Tag Archives: Ichiro Suzuki

NPB 2020 7-7 GAMES AND NEWS

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Senga opens with a win

Kodai Senga threw hard at the start, hitting 161 kph against his first batter but was missing all over, especially with his splitter, but it was good enough for a winning debut as the SoftBank Hawks beat the Rakuten Eagles 4-3 in the Pacific League on Tuesday.

Senga had been out with a calf injury compounded by arm issues, and only went five innings. Yuki Yanagita tied it with a two-run first-inning homer at PayPay Dome off Hayato Yuge (2-1). Ryoya Kurihara homered in the second to make it 3-2 only for Hideto Asamura to hit his ninth home run and tie it in the third. Yanagita broke the tie in the fifth with a hard-hit RBI single.

Albers corners Fighters in Buffaloes’ win

Andrew Albers (1-1) allowed two hits but no walks over seven innings while striking out eight for the Orix Buffaloes in their 7-1 win over the Nippon Ham Fighters at Osaka’s Kyocera Dome.

Aderlin Rodriguez opened the scoring against right-hander Toshihiro Sugiura (1-1) in the second with his second homer in three games, and Adam Jones’ two-run double made it 3-0 through three. Masataka Yoshida went 4-for-4 with a homer, two RBIs and two runs.

Former San Diego Padre Christian Villanueva went 1-for-3 in his Fighters debut.

Fighters activate Villanueva

The Nippon Ham Fighters activated third baseman Christian Villanueva on Tuesday. The infielder, who did not re-sign with the Yomiuri Giants over the winter following his first season in Japan, had an appendectomy in May.

In his place, the Fighters have played rookie Yuki James Nomura.

Marines wear down Lions

Seibu’s Kona Takahashi struck out nine batters but ran into a buzz saw in the fifth and sixth inning in the Lions’ 8-6 loss to the Lotte Marines at Chiba’s wind-swept Zozo Marine Stadium.

Leonys Martin’s two-out, two-run fifth-inning double broke a 1-1 tie, and rookie Hisanori Yasuda’s two-run homer capped a three-run sixth for the Marines.

Marines right-hander Yuki Ariyoshi (1-0) allowed two runs over six innings, but the bullpen coughed up four runs to make it close.

Dragons lose in 10th with no hitters left

The Chunichi Dragons loaded the bases in the bottom of the 10th inning but lost 2-1 to the Yakult Swallows. Dragons manager Tsuyoshi Yoda burned through his nine reserve position players and sent reliever Takuya Mitsuma up to pinch-hit with two outs and the bases loaded in the bottom of the 10th.

Mitsuma fouled off one two-strike pitch before swinging and missing to end the game.

Norichika Aoki led off the Swallows’ 10th with a walk. With one out and first base open, Yoda ordered an intentional walk of red-hot Naomichi Nishiura. But Taishi Hirooka walked with two outs, and 36-year-old career minor leaguer Suguru Ino walked on six pitches to force in the run.

With two outs and runners on the corners in the bottom of the 10th, Swallows manager Shingo Takatsu ordered the bases loaded to bring the Dragons pitcher’s spot up with no position players left on the bench.

“It was 100 percent my mistake,” Yoda said according to Sports Nippon. “I mean one has to have at least one position player on the bench. I was conflicted about that last change and it came back to bite me.”

There are days when robots might be preferable.

And then there was Takatsu’s turn…

Takatsu himself had one of Japan’s most famous relief pitcher pinch-hitting appearances. In 1995, Central League manager Katsuya Nomura ordered Takatsu to pinch-hit for Hideki Matsui after Pacific League skipper Akira Ogi called Ichiro Suzuki in from right field to face the future major leaguer. Suzuki pitched to future big leaguer, just not the one people wanted to see.

For those of you who are curious, you can read a little about these teams in my Japanese pro baseball guide.

Live blog: Hawks vs Eagles

The Rakuten Eagles made it look easy last week taking five of six against the Lotte Marines in Sendai — when the Marines entered on the back of an eight-game win streak. The Hawks went 3-2 with a tie at Sapporo Dome against the Fighters.

Tonight will be the 2020 season debut of Hawks ace Kodai Senga. He injured his right calf on the first day of spring training, and hurt his right forearm when he was on the verge of returning to fitness.

Top 1st

Senga starts out Eigoro Mogi with hard stuff, hitting 161 kph on his 4th pitch and gets him looking at a 159 kph inside fastball. If he can keep this location up when he starts with his secondary stuff it could be a long night for the Eagles but a fast game.

Daichi Suzuki hits the first pitch that isn’t a four-seam fastball, a 1-2 cutter away down the line in left for a single. Blash is rung up checking his swing on a low 3-2 slider. That’s about the closest call I’ve seen on a checked swing strike this year. The umps have been pretty forgiving unless a guy has gone well around.

Senga and Kai try to get Hideto Asamura to chase on 3-2 but he’s not biting. It’s two on with two outs for Hiroaki Shimauchi, who survives a close call on a low 1-2 fastball to stay alive. Shimauchi fouls off a cutter inside. Senga misses straight and down the pipe and Shimiuchi drills it over Yuki Yanagita’s head in center for a two-run double. Eagles 2, Hawks 0.

Stefen Romero pops up a first-pitch fastball, and the Eagles are done in the first at the Casa de Pepe.

Bottom 1st

Ryoya Kurihara, who is in left today, to lead off for the Hawks against the 1.93-meter lefty Hayato Yuge. The lefty clips him on the arm and the leadoff man is on. Mr. “300 sacrifice-bunts” Kenta Imamiya is up, and the announcers, of course, have to mention that, although no show of displeasure that he’s not squaring around.

Imamiya misses a fastball and rolls to short, not hard enough for a GDP. Yuki Yanagita takes a big swing on a first-pitch cutter that floats up in the zone and he miss-hits it just a little but still propels it into the home run terrace in left. We’re tied. Hawks 2, Eagles 2.

Yuge tried so hard to stay away from Yanagita, and he had no business swinging at that pitch, but what are you going to do. He strikes out Coco Balentien on a bouncer that gets away from catcher Hikaru Ota for “furinige” as Balentien reaches on an uncaught swinging third strike.

Keizo Kawashima, the right-handed-slap-hitting utility infielder is batting behind Coco and playing first. It’s like manager Kimiyasu Kudo lost a bet with someone. Kawashima reaches on an infield single, and Nobuhiro Matsuda smashes a bouncer into left and the bags are juiced.

Yuge appears to have regained his composure and strikes out the lefty-swinging Seiji Uebayashi, and the pops up Takuya Kai on the first pitch and the Hawks leave them loaded.

Top 2nd

Ginji Akaminai leads off with a four-pitch walk, and now with the speed and the hit-and-miss location, it feels like Kodai Senga is REALLY back. Senga hangs a splitter up in the zone, but Eagles catcher Hikaru Ota looks at it for Strike 3.

Mogi grounds to first and Kawashima — can’t get used to him wearing No. 99 — gets the force at second for the second out. Daichi Suzuki up with runners on the corners but quickly down 0-2 and looks at a strike on the outside corner — that Senga was trying to go inside with.

Bottom 2nd

With one out, Ryoya Kurihara barrels up a straight 1-0 fastball in the heart of the zone and pulls it into the permanents seats in right. Hawks 3, Eagles 2.

Yuge’s location is also kind of here and gone. He loses Imamiya on a 3-2 pitch, to put a man on for Yanagita. Yuge misses in the zone with his first pitch, but Yanagita misses, too, and fouls it off. Two hard ones inside and Yanagita grounds out to first.

Balentien, who pretty much never saw anything over the plate in Sapporo, gets a fastball in the zone and one inside for 1-1. Yuget gets him on a changeup low in the zone that Balentien lines softly to short.

Top 3rd

Blash opens the third with a smash to short that nearly knocks Kenta Imamiya off his feet for the first out. But just like that, Hideto Asamura hits his eighth home run and we’re tied. That’s a decent curve from Senga, but Asamura is all over it and drives it 12 rows back in the permanent seats. Hawks 3, Eagles 3.

Very rare for the announcing crew to comment on the umpiring, but they do when Romero takes an 0-2 pitch down the middle and umpire Kunio Kiuchi dutifully gives the batter the benefit of the doubt. Romero hammers the next pitch through the box for a single, that Senga does well to duck. But Senga recovers by getting Akaminai on a pair of curves, that he apparently calls sliders.

Bottom 3rd

Kawashima grounds out to open the Hawks’ third and the Hawks go down in order.

