Longtime Nippon Professional Baseball fans have seen a familiar face at Tokyo Dome this week. Call him a blast from the past, with a handsome face and long arms and legs that haven’t changed.
But this much is new: He now has a beer belly.
Who is he? Ty Van Burkleo.
“I’m having a great time,” said Van Burkleo, the hitting coach for the Oakland Athletics who visited Japan for their season-opening games against the Boston Red Sox.
“It’s been 17 years since I left, and I always wanted to come back to have an opportunity up until now. So I’d really been looking forward to this and I’m having a great time.”
Van Burkleo, now 45, was part of the Seibu Lions’ dynasty era in the late 1980s. Seibu won Japan Series titles in ’87, ’88 and ’90 while he was with the club. He also played for the Hiroshima Carp in 1991.
In 1988, Van Burkleo had his best season as a Lion. He belted 38 homers, batted .268 and drove in 90 runs, but faded away afterward as Cuban slugger Orestes Destrade took center stage.
Van Burkleo, however, said he only possesses happy, sweet memories from the days in Japan, admitting there were hard times as well, while a lot of players that come over from the United States leave Japanese pro baseball with bitter, displeased feelings.
“There are always hard times and easy times, but I just remember good times,” said Van Burkleo, who played in the major leagues for 14 seasons (for the California Angels and Colorado Rockies) and was appointed Oakland’s hitting coaching for the 2007 season. “I don’t have any bitter memories at all, really. I had my times that didn’t work out well, but I have great memories.”
In fact, Van Burkleo is still keeping in touch with some of his former Lions teammates, and he sneaked out of the Big Egg to make some spare time to see them.
Van Burkleo said he had dinner with Hiromoto “Dave” Okubo, who became the hitting coach at Seibu this year under new manager Hisanobu Watanabe, at his house Friday.
“And Saturday,” he continued. “I went to Seibu (Dome) and I met with Watanabe and Okubo, met with gaijin players, chatting a while, and watched three innings (against the Orix Buffaloes), and I had to get back here for a game against Yomiuri (Giants).”
Before the second game of the BoSox-A’s series, Van Burkleo was tossing pitches to his players, including Travis Buck, Curt Suzuki and Daric Barton, during the team’s batting practice.
Moments later, while watching some other players work out in the batting cage, he appeared to be giving advice to infielder Brooks Conrad, who was waiting for his turn to take hacks.
Van Burkleo smilingly said his this is his role for the raw but hopeful group of guys.
“I love it,” he said of his job. “With a bunch of young guys and a mixture of veteran players, yeah, it’s fun.”
Van Burkleo added that his experience in Japan helps for his current coaching role, and that it’s a rare person that knows the leagues on both sides of the Pacific Ocean.
When asked if Japanese baseball has made big developments since he played here, Van Burkleo gave an unexpected answer.
“No, it’s the same,” he said. “We got good hitters and pitchers. When I played here, there was no one to play over in the (United) States.
“So we had a lot of players just on my team, Seibu, that could play in the States — (Koji) Akiyama, (Kimiyasu) Kudo, both Watanabes (Hisanobu and Tomio) — they were all good players.”