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Perseverance pays off for ‘slashers’ Ruiz, Monna

by Wayne Graczyk

Remember Kordell “Slash” Stewart, a former NFL player with the Pittsburgh Steelers?

He was called by that nickname because of his versatility in playing a variety of positions. He was a quarterback/running back/wide receiver.

There are two individuals in Japanese professional baseball who can also be identified by the “slash” designation, using their multilingual skills and supporting their teams during practice sessions.

Dominican native Francis Ruiz serves the Central League’s Chunichi Dragons as an interpreter/bullpen and batting practice catcher. Tetsuhiro Monna is with the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks of the Pacific League, fulfilling a dual role as a batting practice pitcher/interpreter.

The trilingual (Spanish, English, Japanese) Ruiz, 34, came to Japan in 1997 with the Hiroshima Carp as a test player, along with the likes of Alfonso Soriano, Timo Perez and Robinson Checo (all of whom later played in the major leagues) and Felix Perdomo.

While he never made it as a player, Ruiz sharpened his Japanese-language skills and joined the Hiroshima team supporting staff as a translator. He worked with the Carp until 2006 when he transferred to the Dragons, and he is now in his fourth season with Chunichi, whose foreign players all speak Spanish as their first language.

Ruiz can be seen during pre-game practice getting loose on the sideline, then taking a turn in the batting cage during BP. While the game is going on, he’s in the bullpen, ready to warm up pitchers. At any time, he stands prepared to put on his interpreter’s hat and provide language assistance.

Asked which job is more difficult, Ruiz said, “The interpreting is tougher, because I have to make sure everything is understood between the player and the coach.”

Monna, now 39, was one of those “hot prospects,” who, for whatever reason, never made it as a star in professional baseball. A No. 2 draft choice of the Yomiuri Giants in 1992, he was a promising left-hander destined for stardom, but success was not in the cards for him.

He was a star hurler at Nihon University who once struck out 18 batters in a college game, but spent most of his time as a pro on the Giants farm team. He won only one Central League game — in his rookie year of 1993 — and by 1998 he was washed up at the age of 28.

It was one day in 1996, however, during one of his infrequent stints on the Giants varsity, when he and teammate pitcher Masao Kida were sitting on the Yomiuri bench at Tokyo Dome while the opposing team was finishing batting practice. I happened to be standing a few meters away, when an English-speaking Japanese beat writer covering the Giants came over and said, “Kida and Monna want to practice speaking English with you, because they want to play in the major leagues.”

That was just after Hideo Nomo had completed his first successful big league season with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

So I started chatting with the two pitchers in my native language, but they were not getting what I was saying. Neither one had any skills at all in speaking or understanding English and, frankly, I had no reason to think either would ever obtain any degree of fluency.

Kida eventually pitched in the majors with the Dodgers, and Detroit Tigers and is still, at 42, active with the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters. When I see him, we speak in Japanese.

I had lost track of Monna but heard he had gone to the U.S. to pursue his dream. He never made it to the majors but played independent league ball and later went to Europe where he pitched in the Netherlands and then Croatia. Somewhere between America and Amsterdam, he learned his second language.

Fast forward to February of 2009 and the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks spring training site in Miyazaki on the island of Kyushu. While visiting the camp, who did I run into but Monna, wearing the Hawks logo.

“How are you doing?” he said.

“Monna-san, what are you doing here?” I asked.

“I’m a batting practice pitcher with the Hawks — and an interpreter,” he answered proudly in perfect English.

I never would have believed the guy with whom I had talked to on that Giants bench 13 years prior could have learned enough of the language to become a translator, but here he is in his second year filling a dual role with the Hawks.

The lesson here is, if you love the game but, for whatever reason can’t play it, hang in there and pursue a supporting role or two, just like Francis “Slash,” Ruiz and Tetsuhiro “Slash” Monna.

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Contact Wayne Graczyk at: wayne@JapanBall.com