Fun fact: On Jan. 1, 2008, Kawashima was traded by the Nippon Ham Fighters with pitcher Yoshitaka Hashimoto and Takehiko Oshimoto to the Yakut Swallows for lefty Shugo Fuji, right-hander Yataro Sakamoto and current Rakuten manager Hajime Miki. On July 20, 2014, the Swallows sent him and lefty Ryo Hidaka to the Hawks for Nagisa Arakaki and submarine right-hander Hirofumi Yamanaka — who has the distinction of being the only player to still be active after a trade involving Kawashima.

I was thinking about that last week, when Kawashima was starting against the Fighters, playing for a team that had won five of the last six Japan Series after being a middling piece in a trade over 12 years earlier.

Top 4th

With one out, Ryosuke Tatsumi walks for the second time but is cut down on a throw from Kai that reminded us what he was like back in 2018 as the Japan Series MVP basically for his ability to gun down runners.

Bottom 4th

Yuge needs 11 pitches, six of them on Kai, to get a 1-2-3 inning.

Top 5th

Senga gets Suzuki to fly out on an 0-1 fastball but runs the count full to Blash, who entered the game third in the league in strikeouts and second in walks. But Blash actually swings and misses this time for the second out.

Senga’s location is getting incrementally better as the game goes along. Asamura is up and he fouls a 1-1 fastball in the zone, and a high slider, too. Asamura nearly gets hit with a splitter that gets away and it’s 2-2. The inning ends with a strike zone as Senga hangs a splitter up high and Asamura misses it.

Bottom 5th

A throwing error by shortstop Eigoro Mogi allows Kenta Imamiya to start the inning at second, and Yuki Yanagita drives a fastball over the inside half of the plate toward the gap in right-center. What a beautiful swing, balanced, compact. Oh if it weren’t for service time manipulation. Hawks 4, Eagles 3.

Yuge gets Balentien to hit into a double play and survives a two-out Kawashima single. Yuge is up to 75 pitches.

Top 6th

Submarine right-hander Rei Takahashi, the PL’s 2019 rookie of the year, is on in relief for Senga, who allowed three runs on four hits and four walks while striking out six.

Bottom 6th

The first two Hawks go down on three pitches, and they have to rush Takahashi out of the clubhouse to start throwing on the sideline. Taisei Makihara goes up there and apparently has been ordered to take some time up there. He fouls off three, two-strike pitches before grounding out on Yuge’s eighth delivery.

Top 7th

The Eagles bat for catcher Hikaru Ota, and Yuya Ogo flies out on the first pitch. Umpire Kiuchi has not been a big fan of pitches at the bottom of the zone, and lets Tatsumi draw his third walk on a low 3-2 pitch.

Mogi flies out on the first pitch, but Suzuki smashes a hanging 0-1 breaking ball down the pipe and pulls it into right for a single, bringing Blash to the plate with Asamura on deck. Blash reaches when Kawashima can’t hang on to a low throw from Imamiya.

The bases are loaded for Asamura. He misses an 0-1 pitch in the heart of the zone, and Takahashi gets a perfect strike on the outside edge for 1-2. A fastball inside misses, 2-2. The right-hander misses up in the zone, and Asamura fouls out to Kawashima.

Bottom 7th

Right-hander Tomohito Sakai on for the Eagles. Yuge allows four runs, three earned, over six innings. He gave up six hits and a walk and hit a batter while striking out three.

Sakai jams Kurihara, and Imamiya chases a low 2-2 pitch and flies out. Yanagita swings at a first-pitch strike and flies out to center.

Top 8th

Cuban lefty Livan Moinelo on for SoftBank to take on the Eagles’ fifth, sixth and seventh spots. He strikes out two in a 1-2-3 inning.

Bottom 8th

Sakai on for his second inning of work and he keeps it close, retiring Balentien, Kawashima and Matsuda.

Top 9th

Yuito Mori is on to close out the one-run game against the bottom of the Eagles’ order. Kazuya Fujita offers at a first-pitch breaking ball up and grounds to short. Tatsumi grounds a 1-1 fastball to second, and Mogi flies out to short to end it.

Final score: Hawks 4, Eagles 3

Best 10 of the 2010s

I know one’s supposed to do these things before 2020, but Ione of the things about New Year’s Eve in Tokyo is that the trains run all night, and I was on the train, so it seemed like an optimal time. So here are my top 10 Japanese baseball stories of the past 10 years in chronological order.

2013: It’s the ball stupid

Six weeks into the 2013 season and everyone noticed it. Home runs were jumping and the players union, worrying about pitchers failing to collect on their incentives, asked what was going on. Commissioner Ryozo Kato said, “Nothing. The ball is the same uniform ball we introduced in 2011.”

His disloyal lieutenant, Atsushi Ihara, stood there and let his boss tell that knowing full well that he had conspired with the Mizuno Corporation to introduce a livelier ball without the commissioner’s consent or knowledge. Ihara, one of four people involved, came from the Yomiuri Shimbun — owner of Japan’s most influential team and the leading opponent of the commissioner — whose new ball cut home runs and who had introduced a third-party panel to adjudicate player arbitration cases.

So Ihara let his boss hang himself in public. And then later came clean that he and his immediate superior, who was not a Yomiuri guy, had switched out the balls. Ihara’s boss was fired, the commissioner was ousted and Ihara, the fox, was put in charge of the henhouse.

2013: Masahiro Tanaka, Senichi Hoshino and the Eagles

Masahiro Tanaka went 24-0 and didn’t lose all year until Game 6 of the Japan Series. After that complete game, he earned the save in Game 7 as the city of Sendai — struck by a killer earthquake and tsunami two years earlier — won its first Japan Series.

Manager Senichi Hoshino, who had lost his three previous Japan Series as manager of the Chunichi Dragons and Hanshin Tigers said when he was inducted into the Hall of Fame that he lost interest after winning the Central League pennant because his mission in life had been to beat the league-rival Giants. But in 2013, as Pacific League champions with NPB’s newest franchise, he faced the Giants and beat them in seven.

2014-2016: Tetsuto Yamada

From July 2014 through July 2016, the Yakult Swallows second baseman may have been the best player on the planet. He wasn’t a very good fielder in 2014 but took steps forward the next year when he was the CL MVP and led the consistently bad Swallows to the pennant.

His 2015 season was the 10th best in NPB history as measured by win shares and adjusted for era. His run came to a screeching halt in August 2016, when he was on his way to an even better season, but was hit in the back by a pitch that threw him off his game for nearly two seasons. Because of his stellar 2016 start, he became the first player in NPB history to record multiple seasons with a .300 average, 30 homers and 30 steals — even though he was an offensive zero the last two months of the season.

2015-2016: Giants stung by gambling scandal

Toward the end of the 2015 season, three Yomiuri Giants minor league pitchers were found guilty of betting on baseball — including games by their own team, although not in games they played in. The following March, a fourth pitcher, Kyosuke Takagi, revealed he, too, had been betting on games.

The first three players were all given indefinite suspensions and fired. In March 2016, Kyosuke Takagi also admitted to gambling. The only pitcher of the four of any quality, Takagi was let back into the game after a one-year suspension, following a recent pattern in which athletes who break the rules in Japan receive punishment inversely proportionate to how successful they are as competitors.

2016: Shohei Ohtani

If Yamada was the best for a 25-month span, 2016 cemented Ohtani’s place as the most intriguing player in the world. Ohtani had his first “Babe Ruth season” in 2014 with 10-plus wins and 10-plus home runs, but 2016, when he often batted as the pitcher in games when his manager could have used the DH was magical.

That summer, the Tokyo Sports Kisha Club, which organizes the voting for Japan’s postseason awards, made a rule change that allowed writers to cast Best Nine votes for the same player at multiple positions — provided one was a pitcher. The Ohtani rule allowed him to be win two Best Nine Awards, as the Pacific League’s best pitcher and best designated hitter.

His signature game came against the SoftBank Hawks — the team his Fighters came from behind to beat in the pennant race. Ohtani threw eight scoreless innings, opened the game with a leadoff homer and scored Nippon Ham’s other run in a 2-0 victory. Although he rolled his ankle running the bases in the Japan Series, he capped his year batting for Japan by hitting a ball into the ceiling panels at Tokyo Dome in November’s international series.

2016: Hiroshima Carp end their drought

In 2015, Hiroki Kuroda returned from the major leagues and even without Sawamura Award winner Kenta Maeda, the Carp’s young talented core snapped a 24-year drought, winning their first CL title since 1991.

