Former Lions and Hawks star Koji Akiyama said Saturday that the seeds of his success in Nippon Professional Baseball were sown in the United States, where he and several Seibu Lions teammates were sent 30-plus years ago to learn what the could in the Single-A ball.
“It completely changed my view, broadened my horizons,” Akiyama said at an event of Japan’s “Meikyukai” Golden Players Club at Tokyo Dome. “I played in San Jose and seeing American baseball, even just the atmosphere at the ballpark made me want to play in a major league park. It made me want to be better.”
Akiyama could have gone. When Japan’s free agent system was inaugurated in 1994, players needed 10 years of service time, and he qualified in the autumn of 1994. But when it came time to file, after his Lions had lost the Japan Series for the second straight season, no Japanese had played in the majors since Masanori Murakami in 30 years. But the majors were still embroiled in the strike that had cancelled the World Series and sent the American media to Japan to see the Lions play the Yomiuri Giants in the Japan Series.
Akiyama, a fleet, power-hitting center fielder, would have been a good fit for the majors, but he was born 10 years too early. During his prime years–all with Seibu from 1985 to 1994, Akiyama hit 348 home runs, more than any other NPB player during that span, while stealing 247 bases, the second most in Japan.
“I would have loved to have gone,” he said. “But you have to go in your twenties. By the time I thought I might that time had already gone.”
“The game over there was thrilling. Everything. Seeing games in major league ballparks for myself made me realize the game was so much bigger than I thought it was.”
After Hideo Nomo defied Japan’s baseball establishment by leaving for the States under his own power, the flow of Japanese talent began. But Akiyama said stars moving to the majors has resulted not in a talent drain but a talent boost.
“Young players now see that (Japanese guys playing in the majors) and they try harder than ever. It’s a great thing,” he said.
This is the final part of Shohei Ohtani’s Nov. 22 press conference. If you have any suggestions about better translations or corrections, please hit me up. Thanks.)
—What powers your ambition?
“I’ve loved baseball since the first time I played it. That’s how it’s been until now and has changed very little. When I was little it was twice a week. I looked forward to next weekend (to play) so much. I couldn’t wait. I think I’ve felt that way ever since.”
“This year, I loved every day I played baseball. It was a joy being at the ballpark playing ball. I think it’s an extension of that.”
—You’re compared to Babe Ruth. How conscious are you of him?
“People compare us, but In reality, I feel he’s like a figure out of mythology, and that’s how far apart we are.”
“I don’t think I give much thought to that (comparison). Certainly, I have put up some numbers and have some records. But in regards to that, I think I now lack the necessary talent. As the years go by and if my numbers get closer, then it might be something I think of. But where things stand now, I can’t imagine that.”
—What do you know about Babe Ruth now that you have been compared to him?
“Once those kinds of comparisons started, I saw he put up some really good numbers and I could understand he was a really good player. I didn’t understand, however, where and how he was such a great player.”
“When you really look at his production, what stands out is that those numbers are really different. My strongest impression of him is as a hitter rather than a pitcher, because he hit so many home runs in an era when they were rare. So my image of him is that of an amazing player, a great player.”
—You said you were nervous before your first start. Is that an issue again when you come back?
“Because I never play well in the preseason, I’m always anxious once the regular season starts in my first game as a pitcher or my first plate appearance. I expect that’s probably the same for all players. But I’ve never before entered a season playing as poorly as I did this year, both as a batter and a pitcher. The anxiety regarding my pitching, in particular, was especially heavy.”
—What challenges do you face when you resume pitching?
“I guess the big thing is to have less stressful, more efficient mechanics. But that is something that needs to be done in parallel with improving my skills overall, or it won’t produce results. There are a lot of things I can work on now in that area, things I will be able to put into practice after I make my (pitching) comeback.”
—Now that you’re back in Japan. How do you expect to spend your time?
“I feel like I want to eat really good sushi. As for things I want to do, there’s nothing in particular. This is a time when I need to prioritize my rehab. Whether it’s in Japan or America, it’s essential for me to concentrate fully on that.”
—You cook for yourself in America, so what’s your specialty?
“Because the only time I cook for myself is in the morning, it’s only on the scale of simple omelets. They put out food (at the ballpark) around noon and in the evening. Before I went to the United States, eating was something I was really concerned about, but I was able to get by a lot more normally than I expected. Now I think that’s one area where next year I’ll go without any worry. A specialty? I don’t have any.”
—In May and July, you went through periods where you didn’t elevate the ball. Did you overcome that by working with coaches or on your own?
“The answer is both. Some adjustments were things I could feel what was needed on my own, and others originated from coach’s observations.”
“When a series ends, you then face a different opponent who attacks you in a different way. You’ll see a certain trend through 20 or 30 at-bats and then you’ll face a different pattern. There are lots and lots of changes like that, so I think — especially in one’s first year — times like that (where you’re not hitting like you expect) — come and go. Ways to deal with that are to put even more effort into studying your opponents or simply refining your mechanics. I don’t think there’s any single fix, but rather it’s a process of making small adjustments throughout the season.”
—After this year’s results, what numbers are you aspiring to achieve next year?
“Of course, I’m not satisfied (with what I’ve done). When the number of plate appearances and games pitched changes, your season totals will change too. The meaning of that for next year, when I’m going to be a batter, is that I can’t clearly predict when I’m going to be able to resume playing. Since I won’t know absolutely how many games I’ll play, I am not going to throw out any numbers.”
“This is something not connected with my stats, but I really want to play in the postseason. That feeling has only gotten stronger after this one year. So first of all, I want to do my best so and aim for that.”