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Hot Hibachi League prepares to heat up as season draws to a close

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The final game of the 2009 baseball season in Japan takes place on Sunday at Tokyo Dome. Billed as the “U-26” it features a select team of college players against a group of professionals, most of whom are under the age of 26.

The pro team roster includes Hayato Sakamoto, the 20-year-old star shortstop of the Japan Series champion Yomiuri Giants, and his teammate, outfielder Tetsuya Matsumoto, 25, the 2009 Central League rookie of the year.

The university team will feature pitcher Yuki Saito, the “Handkerchief Prince,” of Waseda University. Game time is 2 p.m.

With that, the season will officially end, and Japan’s version of the hot stove league, the “Hot Hibachi League,” gets heated with offseason news, trades, firing and hiring of foreigners and other transactions through the winter.

I am the self-proclaimed commissioner of the HHL and will try to keep you informed on what is happening as the Central and Pacific League teams prepare for the 2010 campaign.

First, however, congratulations to Yomiuri slugger Alex Ramirez on being MVP in the Central League for the second year in a row, but the unselfish Rami had said late in the season two of his teammates should be selected as co-MVPs. He said his vote would have been split between infielder Michihiro Ogasawara and pitcher Dicky Gonzalez.

“Guts (Ogasawara) did the job for us all year, day in and day out,” said Ramirez. He added there was a lot more to Ogasawara’s team contribution than the statistics he compiled.

“As for Dicky,” Ramirez said of Gonzalez, “He had a tremendous season, especially when you consider he was not even called up from the farm team until after Golden Week on May 2. He did not pitch for us at all in April.”

In the MVP voting, Ramirez and Yu Darvish, the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters pitcher who took home the Pacific League best player award, won in landslides.

Ramirez (31 home runs, 103 RBIs and a league-leading .322 average), received 815 points. Ogasawara (31, 107, .309) was second with 476, and Gonzalez (15-2, 2.11 ERA) was third, picking up 411 points.

Darvish (15-5 with a league-best 1.73 ERA) tallied 737 points, far more than the PL runnerup, his Nippon Ham teammate, outfielder Atsunori Inaba (17, 85, .300) who gathered 190.

Congratulations also to Japan pro ball veteran Hensley “Bam Bam” Meulens on being appointed hitting coach for the San Francisco Giants. He is the latest among the many former players with Japan experience to be named as a manager or coach by a major league team.

Meulens was an outfielder with the Chiba Lotte Marines in 1994 and the third baseman on the Yakult Swallows’ 1995 Japan Series championship team.

Foreign players coming and going: The Orix Buffaloes have dropped pitcher Ryan Vogelsong and infielder Jose Fernandez, three- and seven-year Japanese baseball veterans, respectively.

The Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles announced the release of pitchers Marcus Gwyn and Matt Childers.

If relief pitcher Brian Sikorski, leaving the Chiba Lotte Marines, signs with the Yokohama BayStars, he will be another four-team foreigner, having played previously with the Marines, Yomiuri Giants and Yakult Swallows.

Right-handed pitcher Buddy Carlyle will return to Japan after an eight-year absence. He threw with the Hanshin Tigers in 2001-02 and will be chucking in 2010 with the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters.

Slugger Justin Huber, signed by the Hiroshima Carp for next season, was the cleanup hitter on Australia’s team in the 2009 World Baseball Classic.

The Nikkan Sports newspaper reported the Tigers, looking to replace departing foreign pitchers Jeff Williams and Scott Atchison, had been checking into 26-year-old Dominican fireballer Juan Morillo. Instead, Morillo is going to play for the Rakuten Eagles.

The right-hander has major league time with the Colorado Rockies and the Minnesota Twins, and his fastball has been clocked at 161 kph, so he may challenge the 162-kph Japan pro ball speed record of Yomiuri Giants closer Marc Kroon.

Kroon, by the way, had a goal to chalk up four saves in the recently concluded Japan Series but had to settle for a record-tying three. However, he did accomplish something never before achieved in the 60-year history of the JS, and he did it twice in three games.

In Game 1 at Sapporo, Giants starter Dicky Gonzalez got the victory and, when Kroon notched the save, it marked the first time a foreign closer saved a Japan Series game for a foreign starter and winner. In Game 3 at Tokyo Dome, Kroon repeated that when he saved a win for Dominican starter Wirfin Obispo.

Kroon also fulfilled his wish to be the final pitcher in the pennant-clinching game against the Chunichi Dragons at Tokyo Dome on Sept. 23, the CLCS clincher vs. the Dragons at the Big Egg on Oct. 24 and the Japan Series decider against the Nippon Ham Fighters on Nov. 7 in Sapporo.

Marc turns 37 in April and says 2010 will be his final season as a pro ballplayer.

Rakuten Eagles manager Marty Brown will return to the U.S. this week after being installed in his new job in Sendai.

He comes back to Japan on Jan. 4 — talk about a short winter — to start preparing for the upcoming season. The Eagles will begin spring training on Feb. 1 (the same date as the other 11 Japanese pro clubs) on Kumejima Island in Okinawa and will open the regular season on March 20, against the Orix Buffaloes at Kyocera Osaka Dome.

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The Baseball Bullet-In takes a break next week on the fifth Sunday of November, so no column. We’ll see you again on Dec. 6.

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Wayne Graczyk at: wayne@JapanBall.com