The Carp went on to win three-straight CL championships, the longest streak in club history. When the club failed to win its fourth straight pennant and finished out of the postseason in 2019, manager Koichi Ogata resigned.

2019: Ichiro Suzuki retires in Japan

The only better script would have been for Suzuki to sell his soul to the Devil in exchange for another MVP and a World Series championship.

2010-2019: The CL status as a 2nd-class league is confirmed

The PL won nine Japan Series in the decade, the only time either league had ever done that. It equaled the best 10-year stretch by either league—when the Yomiuri Giants won nine straight from 1965 to 1973 bookended by PL titles.

2010-2019: The SoftBank Hawks

Never mind that the Hawks opened the decade by losing the playoffs’ final stage for the 4th time in 7 years to the third-place Lotte Marines. Softbank’s six Japan Series titles from 2011 t0 2019 under two different managers made them the team of the decade.

2019: The Giants discover the posting system

In November 2019, Shun Yamaguchi was posted by the Yomiuri Giants, who along with the Hawks have been the most critical of NPB’s posting agreement with MLB. When approached for comment about the impending news, the Giants’ official response was “that’s a rumor” and “speculation.”

Eight days later it was a done deal. Then followed the fun stuff as first one executive said it was a “one-off deal” and that the team had not changed its policy, having been obligated by contract to post Yamaguchi, which is pretty dumb, since the Giants agreed to that contract in the first place when they took him on as a free agent three years before.

The move makes it virtually impossible that the club will be able to keep ace and two-time Sawamura Award-winner Tomoyuki Sugano much longer and not post him.

Ichiro ready to go back to school

Ichiro Suzuki completed a workshop on Sunday needed to qualify as an amateur for the purpose of teaching baseball in schools. He joined a group of 125 former ballplayers according to Kyodo News that included former Hiroshima Carp star Tomonori Maeda. Other media reported that former Chunichi Dragons manager Shigekazu Mori also participated in the class.

Participants who then pass a Feb. 7 screening by Japan’s student baseball association will be allowed to teach their trade to school children.

On Sunday, Hall of Famer Isao Harimoto spoke out about Japan’s peculiar situation which is an artifact of the historically frosty relations between Japan’s pros and amateurs.

Japan’s baseball civil war

On Friday, Ichiro Suzuki took the first step in going back to school when he attended a seven-hour seminar on getting certified to teach baseball to children in school. The course, a relatively new one, was created to prevent uncontrolled contact between professionals and amateurs.

On Sunday morning, Japanese baseball’s curmudgeon in chief, Hall of Famer Isao Harimoto, took umbrage with the system, calling it foolish that the sport’s top craftsman have to bow and scrape to amateurs who couldn’t carry their jockstraps.

“It’s all nonsense These people, whose (baseball) technical knowledge is the best in the country are going to be teaching people who lack that knowledge. It’s not like they’re going to be school teachers. They’ll be teaching ballplayers.”

Isao Harimoto in his Dec. 15 guest spot on TBS network’s “Sunday Morning.'”

It is a generalization, but to some degree, Japan runs on personal relationships between individuals within the same group. While baseball exists as a larger identifying group, its various segments made up of pros, amateur administrators and educators jealously guard their turf. Each has its own bureaucracy that excels at creating boundaries and enforcing them.

By its very existence, pro baseball is a threat to amateur ball because it exists beyond the amateurs’ control. But because all pros pass through amateur ball before turning pro, conflict and distrust are inevitable.

Pro clubs have signed corporate league players during their league season in violation of agreements between the pros and the corporate leagues (see the Yanagawa affair) Since Nippon Professional Baseball held its first amateur draft in November 1965, pro clubs have attempted on occasion to gain the future loyalty of amateur prospects by secretly paying them and their coaches.

For those reasons, the amateur side prohibits professionals from coaching amateurs. Pros in Japan are even barred from teaching baseball to children who are playing amateur ball, something Suzuki addressed in his Japanese language retirement press conference.

“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).”

Ichiro Suzuki during his March 23 retirement press conference in Tokyo

The first of the four-part Ichiro Suzuki presser translated into English is HERE.

The need to observe boundaries extends to rules. NPB cannot change its own playing rules without consulting the amateur federations and getting approval by Japan’s Rule Committee. The pros may have the loudest voice in the room, but theirs is not the only voice. I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing, but it is peculiar.

Ichiro laces them up again in Kobe

Unlike Tsuyoshi Shinjo, Ichiro Suzuki is still retired, but on Sunday, he laced up his spikes at Hotto Motto Field Kobe to take the field with the grass-roots amateur team he founded, Kobe Chiben.

At the same park where he became “ICHIRO” in his third season with the Pacific League’s Orix BlueWave, Suzuki’s team of former players from high school powerhouse Chiben Wakayama High School took on a team of teachers from the school and beat them 14-0.

Kyodo News’ story in English is HERE.

Here’s a link to the Kyodo News Japanese story — as published by Nikkei Shimbun.

Suzuki, managed, pitched and batted ninth. At the plate he had three hits, including a triple and home run. With a no-windup motion, the former high school pitcher struck out 16 without issuing a walk, while allowing six hits in a 131-pitch outing.

The Japanese expression for this level of baseball, is “kusa yakyu” — literally “baseball in the weeds.” It’s a staple of the peoples’ game in Japan, where company employees and students spend weekends and evenings year round playing baseball nation wide.

In his Japanese language retirement press conference in the early hours of March 22 in Tokyo, hinted that if he did return to the game it would be through involvement with the amateur side of the game.

The Heisei ERA, part 2

On this past week’s Japan Baseball Weekly Podcast, a listener asked:

  1. Who had the single most dominant season in the Heisei era (1989 to April 30, 2019)?
  2. Who was the best player of the Heisei era in NPB?

To recap our answers, we split on Question 1. John (@JBWPodcast) Gibson answered Masahiro Tanaka‘s 2013, 24-0 MVP season for the Rakuten Eagles, while I had Tetsuto Yamada‘s 2015 MVP season at second base for the Yakult Swallows, which ranks — according to Bill James’ win shares — as the seventh most valuable season in Japanese pro baseball history.

The Heisei Most Dominant Season Award

Tanaka’s season ranks 457th overall among all players in history, and second behind Hall of Famer Masaki Saito’s 1989 season for the Yomiuri Giants. But if one thinks about how the game has changed, Tanaka’s season is pretty darn remarkable.

The quality of play in NPB has increased steadily along with the number of pitches needed to get batters out. Saito, who is a big strong guy like Tanaka had a season that was a little better but required 33 more innings to accomplish.

In terms of how much Tanaka accomplished per inning pitched, his 2013 season is third in Japanese baseball history, behind two more Hall of Famers, Masaichi Kaneda (1958, Kokutetsu Swallows) and Tadashi Sugiura (1959, Nankai Hawks) during Japan’s most pitcher-friendly years since the end of World War II.

John, for those of you who haven’t heard it, brought up Wladimir Balentien‘s 60-home run 2013 season, but Win Shares has that ranked right behind Hotaka Yamakawa‘s MVP season last year for the Seibu Lions and the 28th most valuable during the Heisei era.

The Heisei MVP Award

John and I both picked Tomoaki Kanemoto as the Heisei MVP, which came as a shock to Mr. Gibson. The question excluded Ichiro Suzuki, but if I valued his MLB win shares at 1.2 per NPB WS, he ranks as the undisputed Heisei king. Through that somewhat conservative formula, Suzuki’s 540 ranks him third in Japanese baseball history, far behind the run-away leader, Sadaharu Oh (723 WS) and catcher Katsuya Nomura (581). Because the bulk of Suzuki’s win shares come from MLB, he would shoot past Nomura if each WS was valued at 1.5 per NPB win share.

If we allowed MLB win shares, Kanemoto would finish third, right behind Hideki Matsui.

Anyway, here are the top Heisei win share seasons:

Position players

PlayerYearTeamWS
1. Tetsuto Yamada2015Swallows46.8
2. Yuki Yanagita2015Hawks42.0
3. Hideki Matsui2002Giants41.7
4. Ichiro Suzuki1995BlueWave40.5
5. Kosuke Fukudome2006Dragons39.1
6. Kazuo Matsui2002Lions38.8
7. Alex Cabrera2002Lions37.7
8. Tuffy Rhodes2001Buffaloes37.4
9. Yuki Yanagita2018Hawks36.4
10. Takeya Nakamura2011Lions35.8

Pitchers

PlayerYearTeamWS
1. Masaki Saito1989Giants29.8
2. Masahiro Tanaka2013Eagles27.3
3. Masaki Saito1990Giants26.6
4. Masahiro Tanaka2011Eagles26.3
5. Hideo Nomo1990Buffaloes25.1
6. Hideyuki Awano1989Buffaloes24.2
7. Shinji Imanaka1993Dragons23.2
8. Tomoyuki Sugano2017Giants23.2
9. Yu Darvish2008Fighters23.1
10. Koji Uehara1999Giants22.8

And for the guy who doesn’t fit anywhere easily, Shohei Ohtani had 32.3 win shares in 2016 as a pitcher and a hitter, and would have ranked high in either list had he only batted or pitched.

