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Taking a Sledge to baseball world

With major league scouts annually scouring Japan for imported players who’ve raised their games in Nippon Professional Baseball, Terrmel Sledge, now a hitting coach with the Chicago Cubs, believes an overlooked factor in players’ growth here is simply the understanding one gains of the world and the people in it.

Some NPB veterans say Japanese coaching made them better, some say it is the attention paid to practicing fundamentals or the extreme focus on fitness. Sledge, the son of a Korean mother and an American father, said his big takeaway from his time with the Nippon Ham Fighters and Yokohama BayStars was the experience of being there.

Terrmel Sledge
Chicago Cubs hitting coach Terrmel Sledge

Being there

“I was talking to one of our players who played in Korea. It’s the experience: different cultures, how they eat, family, discipline. It’s different,” Sledge said at the Cub’s spring training facility in Mesa, Arizona, in March.

“You almost wish other players could travel internationally and have a different perspective and not be so hard on themselves when they come back into their own in the United States.”

“It’s not about saying what culture is right or wrong. A good example, when I went over there, a tougher adjustment was the spacing between people. Every one is in your face or right behind you. It’s like, ‘Why are you so close to me?’ I heard in Australia it’s like extra space and in the U.S. it’s in the middle. You’ve got to adjust. You are in their country.”

When he finished playing, Sledge broadened his horizons further, traveling the world on business.

Going outside the game

“I did odd jobs, in small business, building web sites, google adverts and Adsense, flew all over the world, Bangkok, flew to China, India,” he said. “But I needed to be around baseball. I had to be on the field. Baseball was my whole life, I felt I had to get back in the game.”

“I am new with the Cubs. My first year with them was 2015, I went to the Dodgers for three years and now I’m back with the Cubs again.”

Like going to Japan or traveling the world, becoming a coach meant dealing with a new reality, one in which he was removed from the center.

On the outside looking in

“It’s like you’re on the opposite end of the spectrum,” he said of coaching. “It’s not really about you. They don’t care what you did or whether you’re a Hall of Famer or whatever. It’s what can you give them.”

“Our careers are over. It’s not about us or what we did. They frankly don’t even care. We’re on a different end and you have to find your way in. You just base it around as long as they know you care, genuinely really care. That’s the biggest thing to do.”

Finding one’s way in — in order to function as a coach — is yet another adjustment in a lifetime of baseball adjustments. In Japan, while dealing with the world off the field, Sledge had to cope with fewer bread-and-butter fastballs in hitter’s counts and those umpires whose view of the strike zone, players say, are colored by the batter’s nationality.

While Japanese baseball places a huge value on fitting in, foreign players who don’t succeed don’t last long.

Adjusting to Japan

“…I thought it was going to be a more relaxed environment, but foreigners have more pressure. They’re expected to do more,” Sledge said. “Their culture, I felt, for foreigners coming in there, I felt it was like, ‘Hey. You’re not going to just come in here and think you’re going to be successful. A bigger strike zone. A lot of offspeed pitches in hitters counts, so I had to study pitchers like the back of my hand. That helped me become a hitter over there and helped me survive for five years, studying the pitchers…because I grew up hitting a fastball my whole life.”

And now he’s studying hitters while trying to master the interpersonal relationships that are now central to his job.

Asked what he needs to do when he spots something a player is doing and is keen to deliver a message, Sledge said, “You better wait it out.”

“It’s about building the relationship, knowing that they know you care. You can’t just go in there and say (it) – especially at this level since these guys are the best baseball players in the world. I can tell a guy what I think only if we truly have that relationship together.”

In that respect, his being with the Cubs has provided a tremendous example in manager Joe Maddon.

Among the Maddon-ing crowd

“I was fortunate enough in my first year to be in this culture and environment,” Sledge said. “And you knew these guys can win the World Series, so my bar was set high. So everywhere I go I compare that to the Chicago Cubs. And being around Joe Maddon? What else can you ask for? You learn so much being around him.”

“He’s such a people person. Why wouldn’t you want to be around him? You don’t find too many guys like that.”

Tatsunami leads hit parade

Longtime second baseman Kazuyoshi Tatsunami and former Dragons ace and BayStars manager Hiroshi Gondo are two of the newest members of Japan’s Hall of Fame.

2019 votes tells us hits matter more than anything

Kazuyoshi Tatsunami was admitted to Japan’s Baseball Hall of Fame on Tuesday in a vote that favored 2,000-hit guys. Tatsunami, with 2,480 career hits got 287 votes, eight more than needed for his selection, while two first-timers with 2,000 hits, Shinya Miyamoto and Alex Ramirez, shot up the rankings.

Tuffy Rhodes, easily the most deserving player on the ballot along with former major league catcher Kenji Jojima were left in their dust.

Ramirez is a decent candidate, and there’s nothing one can do to make Rhodes’ career any better or worse than it was. It is not an insult that more people voted for Ramirez, because we all look at things differently.

The way I see, it, Ramirez had 208 more hits than Rhodes, but Rhodes hit 84 more home runs, stole 67 more bases, scored 234 more runs, and — wait for it — drew 650 more walks. That’s a huge number in two careers that lasted about the same length.

Kazuyoshi Tatsunami, left front, with fellow Hall of Famer Hiroshi Gondo. Behind them are Tatsunam’s high school coach Junji Nakamura and Gondo’s predecessor as Chunichi Dragons ace, Shigeru Sugishita.

Rhodes, who was on 36.6 percent of the ballots two years ago, was at 22.8 percent last year and 29.6 this year. By contrast, Miyamoto, a sturdy player and a good leader if an underwhelming bat despite 2,133 career hits got 41.2 percent and Tomonori Maeda (2,119 hits) matched Rhodes’ 29.6 share.

To be fair, this leaves me at a loss to explain the lack of improvement for Takuro Ishii, a player of Tatsunami’s caliber with more speed and defense but fewer extra-base hits. Ishii. At 19.3 percent last year, Ishii improved to just 24.8 percent this time around.

The ultimate sacrifice

Or maybe its not just hits, but hits and sacrifices. That could explain why Masahiro Kawai, another solid baseball man of that generation was named on 50.7 percent of this year’s ballots. Kawai had 5m528 plate appearances with a .676 career OPS. The thing that sets him apart is his sacrifice hit total, a Japan-record 533. Like Miyamoto, he bunted more than he walked.

The last year there were no knockout first-year candidates, 2017, voters selected the player who got the most votes who was still on the ballot. That was Tsutomu Ito, a superb catcher and good hitter in an underrepresented position. But Ito is also fourth in career sacrifice bunts with 305. So Kawai is the leader, Miyamoto is third and both may be going into the Hall of Fame with Ito. This begs the question of why voters overlooked Ken Hirano, whose 451 career sacrifices rank him second. What could they have been thinking?

Or is thinking optional?