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Fernandez knuckler the buzz at Carp camp in Miyazaki

by Wayne Graczyk

MIYAZAKI — You know it is spring training time upon arrival at the small airport in this quaint city in southeast Kyushu. Banners hang almost everywhere bearing the logos of five Japan pro baseball teams whose camps are in session in Miyazaki Prefecture: the Yomiuri Giants, Hiroshima Carp, Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks and the farm team of the Tokyo Yakult Swallows.

News photoKnuckleballer Jared Fernandez, a veteran of three major league clubs, is in his first
spring training camp with the Hiroshima Carp.
WAYNE GRACZYK PHOTO

In addition, the Kia Tigers of the Korea Baseball Organization and four J. League soccer teams are training here. Copies of the Sports Land Miyazaki Camp Map 2007 are piled on the airport and train station airport racks, in hotel lobbies and information counters throughout the area, with schedules and directions to the various workout sites.

On Thursday, I had the chance to take the most beautiful one-hour drive down the Pacific coast of southeast Kyushu from Miyazaki city center to the town of Nichinan where Carp manager Marty Brown was leading his troops through the closing days of their camp in preparation for the upcoming season.

Brown said the local government was footing the bill for the equivalent of $19 million to renovate Tempuku Kyujo, the ballpark where the Hiroshima players practice. With its new seats, it looks more like a stadium now than just a field with some splinter-laden bleachers surrounding it.

There was a lot of excitement as well about right-handed pitcher Jared Fernandez, the 35-year-old knuckle-baller providing lots of interest, and the former Cincinnati Reds, Houston Astros and Milwaukee Brewers player said his arrival here with the Carp is the culmination of half a dozen years attempting to draw the attention of a Central or Pacific League team.

“I have been trying to get to Japan for about six years,” he pointed out. “Last year I was the No. 1 pitcher in the Dominican Republic (winter baseball), and (scouts from the Tohoku Rakuten Golden) Eagles were there. I led the league in innings and ERA and was second in strikeouts,” he said, trying to figure why he was not appealing to the Eagles and other Japanese clubs.

But various team representatives were telling him they were looking for speedball pitchers who can throw close to 160 kph (100 mph), saying, “If we sign a pitcher who does not throw in the 90s, we’ll get fired.”

Fernandez concluded, “They were just nervous about signing a knuckle-baller, but finally, my agent called and said we have an interested team in Japan, so right away I said, ‘Let’s do it. I’ll sign right now.’ He said, ‘First let me give you the details.’ But I told him, ‘I don’t even care. Let’s just go.’ ”

Brown said Hiroshima had considered Fernandez but thought the team ownership and front-office people might not like the idea of acquiring a knuckleball thrower. Instead, said the manager, the team president thought it would be “cool,” and the rest of the transaction was easy.

According to printed salary figures, Fernandez will be paid 23 million yen (about $200,000) by the Carp for knuckling through the 2007 season, and Brown hopes opposing batters will by stymied by his new starter’s signature pitch while the Carp catchers do not have too much of a difficult time trying to hold on to it.

Fernandez tossed two innings in an intra-squad game the day I was there, giving up a pair of runs, including a runner who scored from third on a passed ball when catcher Yoshikazu Kura let a knuckler glance off his mitt and roll to the backstop. But Jared says those mistakes will become fewer with time as his receivers get more familiar with the ball’s flight while opposing batters remain baffled.

“They’re already getting used to it,” said the pitcher of his battery-mates, as the exhibition season was about to start.

He throws the knuckler about 90 percent of the time but says, “Once in a while, I’ll throw my fastball, a four-seamer, a cutter, a sinker, and I may drop in a curveball if behind in the count, and an occasional slider.”

His confidence is further boosted by his fondness for the feel of the Japanese baseball compared with the one used in the majors. Jared said, “I love it. These balls are perfect. The major league ball is so slippery.”

Batters may be even more confused by the range of velocity of the knuckleball, which varies greatly.

“My slowest ever was 49 and my hardest ever was 82,” said Fernandez, referring to the speed of his no-spinner in terms of miles per hour. Those figures translate to 78 and 131 kph, respectively.

His desire for a career here was fueled by a fellow pitcher from Japan who encouraged Jared to go to the Far East if he got the chance.

“Tomo Ohka (a teammate in the Boston organization and with the Brewers), said I would be a good fit (in Japan). He said the Japanese hitters would have a tough time hitting the knuckleball, he spoke very highly of his country and it seemed like it would be a good adventure.

“He was cool. I tried to teach him some English, and he taught me a little Japanese, and we even talked some Spanish,” said Jared.

Now Fernandez is anxious to put some of that Nihongo he learned from Oka to practical use, and Brown sees blue skies such as the ones in Miyazaki in the forecast for the 2007 Hiroshima Carp season.

Contact Wayne Graczyk at: wayne@JapanBall.com