You can find my post on NPB’s Heisei era pitching leaders HERE.

Matt Murton’s wild ride

Matt Murton
Former Hanshin Tiger Matt Murton outside the Cubs’ spring training facility in Mesa, Arizona.

Matt Murton knows a few things about role reversal, having gone from phenom to role player for the Chicago Cubs and from record-setting hero to villain in his six seasons with the Hanshin Tigers of Japan’s Central League.

‘Win or lose, they find a way to put me on the front page,’ he quipped in his final season here.

Murton debuted with Hanshin in 2010 and proved a quick study in the ways of Japan’s game. His precise and rigorous pregame practice blew away manager Akinobu Mayumi. And when he began challenging to break Ichiro Suzuki’s 16-year-old single-season hit record, he seemed a worthy heir. When he did set a new record, Murton did it in a season that was 14 games longer, but Suzuki said that didn’t make it less of an accomplishment.

“You have an organization that has a lot of input from a lot of people who are not baseball people. And then you have the media. It creates an environment in which everyone has to be very cognizant of their back.”

Matt Murton to Kyodo News in 2015

But what should have been the happiest of times turned into a depressing slog, a stellar season overshadowed by hyper expectations. When Murton finally got hit No. 211, the weight of the world came off his shoulders. At the end, a season begun as a way to learn lessons needed to restart his major league career instead created an unbreakable molecular bond between player and country.

Yet, within two years, when Murton and the rest of the Kansai region’s most popular club failed to meet expectations, everything around him had changed. In 2013, when a reporter insinuated he hadn’t been trying hard in the outfield, Murton sarcastically said he didn’t like pitcher Atsushi Nomi — who was on the mound when Murton failed to throw out a runner at the plate.

Not only did the regional sports media, who report every scrap of Tigers news, turn on him, but his words were splashed across the front page of every sports daily in Japan.

“You can’t go back and you can’t change it,” Murton, now an assistant in baseball operations for the Cubs, said this spring in Mesa, Arizona.

“I think for me specifically, it became kind of polarizing. We are playing for a team that was very visible. Given what I was able to accomplish as an individual in unison with our team in our first year, it puts you in a place of being very visible as a foreign player, and any misstep or anything that happened along the way was magnified. I feel that some of it wasn’t as big a deal as they made it out to be, some of it could have been handled differently. It was probably a combination of all of the above.”

Matt  Murton data splits

Breaking Ichiro’s hit record

In retrospect, 2010 can be seen as a lesson about one aspect of the dynamic between Japanese groups and their individual members. Because Japan emphasizes group success and failure, it can be a surprise that league-leading achievements and individual awards take on so much importance.

One trick is to look at those things as credits to the group ledger, because they raise the profile of the group as a whole. This may help explain why teams sometimes do whatever they can to boost individuals accomplishments even to the detriment of team wins. It used to be common to intentionally walking opposing hitters – regardless of the game situation – if it assists a teammate’s effort to win an individual title, provided the team had nothing to play for.

The introduction of playoffs in the Pacific League in 2004 and the Central League in 2007 has reduced the number of meaningless games, so there are fewer chances to witness those farces. But having a sense that individual accomplishments are to teams is important in getting a feel for the pressure Murton felt as he approached Suzuki’s record.

“I felt that if I didn’t get it, I would be a failure, that I would be letting my team down,” Murton told The Daily Yomiuri that October as the Tigers prepared to begin the playoffs.

Ironically, he said, the solution came when looking at the problem in a different light.

“What’s so funny about that is I go back to that individual moment in 2010, when I had a chance at Jingu (Stadium) to get a base hit on a changeup up the middle and set the single-season hit record,” he said. “I remember the feelings I had coming into the game. There was an expectation, whether it was the media or people talking about it, whatever it was, to accomplish something as an individual. So I felt that there were these external pressures that I had to carry with me.”

“I’ll never forget that moment because on that day, it was bases loaded, and all of a sudden it came over me, ‘This isn’t about me getting a hit. It’s about knocking my teammates in.’ My thinking transferred from individual result to team success. When I was able to transfer my thinking to more of a group mentality, and living in the moment and competing as a team, the individual success came.”

“If we make it all about self, we oftentimes can find ourselves living at the address of thinking about factors we don’t need to be thinking about. When we keep it simple about the competition in the moment and how to help our team, the individual numbers take care of themselves.”

That was 2010, the last year of loosely regulated baseballs in Japan. That year, offensive numbers did more than take care of themselves. They took care of fellow Tiger Craig Brazell. The Tigers first baseman hit 47 homers that season, despite playing at Koshien Stadium, where the vast power alleys make it one of Japan’s toughest home run parks.

That power output secured Brazell a hefty three-year extension good times seemed just around the corner for Hanshin.

Murton hates Nomi
Murton’s shocking declaration “I hates Nomi” so he helped give away a run.

“I don’t like Nomi”

Like nearly every hitter in Japan, 2011 was a letdown for Murton. After more than a decade of barely regulated balls, Nippon Professional Baseball for the first time introduced a uniform baseball. The new ball was intended to as dead as possible, and it was.

In addition to the deader ball, that season saw umpires from Japan’s two top-flight circuits, the Central and Pacific leagues merged for the first time. Games in Eastern Japan were also played with reduced lighting for much of the season after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami resulted in nuclear meltdowns and created a power shortage.

Across NPB, batting averages dropped by 8 percent and there were 41 percent fewer homers. Murton’s offense took a hit, but he still went on to win his second straight Central League Best Nine Award in the outfield. That earned him a contract extension, but after finishing in fourth place, the Tigers replaced manager Mayumi with Yutaka Wada.

Under Wada, the club did not flounder, but try as they might, the Tigers couldn’t climb above .500. It didn’t help that older Tigers players were not batting as well as expected and Brazell’s power evaporated after 2010. Nor did it help that Murton was guilty of a couple of careless plays in the outfield.

Suddenly, the news among the sports papers feeding the Tigers’ massive fan base began find fault with the team’s foreign players. Part of Hanshin’s dynamic is the extreme degree the club worries about its press coverage.

“You have an organization that has a lot of input from a lot of people who are not baseball people,” Murton told Kyodo News in 2015. “And then you have the media. It creates an environment in which everyone has to be very cognizant of their back. In my experience, they (the team) allow that to infiltrate the organization.”

One of the Hanshin beat writers in 2012 has suggested that Wada and his coaches had caved in to media pressure for a scapegoat and the Tigers threw the foreign players to the wolves.

Murton found himself running a daily gauntlet of insinuations masquerading as post-game questions. And on June 9, after the Tigers lost their interleague game against the PL’s Orix Buffaloes 6-1, he’d had enough.

Murton went 1-for-5 with two strikeouts, dropping his batting average to .231 for the season, but the question was about his defense. With the Tigers losing 1-0 in the fourth, Murton’s throw home on a two-out single to right was unable to nail the runner at the plate or prevent the batter from advancing to second.

Asked if he had tried to throw the runner out at the plate, Murton, who had spent much of his professional career trying to reign in his temper, didn’t get overtly angry, but that hardly mattered.

His “I don’t like Nomi,” offered as a joke, transformed the Tigers irritating media into a personal pestilence.

The sports dailies called for Murton’s head, and parent company stockholders called for Murton’s dismissal. The fans who went to the ballpark, those who actually witnessed his attitude and effort, stuck with him, but the media had a circus to report on and wasn’t going to give it up easily.

“It was frustration, and the question that was asked and I didn’t understand,” Murton said. “I think the question was questioning integrity or how hard you were trying to do or whatever, so it was tough. But that probably wasn’t the right way to respond. But it was certainly in jest, a joke. Therein lies a cultural lesson that our jokes don’t always translate.”

Matt Murton on his transition to a non-playing job with the Cubs.

