Abe said he wants first-round pick, pitcher Yuhi Nishidate to develop like another pro out of Hanamaki Higashi High School, Shohei Ohtani.

Kokubo focused on pitchers

New SoftBank Hawks skipper Hiroki Kokubo, whose first day in charge was greeted by rain in Miyazaki, said all his attention this month will be trained on his pitching staff. “I am operating under the assumption that this camp is going to be about our pitching, so I’m focused mostly on the pitching. Frankly, no one is looking at the position players.”

Unfortunately, neither side of the Hawks’ equation was all that impressive last season.

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