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Aoki makes big impact

Swallows star emerges as a team leader on, off baseball field

by Kaz Nagatsuka

For the Tokyo Yakult Swallows, who have made substantial changes to their roster over the past year or two, Norichika Aoki serves as a stabilizer on and off the field.

First off, Aoki guides the Central League club with his wooden bat, which has enabled him to become a household name in Nippon Professional Baseball.

Despite a right side injury, which sidelined him for nearly three weeks starting in early May, the outfielder has shown no sign of slowing down. Instead, he returned to the diamond stronger than ever.

Through Thursday, Aoki has hit .373, or 44-for-118, since returning from the injury. Since then, he’s belted nine home runs, including six in the 11 games after interleague play ended.

Aoki is batting .342 (third in the CL) with 11 homers (eighth) and 35 RBIs this season. He leads his club in all three categories.

Aoki, a 175-cm hit-maker, is particularly surprised by the number of times he’s gone yard.

“Although I’ve been aware of hitting home runs, I didn’t expect to be able to hit this many,” Aoki said before Thursday’s game against the Yokohama BayStars at Tokyo’s Jingu Stadium. “I’m getting distance (on my balls) for some reason.”

In the meantime, on a team that has seen established stars depart, such as Akinori Iwamura (Tampa Bay Rays), Atsuya Furuta (retired) and Alex Ramirez (Yomiuri Giants) in recent years, Aoki, 26, is already the team’s quintessential core player, and is compelled to guide the entire corps. But it’s not just with the impressive offensive numbers nor the distance of his long balls.

If not directly, he is asked to step up as another team leader — alongside 37-year-old infielder Shinya Miyamoto, who also acts as the head man of the NPB players union.

When he was asked about how it feels to be called a team leader, Aoki seemed to be embarrassed by it. But he soon realized that he’s unconsciously acting as one.

“Well, I tend to go out to eat with younger ones, not doing it with senior players any more,” Aoki said. “Then, we naturally start talking about our job and I often give some advice to them.”

Aoki said, however, that he doesn’t want to act like a big shot on a young Swallows team, which is currently in fifth place in the CL. He just hopes to give some hints and clues that may help his young teammates on the field.

“I give advice, which doesn’t mean they have to obey me,” Aoki said, adding it could help to take some tension off their shoulders as well. “People say different things, but I tell them to take what they think are useful.”

Interestingly, Aoki was more a listener than a talker until recently.

Now Aoki recalls how he was trying to obtain hints and clues during his learning process.

“I was just desperate to come up with good results back then,” he said. “So I’d voluntarily go and talk to coaches and other senior players.”

Aoki frankly said it’s nothing strange or special if you want to be a better player.

“Those who get regular spots and those who are called great players do that,” he said. “Otherwise, they can’t keep this up every year.”

His endeavor paid off. The native of Hyuga, Miyazaki Prefecture, appeared in the spotlight when he hit 202 hits in 2005. At the time, it was the second-best single-season hit total behind Ichiro Suzuki’s 210 in 1994 with the Orix BlueWave, and Aoki won the CL Rookie of the Year. (Aoki dropped to third on the list when Ramirez had 204 hits last year.)

Aoki has won batting titles twice (’05, ’07), led the league in hits twice (’05, ’06) and stolen bases once (’06) and was awarded Golden Gloves three times (2005-07).

He was part of the Japanese national teams for the 2006 World Baseball Classic and last year’s Beijing Olympic Asian qualifier.

And now he is on the 39-man final provisional roster for the Beijing Games. It will reduced to 24 when the final squad is announced in mid-July. An all-around standout, Aoki is a good contact hitter with decent power, quick feet and good fielding skills. Due to his past international experience, Aoki shouldn’t miss the Olympic cut.

“That’s where I can realize I’m a Japanese,” Aoki said in a TV interview.