Cultural collisions at home and abroad

Having learned sarcasm doesn’t travel, Murton crossed another cultural divide in 2013, when he twice slammed into Yakult Swallows catchers. Japanese catchers had been trained to block the plate without the ball, and then duck and cover in case runners tried to bowl them over. Umpires did not require tags on such plays, demanding catchers only hold on to the ball.

Most, but not all, collisions on Japanese base paths have involved foreign base runners, who had been taught since childhood that separating catchers from the ball was the base runner’s duty to his team.

On the same day Yakult Swallows catcher Masahiko Tanaka returned to duty months after an earlier collision with Murton, the Tigers outfielder slammed into Swallows veteran Ryoji Aikawa at Jingu. Aikawa himself had been sidelined early in the season in a collision with a different runner, and was not in a forgiving mood. Shoving and F-bombs ensued at home plate, Murton was ejected, and his transformation from famous to infamous was complete.

The following spring, instead of pulling out the “This is how baseball is played” excuse, Murton said he would be fine with rules that prohibited catchers without the ball from blocking the plate and prevented runners from trying to dislodge the ball rather than reach home.

“If that’s the rule, then the catcher doesn’t get hurt and I as the runner don’t get hurt,” he said.

“I’m very passionate and driven. We can sit here and make excuses all day long, but excuses are a hindrance to growth. In order for us to grow, we’ve got to be raw. We’ve got to be vulnerable and realize we do have some shortcomings and that there are plenty of ways to learn from previous experiences.”

Japanese lessons

Needless to say, Japan provided Murton with lots of grist for that mill. And though he first came here to acquire skills with which he could relaunch his major league career, he got more than he bargained for.

“At the end of the day it’s the respect you gain by playing there, the level of the competition you see on a day-in, day-out basis, coupled with the enthusiasm and the support of the people. This is very unique. Chicago, I think (is one of) a few markets that present similar type feeling from a player’s perspective. But on a whole, it’s the love of the game, and the opportunity to compete in front of people who care.”

“Culturally, you get a chance to engage something that is very unique and a lot can be learned and it’s a place that as an American or a foreigner, there’s so many things that Japan offers, it’s a really cool experience. You love that experience, the time you spend there and you never want to shut the door on that.”

Murton said that was true even when things went awry in ways he couldn’t fathom at the time. Three-plus years later, having finally retired and moved on to a team-building career, Murton has gained more perspective.

“It’s always easier once you are removed from an environment to be able to look at it more objectively. The same is true in regards to competition. What competition does in terms in the sense of the heightened sense of our emotions and our responses, those are all a factor,” he said.

“Culturally, you would feel things or sense things that really weren’t there. I look back on things and say, ‘I wish I wouldn’t have been so taken back by whatever it was, A, B, C or D.’ I think there were times when the feelings were warranted and made sense, but the responses you always wish were different.”

While there’s no going back to the way things were, Murton said his family thinks of Japan a lot. He lives in the Nashville area and is involved with the Japanese community there, and his wife longs for the simplicity of life on Kobe’s Rokko Island, where everything they needed was no more than a short walk away.

“I came back this past September and I was only there for four days,” Murton said. “My two older ones asked on that trip if they could go, and they’ve more recently verbalized that they want to go back. It’s something that will happen, when we make sense of when that time is right for the younger kids and for us as a family.”

“You walk away from experiences and you want to do it in a way that you’re wanting more,” he said. “It’s a part of you. It’s a season in your life. It’s a chapter. It doesn’t change your identity or future, but that will always be a part of you and that will never change, so there’s gratitude for the experience and the relationships.”

“At the end of the day it’s the respect you gain by playing there (in Japan), the level of the competition you see on a day-in, day-out basis, coupled with the enthusiasm and the support of the people.”

While Japanese baseball is not major league baseball, it represents some things that are hard to find in the majors, and he wasn’t talking about 3-1 sliders, 2-0 curveballs or 100-pitch bullpens but engagement.

“I think there are a few (major league) markets that present similar type feeling from a player’s perspective,” Murton said, noting that playing in Chicago has a similar vibe. “On a whole, it’s the love of the game, and the opportunity to compete in front of people who care.”

“Culturally, you get a chance to engage something that is very unique and a lot can be learned. And it’s a place that as an American or a foreigner, there’s so many things that Japan offers, it’s a really cool experience. You love that experience, the time you spend there and you never want to shut the door on that.”

Words for the wise

For those wishing to share that, and who are lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time when a Japanese club has its eyes on then, Murton has some advice.

“The first thing would be to be prepared for a challenge physically. If you’ve never experienced it, you don’t quite understand the level of competition,” he said. “No. 1 is you have to prepare your body and your mind. Never forget who you are, but take that America mindset or whatever it is from whatever country you are from and check it at the door.”

“Kind of embrace the culture on the field and off the field. Right off the bat, there are going to be things done differently that maybe doesn’t make sense to you. That’s OK, because the feelings that you have are probably not any different from other guys that have played before you. Be aware that some of those situations are going to create feelings that are going to make it hard for you to understand.”

“But just live at the address of showing up every day, caring for people and love the game. If you can do those things, embrace the culture and the unique opportunity you have. You’re one of a very select few, so just try and make the most of that.”

But that is the hindsight of six seasons of seeing foreign players come and go. One early surprise in 2010 was seeing coaches’ brows furrow when he’d spend an entire batting practice working on fundamentals. Murton wasn’t yet used to Japanese baseball’s love of material results, where a fluke single on a bad swing can be declared a good sign, while good swings and hard-hit outs can be a cause for concern.

“Normally, I come to camp thinking, ‘I’m going to work the backside of the field, and I’m going to get my swings in,’ because that was the mentality you had coming from America,” Murton said. “If you’re a hitter (in Japan), the first day go ahead and try to hit some home runs, try to let them know you can do it. Then everyone will relax and you can go back to doing what you’ve got to do. So yes, that is the one other piece of advice I’d probably give.”

That and perhaps, save the sarcasm for home.

“I had a chance to see him (Nomi) for dinner this past September, and I gave him a nice hug,” Murton said.

“That was always going to be a thing,” Murton said. “I still can’t believe to this day that it took on this life of its own. And part of that is my own fault.”

Ichiro from start to finish, part 3

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

――ユニークなTシャツを着ていたが、何か心情を表していたのか? 全く関係なくただ好きで着ているのか?

「そこは……もう言うと急に野暮ったくなるから、言わない方がいいんだよね。それはだから見る側の解釈だから。そう捉えれば、そう捉えることもできるし、全然関係ない可能性もあるし。それでいいんじゃないですか?」

――好きに楽しんでいただきたいと?

「だってそういうものでしょ。いちいちそれ説明すると本当に野暮ったいもんね」

――言わないほうが粋だと?

「まぁ粋って自分で言えないけどね。言うと無粋であることは間違いないでしょうね」

–In camp you wear some unique T-shirts. Was that to express some feelings, or are you just wearing them for fun without any special meaning?

“Well, if I said, then it would come out sounding pretty crude, so it’s better if I don’t. I think it’s up to the interpretation of the viewer. If you think you get the meaning, then you can take something from it, although you might get nothing at all from it. Maybe it’s best if I leave it that way.”

–So it’s up to us to enjoy it as we like?

“That’s the kind of thing it is. If I sit here and explain them one by one, it’s going to get crude.”

–So not saying it is the tasteful way?

“I’m refined so I wouldn’t say it. If you do say it, you’ll come across as boorish.”

――イチローさんを支えてきた弓子夫人への思いは?

「いやぁ、頑張ってくれましたね。一番頑張ってくれたと思います。僕はアメリカで結局3089本のヒットを打ったわけですけど、妻はですね、およそ……僕はゲームの前にホームの時はおにぎりを食べるんですね。妻が握ってくれたおにぎりを球場に持っていって食べるのですけど、その数がですねぇ、2800個くらいだったんですよ。だから3000いきたかったみたいですね。そこは3000個握らせてあげたかったなと思います。妻もそうですけど、まぁとにかく頑張ってくれました。僕はゆっくりする気はないですけど、妻にはゆっくりしてもらいたいと思ってます。

 それと一弓(いっきゅう)ですね。一弓というのはご存じない方もいるかもしれないですけど、我が家の愛犬ですね。柴犬なんですけど。現在17歳と7か月。今年で18歳になろうかという芝犬なんですけど。さすがにおじいちゃんになってきて、毎日フラフラなんですが、懸命に生きているんですよね。その姿を見ていたら、それはオレ頑張らなきゃなって。これはジョークとかではなくて、本当に思いました。あの懸命に生きる姿。(一弓は)2001年に生まれて、2002年にシアトルの我が家に来たんですけど、まさか最後まで一緒に、僕が現役を終えるときまで一緒に過ごせるとは思っていなかったので、これは大変感慨深いですね。一弓の姿というのは。本当に妻と一弓には感謝の思いしかないですね」

— What are your thoughts for Yumiko, who has had your back all this time?

