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.
“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.”