A bemused smile played across Hiroyuki Nakajima’s lips as he entered a suite in the upper reaches of Seibu Dome.
An easy 2-for-3 afternoon against the Hiroshima Carp, replete with an RBI single in the first inning, is reason enough to be in high spirits, but Nakajima is usually in a sanguine mood.
What stood out most on this day was his uniform. Vivid white with navy blue lettering, it was the familiar home uniform of the Seibu Lions.
Nakajima had just finished playing, but his uniform was devoid of dirt or stains. It made him clash mightily with the garish pea green carpet and decidedly ’70s decor of the space he was currently occupying. What it also lacked, however, were pinstripes.
Both Nakajima and the Lions expected him to be wearing the New York Yankees’ signature uniform this season. The Bronx Bombers won his rights through the posting process — with a surprisingly modest $2 million bid — and it looked as if Nakajima would start his MLB career in New York.
Things of course weren’t that cut and dry, though Nakajima had a simple reason for that. “It was about the timing,” he told The Japan Times. “And it didn’t work out for me.”
Nakajima leaned back in his chair as he pondered the events of the offseason. The Yankees have multiple-time MLB All-Stars in shortstop Derek Jeter, third baseman Alex Rodriguez and second baseman Robinson Cano patrolling the infield, so it was a mild shock they even bid on the Hyogo Prefecture native.
New York viewed him as a backup and intended to pay him as such. Nakajima saw himself as having more value than that. The Yankees dug in, and Nakajima stuck to his guns, resulting in an impasse that couldn’t be traversed.
“It happened in the past, but not so long ago,” Nakajima said. “But you can’t do anything about it. It was what it was. One thing I can say is, because of all the stuff that happened, the media was saying a lot of things, so I was kind of trying to stay away from them. That made me concentrate on my training even more.
“That said, whether I could go or not, I felt pretty good about my physical preparation.”
Despite putting his MLB aspirations on hold Nakajima seems genuinely excited about getting to work this season.
“I’ve been doing well in my training, even back before camp started,” he said. “So having begun the preseason, I’ve felt pretty good about myself.
“In this camp, I worked on my fielding, and as for my batting, I tried out some new ways of hitting, building upon the good things I’ve done in the past.”
Nakajima has put special emphasis on working on his running this spring. Having recorded 81 stolen bases over the past five years, he’s already shown good speed, but watching other athletes has inspired him.
“Guys in track and field and football, I see them on TV,” Nakajima said. “They’re big physically but can still move fast. I watch the NFL on TV. The basketball players are big too. They’re tall and have a lot of muscle, but can jump and run fast.”
Nakajima has also been picking the brain of teammate Esteban German, who is in his first season in Japan. German has great speed on the base paths and stole 94 bases over the last two years in Triple-A.
“When I was running beside him, I watched him, and he was leaning forward more compared to me,” Nakajima said. “So I asked if he does it intentionally, and he said he’s done that since he was a child.
“He says if you look at the track and field guys who run the 100 meters and stuff, they take off with their bodies pretty low. He says he practiced by watching those guys. I kept asking him questions about that. I’ve been aware of that recently.”
It’s hard to overstate Nakajima’s importance to the Lions. He’s their best all-around player and is arguably one of the top shortstops in Japan, if not the best. He’s a seven-time All-Star and was instrumental in helping the Lions defeat the favored Yomiuri Giants in the 2008 Japan Series.
That’s saying a lot for a player who didn’t expect to be playing shortstop in 2000, when the Lions selected him in the fifth round of the draft.
“I had never played shortstop, but (the Lions) wanted me to play there, and I had the chance to grow in the minors,” Nakajima recalled. “At that time, I was seeing the guys who went back and forth between ichi-gun and ni-gun, and I was playing while thinking I didn’t want to be like that.
“My parents would tell me to come back home if I couldn’t be successful within four years, so during that period, I gave everything I had out there, not really paying attention to what was going on around me.”
The 29-year-old is also driven by the goals he’s set for himself.
“I’ve been playing with lofty goals since becoming a professional,” Nakajima said. “I want to reach 2,000 hits, want to go to America, things like that.”
As he prepares for the 2012 season, Nakajima is aware of the glare on him. He knows what Lions fans expect and has the attention of MLB scouts.
Much as with the Yankees situation, Nakajima isn’t worried about any of that. The weight of great expectations may burden other players, but Nakajima is oblivious to any pressure.
“Not much”, Nakajima said. “I’m the kind of player who doesn’t really care what others say or think of me, no matter what they say about me, as long as I get better. Of course, you’ve got to contribute to your team and win, but other than that, I only want to get better.”
Staff writer Kaz Nagatsuka contributed to this report.