“She really gave her all. I think she did the most. I had 3,089 hits in the the U.S.. But my wife is, well, before home games I ate rice balls that she made and I took to the stadium. She got to about 2,800, and it seems she wanted to get to 3,000. She really did great. I am not one to take it easy, but I want her to.”

“Then there’s Ikkyu. Some of you may not know, but Ikkyu is our dog, a Shiba. Currently he’s 17 years old and 7 months old, 18 this year. He’s like a grandfather, wobbling around every day, but is still hanging in there. When I see him, I think I can’t let up. That may sound like a joke, but I really feel that way. He’s trying so hard to stay alive. He was born in 2001 and came to our home in Seattle in 2002. I would never have believed that he would be with us until I retired. I have strong emotions for him. Indeed, when I think of my wife and of Ikkyu, my heart is filled with gratitude toward them.

――打席内での感覚の変化は今年はあったのか?

「いる? それここで。いる? 裏で話そう、後で。裏で」

–Has there been any change this year in the sensation when at bat?

“Do you need that here? Let’s talk, later. Somewhere private.”

――これまで数多くの決断と戦ってきたが、今までで一番考えぬいて決断したものは?

「これ順番つけられないですね。それぞれが一番だと思います。ただ、アメリカでプレーするために当時、今とは違う形のポスティングシステムだったんですけど、自分の思いだけでは当然それは叶わないで、当然球団からの了承がないと行けないんですね。その時に、誰をこちら側……こちら側っていう敵味方みたいでおかしいんですけど、球団にいる誰かを口説かないといけないというか、説得しないといけないというか。そのときに一番に浮かんだのが仰木監督ですね。その何年か前からアメリカでプレーしたいという思いを伝えていたこともあったんですけど、仰木監督だったらおいしいご飯でお酒を飲ませたら……飲ませたらってこれはあえて言っていますけど、これはうまくいくんじゃないかと思ったら、まんまとうまくいって。これがなかったら、何も始まらなかったので。口説く相手に仰木監督を選んだのは大きかったなと思いますね。また、『ダメだ。ダメだ』とおっしゃっていたものがお酒でこんなに変わってくれるんだと思って、お酒の力をまざまざと見ましたし。でもやっぱり、しゃれた人だったなと思いますね。だから仰木監督から学んだもの、計り知れないと思います」

–You have tackled many decisions so far, such as going to America in 2000, joining Japan for the 2006 WBC, 2007 signing an extension with the Mariners, and now retiring, but which one was the hardest to think through?

“I cannot rank them. I think different ones could be No. 1 in some way. However, to play in the U.S., although it was a different form of posting system back then, I could not get up and go on my own. I could not go without the team’s consent. At that time, I needed someone on my side… It is strange to say it like there were sides, friends and foes, but if no one within the team argued my case, they wouldn’t have understood and I wouldn’t have been able to go. The one who most comes to mind from that time was our manager, Ogi. I had been telling him I wanted to play in the U.S. for several years. In regards to manager Ogi, I took him out for good food and drink, when he drank I was able to say that, and if I think about it, that was what worked well. If it hadn’t been for that, nothing would have happened. I think the big thing was choosing manager Ogi as the person to persuade. He said over and over again, ‘It’s no good, no good.’ But that changed over alcohol. That clearly demonstrated how powerful a thing alcohol can be. He’s the one who taught me that, and for that reason I think the things manager Ogi taught me cannot be measured.”

――昨日の試合は第1回WBCで日本が優勝した日と同じだったが、それは運命的なものがあったりするのか?

「まぁ聞かされればそう思うこともできるという程度ですかね。僕はそのことは知らなかったですけど」

–The date of yesterday’s game coincided with the date in Japan when you won the first WBC. Was that fate?

“When I hear that, I think it must be to some degree. I didn’t know that.”

――最も我慢したものは何だった?

「難しい質問だなあ……。僕、我慢できない人なんですよ。我慢が苦手で楽なこと、楽なことを重ねているっていう感じなんですね。自分ができること、やりたいことを重ねているので、我慢の感覚はないんですけど、とにかく体を動かしたくてしょうがないので、体をこんなに動かしちゃだめだっていって、体を動かすことを我慢することはたくさんありました。それ以外はなるべくストレスがないような、自分にとってですね、ストレスがないように考えて行動してきたつもりなので。家では妻が料理をいろいろ考えて作ってくれますけど、これロードに出るとなんでもいいわけですよね。無茶苦茶ですよ、ロードの食生活なんて。だから我慢できないから、結局そういうことになってしまうんですけど、そんな感じなんですね。今、聞かれたような趣旨の我慢は思い当たらないですね。おかしなこと言ってます、僕?」

–In your career, what was the thing you were able to endure the most?

“What a tough question. Actually, I’m not very patient. I’m not good at putting up with things, and tend to indulge in things I enjoy. Things I’m able to do, or want to do, I plug away at those things and I don’t feel it’s something I need to endure. But having said that, I really like exercising a lot, but sometimes working out so much is a problem, so I often have to stop. Nothing else stresses me out as much as that, because I’ve come this far thinking about avoiding stress. At home, my wife puts a lot of thought into cooking, and then when I’m on the road, anything is OK. What there is to eat on the road is actually pretty awful.”

――台湾ではイチローさんのファンがいっぱいいまして、何か台湾の人に伝えたいことは何かないか?

「(元中日の)チェンが元気か知りたいですね。(マーリンズで)チームメートでしたから。チェンは元気にやってますかね? それが聞けて何よりです。今のところ(台湾に行く)予定はないけど、でも以前に行ったことがあるんですよ、一度。すごく優しい印象でしたね。心が優しくて、いいなあと思いました」

–You have so many fans in Taiwan. Is there something you would like to tell them?

“I’d like to know how Chen Wei-yin is doing. We were teammates (with the Marlins). Is he doing well? I would love to hear that. At the present, I don’t have a plan to visit Taiwan, but I’ve been there before once. I felt the people were nice, very kind hearted.”

――菊池(雄星)投手が同じマリナーズに入って、去年は大谷(翔平)選手がエンゼルスに入った。後輩たちに託すことは?

「雄星のデビューの日に僕は引退を迎えたのは、何かいいなあと思っていて……もう『ちゃんとやれよ』という思いですね。短い時間でしたけど、すごくいい子で。いろんな選手を見てきたんですけど、左ピッチャーの先発って変わっている子が多いんですよ。本当に。天才肌が多いという言い方もできるんですかね。アメリカでもまぁ多いです。だから、こんなにいい子いるのかなっていう感じですよ、ここまで。今日まで。

 でも、キャンプ地から日本に飛行機で移動してくるわけですけど、チームはドレスコードですね、服装のルールが黒のセットアップ、ジャージのセットアップでOK。長旅なので、できるだけ楽にという配慮ですけど、『雄星、俺たちどうする?』って。『アリゾナ発つときはいいんだけれども、日本着いたときにさすがにジャージはダメだろ』って2人で話していたんですね。

『そうですよね、イチローさん、どうするんですか?』って。僕は『中はTシャツだけどセットアップでジャケット着ているようにしようかな』って。『じゃあ僕もそうします』と雄星が言うんです。で、キャンプ地を発つときのバスの中で、みんな、僕もそうでしたけど、黒のジャージのセットアップでみんなバスに乗り込んできて。雄星と席が近かったので『雄星やっぱ、だめだよな、これっ』て。『やっぱり日本に着いたときに、メジャーリーガーがこれはダメだろ』ってバスの中で言っていたんですよね。『いや、そうですよね』って。そうしたらまさか羽田に着いたときに黒のジャージでしたからね。いや、コイツ大物だな、と思って。ぶったまげました。それは本人にまだ真相は聞いてないんですけど、何があったのかわからないですけど、左ピッチャーはやっぱ変わったヤツ多いなと思ったんですね。でも、スケール感は出てました。頑張ってほしいです。

 翔平はもうちゃんとケガを治してスケールの、物理的にも大きいわけですし。アメリカの選手に全くサイズ的にも劣らない。あのサイズであの機敏な動きができるというのはいないですからね、それだけで。いやもう世界一の選手にならなきゃいけないですよ、うん」

–Yusei Kikuchi has joined the Mariners, and last year Shohei Ohtani joined the Angels. Is there a message you would like to impart to the guys who are following in your footsteps?

