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Mound relief almost backfired for MLB pitchers

by Wayne Graczyk

The visiting Major League Baseball All-Stars left Japan Nov. 14 with a 5-3 series victory over their All-Japan opponents but, ironically, a change in the pitching mounds designed to help the big leaguers for the final three games of the tour almost resulted in disaster for the visitors. Let me explain.

MLB pitching coach Jim Colborn of the Los Angeles Dodgers was saying his hurlers had been having trouble during the first three games because the mounds were too soft. Also, the Japanese-style pitching rubber was causing problems. Instead of a plain hole with dirt where the pitchers would push off as they delivered their throws, there was an extension of the rubber surface which caused Colborn’s charges to slip at the release point.

Despite the handicap, the MLB pitchers performed well enough to help their team win the first four games of the series before losing Game 5 at Osaka Dome. They still wanted something to be done to make the mounds more comfortable, however, so by agreement among Major League Baseball, Nippon Pro Baseball and the Mainichi Shimbun tour organizers, it was decided to fly in a couple of groundskeepers from the U.S. to alter the mounds at the Sapporo, Nagoya and Tokyo Domes for the final three games of event.

Headed by Murray Cook from Baltimore, the crew reconstructed the pitchers’ landing area with more firmly packed dirt and replaced the Japanese rubber plates with American-style ones that have no extension. So what happened? An All-Japan pitcher, Seibu Lions ace right-hander Daisuke Matsuzaka, benefited the most. Perhaps trying to prove he can win on a “major league” hill, the Boy Wonder threw a complete-game, five-hit 5-1 victory in Hokkaido on Nov. 11.

The following night in Nagoya, NPB scored a dramatic 3-2 “gyakuten sayonara” (come-from-behind, walk-off) triumph to come within one game of evening the series. Five Japanese pitchers combined to again limit MLB to just five hits.

It was only during the Nov. 14 finale that the MLB pitchers got re-accustomed to the familiar mound surface. Jake Peavy, Scot Shields, Scott Linebrink and Francisco Rodriguez got together for a six-hit, 5-0 shutout to seal the tour series.

Cook said his being called all the way from Maryland to Sapporo did not mean the Japanese mounds are bad and those in major league stadiums are good.

“They’re just different,” he said.

But following the adjustments he made and considering the way the Japanese guys pitched after Cook’s alterations, it might be a good idea for NPB to rebuild all the mounds in ballparks throughout Japan.

Speaking of grounds, the Japan Pro Baseball Players Union has approved the turf at Big N Stadium in Nagasaki, and a few Central and Pacific League games are expected to be played there during the 2005 season. No games were played at the 25,000-seat ballpark this year, because the JPBU had deemed the original playing surface unsafe and a risk to injury.

One of the Japan Pro Baseball All-Star Games was staged at the Big N in 2000, and regular-season games took place there between 1999 and 2003, until the players association said its members would not play on the hard, cement-like carpet. Now the stadium has a softer, player-friendly field, and the Big N is back.

The Orix Buffaloes have revealed the design for the team’s new uniforms, but they are not new. The road uniform jersey seems to be exactly the same as the Orix uniform the BlueWave players have worn since the company bought the club from Hankyu Railways in 1989, when it was still called the Braves.

Orix’s new home uniform also seems to be familiar. It’s the same white jersey with blue piping down the front and the word “Buffaloes” in yellow script in blue trim across the chest, just as the former team name “BlueWave” had appeared. One nice touch is that the merged team’s home uniforms will display the kanji characters for “Kintetsu” on one of the sleeves, keeping alive that name.

I realize the Orix corporate colors are blue and yellow but would think they could have come up with a different design and truly new uniforms to celebrate the amalgamation of the former Osaka Kintetsu Buffaloes and Orix BlueWave. What they have here is disappointing.

Orix, by the way and according to the Japanese sports press, is looking to acquire outfielder Karim Garcia, a Mexican native who has played with the New York Yankees and five other major league teams.

The sports papers also picked up — and played up — the “news” that Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles owner Hiroshi Mikitani said he would pay Roger Clemens “out of my own pocket” if the Rocket would agree to pitch the 2005 season for the Pacific League expansion team.

Think there’s a chance?

Finally this week, you read where former Kintetsu Buffaloes slugger and 1989 Pacific League Most Valuable Player Ralph Bryant will serve as a batting coach for the Orix Buffaloes next season. Now another one-time Japan league home run king and MVP has a new job as well — in politics.

Former Hanshin Tigers first baseman Randy Bass, the 1985 Player of the Year in the Central League, has won a seat in the Oklahoma State Senate. And talk about a close election! Democrat Bass garnered 9,809 votes to beat Republican Kenneth E. Easton, who tallied 9,774 ballots. There were 19,583 votes cast, and Randy won by a margin of just 35. Whew, talk about a narrow victory!

Wonder if the two-time Central League Triple Crown winner will try for the Democratic Party U.S. presidential nomination in 2008? Probably not, but congratulations to Senator Randy Bass on the Nov. 2 election victory this time.