““I thought it might be good if I went into my retirement the same day Yusei made his debut. I wanted him to do a real good job. Although we were together only briefly, he’s a real good kid. I’ve seen a lot of players in my time, but I have to say, that there are a lot of weirdos among left-handed starting pitchers. I’m not kidding. I think you could also say that there are a lot of geniuses among them. Anyway, there’re a lot of them in America. That’s why I was thinking what a good kid he is.”

 “That being said, when we traveled to Japan from camp it was by plane and thus there was a dress code. You can wear either a black jacket setup or a black sweater setup. On a long trip, you take comfort into consideration. I said, ‘Yusei, what should we do?’ We agreed that when we left Arizona anything would be OK, but the sweater won’t do when we land in Japan.”

 “He said, ‘Ichiro-san, what’s best?’ I said, ‘I think I’ll go with a jacket and a T-shirt.’ So he said he’d probably do the same. When the team boarded the bus in Arizona, everyone was wearing the same black sweater setup. When Yusei approached my seat on the bus, I said, ‘Just as I expected, Yusei. You can’t wear that. You have to realize that what you’re wearing won’t do as a major leaguer arriving in Japan.’ He said, ‘Oh no. I suppose not.’”

“Anyway, when we arrived at Haneda Airport, (instead of the black jacket setup) he was wearing the (casual) black sweater setup.’ All I could think of was that this guy is the real thing. I haven’t really gotten a good sense of him yet, but it reminded me that so many left-handed pitchers are weird. You get a sense he is a big figure. I hope he gives it all he has.”

“Shohei has already finished his treatment, and physically he’s on such a large scale. In terms of size, he’s not inferior to American players in any way. But because he can move like a player that size shouldn’t be able to, he has to be the best player in the world.”

――イチローさんが愛を貫いてきた野球。その魅力とは?

「団体競技なんですけど、個人競技だというところですかね。野球が面白いところだと思います。チームが勝てばそれでいいかというと、全然そんなことないですよね。個人としても結果を残さないと生きていくことはできないですよね。本来はチームとして勝っていれば、チームとしてのクオリティが高いはずなので、それでいいんじゃないかという考えもできるかもしれないですけど、決してそうではない。その厳しさが面白いところかなと。面白いというか、魅力であることは間違いないですね。あと、同じ瞬間がないということ。必ず、必ずどの瞬間も違うということ。これは飽きがこないですよね」

–You’ve invested your love in baseball. What is its appeal?

“It’s a team competition, but it’s also an individual sport. That’s why baseball is interesting. One could say that if your team wins, then that’s all that matters, but it’s not the case at all. If you don’t produce as an individual, you can’t survive. Also, if one team wins, one might say in general that team is better, and it’s OK to think so, but it’s not really true. I think maybe that difficulty is what makes it interesting. It’s attractive without a doubt. No two moments are the same. Every moment is different.”

――イチロー選手がいない野球をどう楽しんだらいいか?

「2001年に僕がアメリカに来てから、この2019年の現在の野球は全く別の違う野球になりました。まぁ、頭を使わなくてもできてしまう野球になりつつあるような……。選手も現場にいる人たちはみんな感じていることだと思うんですけど、これがどうやって変化していくのか。次の5年、10年。しばらくはこの流れは止まらないと思うんですけど。本来は野球というのは……ダメだ、これ言うとなんか問題になりそうだな。問題になりそうだな。頭を使わなきゃできない競技なんですよ、本来は。でもそうじゃなくなってきているのがどうも気持ち悪くて。ベースボール、野球の発祥はアメリカですから。その野球がそうなってきているということに危機感を持っている人って結構いると思うんですよね。だから、日本の野球がアメリカの野球に追従する必要なんてまったくなくて、やっぱり日本の野球は頭を使う面白い野球であってほしいなと思います。アメリカのこの流れは止まらないので、せめて日本の野球は決して変わってはいけないこと、大切にしなくてはいけないものを大切にしてほしいなと思います」

–How should we enjoy baseball without Ichiro?

“The baseball played in America in 2019 has completely changed since I arrived in 2001,” he said. “It’s now in the process of becoming a game where you can now get by without using your head. A lot of active players see this, too, and wonder how this might change. I don’t see this trend stopping over the next five years, or 10 years or for the foreseeable future. Fundamentals mean nothing. Perhaps saying that might cause trouble. That (saying this) definitely looks like it 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 believe 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.”

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

――涙がなく、むしろ笑顔が多いように見えるのは、この開幕シリーズが楽しかったということか?

「これも純粋に楽しいということではないんですよね。やっぱり、誰かの思いを背負うということはそれなりに重いことなので、そうやって1打席1打席立つことは簡単ではないんですね。だから、すごく疲れました。やはり1本ヒットを打ちたかったし。応えたいって当然ですよね、それは。僕に感情がないって思っている人はいるみたいですけど、あるんですよ。意外とあるんですよ。だから、結果残して最後を迎えたら一番いいなと思っていたんですけど、それは叶わずで。それでもあんな風に(ファンが)球場に残ってくれて。まぁ、そうしないですけど、死んでもいいという気持ちはこういうことなんだろうなと。死なないですけど。そういう表現をするときってこういうときだろうなって思います」

–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.”

――常々、最低50歳まで現役ということをいってきたが、日本に戻ってもう1度プロ野球でプレーするという選択肢はなかったのか?

「なかったですね」

–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.”

――どうしてか?

「それはここで言えないなぁ。ただねぇ50まで、いや最低50までって本当に思ってたし。でもそれは叶わずで。有言不実行の男になってしまったわけですけど、でも、その表現をしてこなかったら、ここまでできなかったかなという思いもあります。だから、言葉にすること。難しいかもしれないけど、言葉にして表現することというのは、目標に近づく一つの方法ではないかなと思っています」

–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.”

――これまで膨大な時間を野球に費やしてきたが、これからその時間とどう付き合っていくか?

「ちょっと今はわからないですねぇ。でも多分、明日もトレーニングはしてますよ。それは変わらないですよ、僕じっとしていられないから。それは動き回ってるでしょうね。だから、ゆっくりしたいとか全然ないんですよ。全然ないです。だから動き回ってます」

–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.”

――イチロー選手の生きざまで、ファンの方に伝えられたことや、伝わっていたらうれしいなと思うことはあるか?

「生きざまというのは僕にはよくわからないですけど、生き方というふうに考えるならば……先ほどもお話しましたけども、人より頑張ることなんてとてもできないんですよね。あくまでも、はかりは自分の中にある。それで自分なりにはかりを使いながら、自分の限界を見ながら、ちょっと越えていくということを繰り返していく。そうすると、いつの日からかこんな自分になっているんだ、という状態になって。だから少しずつの積み重ねが、それでしか自分を越えていけないと思うんですよね。一気に高みに行こうとすると、今の自分の状態とギャップがありすぎて、それは続けられないと僕は考えているので、地道に進むしかない。進むだけではないですね。後退もしながら、ある時は後退しかしない時期もあると思うので。でも、自分がやると決めたことを信じてやっていく。でもそれは正解とは限らないですよね。間違ったことを続けてしまっていることもあるんですけど、でもそうやって遠回りすることでしか、本当の自分に出会えないというか、そんな気がしているので。自分なりに重ねてきたことを、今日のゲーム後のファンの方の気持ちですよね、それを見たときに、ひょっとしたらそんなところを見ていただいていたのかなと。それは嬉しかったです。そうだとしたらすごく嬉しいし、そうじゃなくても嬉しいです、あれは」

――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.”

――シンプルな質問ですけど。現役選手を終えたら、監督になったり指導者になったり、あるいは全く違うタレントになったりすることはあるけど……、

「あまりシンプルではないですね」

――イチロー選手は何になるのか?

「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.”

――そうでもないと思うが。

「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).”

――以前にも引退の2文字が浮かんで悩んだ時期はあったのか?

「引退というよりは、クビになるんじゃないか、はいつもありましたね。ニューヨークに行ってからはもう毎日そんな感じです。マイアミもそうでしたけど。ニューヨークというのはみなさんご存知かどうか知らないですけど、特殊な場所です、マイアミもまた違った意味で特殊な場所です。だから毎日そんなメンタリティーで過ごしていたんですね。クビになるときはまさにその時(引退)だろうと思っていたので、そんなのしょっちゅうありました」

–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.”

――その中で今回、引退を決意した理由は?

「マリナーズ以外に行く気持ちはなかったというのは大きいですよね。去年シアトルに戻していただいて、本当にうれしかったし……先ほど、キャンプ前のオファーがある前の話をしましたけど、そのあと5月にゲームに出られなくなる。あの時もその(引退の)タイミングでもおかしくないですよね。でも、この春に向けて、まだ可能性があると伝えられていたので、そこに自分なりに頑張ってこられたということだと思うんですけど……質問なんでしたっけ?」

――今回引退を決めた理由は?

「そうか。もう答えちゃったね」

–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.”

――8回にベンチに戻る際に菊池選手が号泣していた。

「いや、号泣中の号泣でしょ、あいつ。びっくりしましたよ。それ見て、こっちはちょっと笑けましたけどね」

――抱擁の時にどんな会話を交わしたのか?

「それはプライベートなんで。雄星がそれをお伝えるするのは構わないですけど、それは僕がお伝えるすることではないですね」

――秘密ということで。

「それはそうでしょう。だって2人の会話だから。しかも、僕から声をかけているので、それをここで僕が『こんなこと僕が言いました』って、バカですよね。絶対に信頼されないもんね、そんな人間は。それはダメです」

–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.”

――アメリカのファンにメッセージを。

「アメリカのファンの方々は最初はまぁ厳しかったですよ。最初の2001年のキャンプなんかは『日本に帰れ』としょっちゅう言われましたよ。だけど、結果を残した後のその敬意というのは……これを評価するのかどうかわからないですよ。手のひらを返すという言い方もできてしまうので。ただその、言葉ではなくて行動で示したときの敬意の示し方というのはその迫力があるなという印象ですよね。だから、なかなか入れてもらえないんですけど、入れてもらった後、認めてもらった後はすごく近くなるというな印象で、ガッチリ関係ができあがる。まぁ、シアトルのファンとはそれができたような、僕の勝手な印象ですけど。

 ニューヨークというのは厳しいところでしたね。でも、やればそれこそどこよりも、どのエリアの人よりも熱い思いがある。マイアミというはラテンの文化が強い印象で、圧はそれほどないんですけれど、でも結果を残さなかったら絶対に人が来てくれないという、そんな場所でした。それぞれに特色があって、まぁ面白かったし、それぞれの場所で関係が築けたような。特徴がそれぞれありましたけど、アメリカは広いなぁというか。ファンの人たちの特徴を見るだけで、アメリカはすごく広いなという印象ですけど。でもやっぱり、最後にシアトルのユニホームを着て、もうセーフコ・フィールドでは名前がなくってしまいましたけど……姿をお見せできなくて、それは申し訳ない思いがあります」

–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.

Meulens beats drum for NPB

More than 20 years after he last played in Japan, current San Francisco Giants coach Hensley Meulens believes the country remains a great place to learn about baseball and improve oneself.

Meulens came to Japan with the Pacific League’s Lotte Marines in 1994 before spending two more seasons with the Central League’s Yakult Swallows, with whom he won the Japan Series in 2005. Although he played briefly in the majors after that, his real future was in coaching, where he’s been a fixture in San Francisco as their hitting coach from 2010 and since last year their bench coach.

Although Shohei Ohtani grabbed the most headlines as the big story coming out of Nippon Professional Baseball last year, Miles Mikolas quietly made an impact after three years with the CL’s Yomiuri Giants. The St. Louis Cardinals right-hander’s 18 wins tied him for the National League lead, while he issued a league-low 1.31 walks per nine innings.

“The league here is fundamentally sound,” Meulens recently told Kyodo News. “The Japanese players make very few mistakes, especially on defense. You see very few errors being made during games, one because of (artificial) turf and two because of how many reps they get.”

“Being accurate with your pitches, there’s a way to work on that over here. We can see that with guys like Mikolas, who went back this year with the Cardinals after pitching three years here.”

Not surprisingly, one tool Meulens has employed as a coach is something he first saw in Japan — a location drill for pitchers.

“The catcher sits on a stool and holds the glove in one spot and the pitcher has to hit it 15 times in the same spot and then you move it,” Meulens said, adding that it’s easier to persuade people to undertake a drill like that since advanced metrics have shown the value of being able to hit specific spots.

“It’s more conducive now with the analytics, where you want to hit spots that the hitter doesn’t hit. Before it was just down and away and up and in — that’s how pitching was. Now it’s changing.”

Perhaps as an homage to Japan’s fondness for painful practice, one of Meulens’ techniques provides hitters with immediate feedback about success or failure.

“With hitting, I use a couple of tools, one with a really long and slim bat, just so you can hit the sweet spot every time, because if you don’t, you get stung. I learned that over here. I have a couple in my bag,” he said. “It really hurts if you don’t hit the sweet spot.”

Although Meulens was fortunate to have former New York Yankees teammate Mell Hall with him in his first year here, he still had to negotiate some big differences from his baseball experiences in the majors, particularly the strike zone.

By the time Meulens was playing, the strike zone in the majors had shifted away from the batter by the width of one ball, but Japan’s had not, meaning he had to adjust to inside pitches being called strikes in Japan that were balls in America.

Sir Hensley Meulens, Mr. Knowitall, and John E. Gibson.

“It’s do or die. That’s how I saw it,” Meulens said. “They never pitched me inside in America because you didn’t pitch inside to a power hitter (then). But here they did.”

“They called the pitch inside off the plate this far in and you’re bitching with the umpires. It took me a long time to master that when I was over here. It didn’t matter how they pitched you, you had to make a mental adjustment.”

But coming to Japan, he said, was nothing like moving from the island of Curacao to the United States at the age of 18 and then to the fishbowl existence of playing for the Yankees.

“For me, that (move to Japan) was a little easier. Even though it was totally different from America,” Meulens said. “I already had talked to the guys who played over here, I watched the movie (Mr. Baseball). I was 26. I went through a lot of shit in New York. You have to have thick skin to get through it.”

His parents, Meulens said, had instilled in him the necessary toughness and confidence to keep moving forward and make it as far as he did.

“You’re going to a big place, America. I walked into the locker room. There are like 200 guys trying to make the team. ‘How am I going to do this?'” he said.

“But if you don’t worry about it, talent takes over and I had a grinding mentality and I wasn’t going to worry about it. I was looking forward. There were a lot of guys looking to the side and they fell off the road.”

“My parents, that’s why I’m standing here. It was so easy to be negative and not persevere. You take a lot of hits. But you’ve got to find a way to keep going.”

Meulens said his physical adjustment to Japan twenty-five years ago was eased by Lotte’s enlightened policies. The coaches didn’t try to force foreign players into all the workouts to which their Japanese teammates were accustomed.

“We didn’t have to go through the rigorous training and then we did our lifting and we were done. Things like that. That gave us, as foreign players, the sense that we didn’t have to go all out every day like our teammates,” Meulens said. “That helped.”

At the same time that Meulens was making his Japan debut, Ichiro Suzuki imprinted himself on the national consciousness and became the first player in the country with 200 hits in a season.

“It was against us that he broke the 200-hit barrier. It was in Kobe. They stopped the game. It was a double to right. I was playing left,” Meulens said. “It was a 25-minute shower of gifts. He got a new car. He got a pile of envelopes, and we know what was in those.”

In Meulens’ lone Pacific League season, windy and cavernous Chiba Marine Stadium put a dent in his home run output. The following season, Suzuki came within three home runs of the PL home run title.
“He hit more home runs than me. I hit 23 and he hit 25. I was like, ‘This little shit,'” Meulens said with a laugh.

“He was on a different level, even against us who’d played in the big leagues. We weren’t even close.”

Five years later, Suzuki took the majors by storm as well, and as a Giants coach Meulens has witnessed other Japanese trying to merge their training styles from Japan with the major league’s more intense schedule.

“I had a couple of hitters, (Norichika) Aoki and (Kensuke) Tanaka, and they just kept swinging because they are used to that. I’m trying to back them off, but they are, ‘No, no.'”

Texas Rangers pitcher Chris Martin, who spent two seasons with the Nippon Ham Fighters, has suggested that major league clubs rethink the way they help Japanese players acclimate to big league spring training, perhaps creating different schedules and programs for them — such as the ones from which he and Meulens had benefitted in Japan.

Meulens, who is now Giants manager Bruce Bochy‘s top lieutenant, is frequently mentioned as a potential managing candidate in the big leagues. But he says no such move is in the cards.

“No. The major leagues are still the major leagues,” he said.