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Seibu’s Spilborghs relishing life experience of playing in NPB

by Jason Coskrey

Staff Writer

The first thing the hero, or heroes, of a Seibu Lions home victory does is stand on a makeshift podium near the Lions dugout and conduct an interview that is broadcast on the Seibu Dome P.A. system for fans to hear.

Then, there are mascots to be held and guts poses to be made as the cameras roll, and finally the trek back to the clubhouse up a long, green staircase — this immediately after a long game, mind you — with cheering fans lined up on both sides.

Just a little more fanfare than you see in the majors.

“I’ve done postgame interviews on the field, but none like that,” new Seibu outfielder Ryan Spilborghs said Thursday, one day after driving in two runs and being named one of the heroes of a 7-2 win over the Chiba Lotte Marines.

“It’s crazy,” he said, “I like it.”

Hero interviews are just one of the things “Spilly” is becoming acquainted to in his first season in Japan.

I love the food, the food’s always been great,” he said. “I really like how Japanese baseball is set up with how much they practice and how much they’re around each other. Team dinners at the hotel are standard. I love that. I love breakfast as a team. I think that’s great.”

The Santa Barbara, California, native is working to familiarize himself with the Japanese game, while also making the transition to a new life off the field with his wife and two small children.”

“I think the biggest adjustment is more for my family than myself,” Spilborghs said. “For me personally, baseball is baseball. I can be playing baseball in Antarctica and be fine. So Japan, it doesn’t really change much other than the language.”

The language, as expected for any foreign player, has been a challenge.

“My Japanese is still at a toddler’s level,” Spilborghs jokes. He began the season on the Lions’ ni-gun team, which gave him an impromptu crash course in the language.

“We have the luxury of having a translator (on the ichi-gun level),” he said. “But when I was in the minor leagues, I didn’t have one. So for two weeks, I was without a translator. That made it a challenge, but also, you’re forced to learn the language. It’s almost better not to have a translator than to have one, because it forces you to learn.”

Japanese aside, Spilborghs says baseball itself is inherently the same as in the U.S. Even so, there are many little differences that, when combined, have befuddled foreign players throughout the years.

Former star slugger Tuffy Rhodes spent 13 years in Japan, before retiring in 2009, and used to tell foreign players to approach things with an open mind and forget what they learned in the U.S.

“Don’t ask why,” is the advice the Marines’ Josh Whitesell says he would give a player in his first season in Japan. “They do a lot of things differently. It’s not right or wrong. Just go with the flow and get yourself as ready and as prepared as you can.”

Spilborghs comes to Japan after playing for the Colorado Rockies from 2005-2011, compiling a .272 career average, 42 home runs and 218 RBIs in 619 games. He was a fan favorite there and teammates with former Lions great and current Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles infielder Kazuo Matsui on the 2007 World Series team, and played alongside current Hanshin Tigers outfielder Matt Murton in 2009.

“Matt just always said, “Keep an open mind and don’t get frustrated,’ ” Spilborghs said Murton told him before coming to Japan. “That’s really good advice regardless of where you are, if you’re in Japan or not. It’s just relaxing and trusting in your abilities and trusting that there’s a reason I’m over here to play baseball; because I’m good at it.

“Japanese pitching is difficult, but I’ve also been able to hit in the major leagues for six years. I’ll be able to adjust.”

He spent the 2012 season in the minors and hit .288 with nine homers and 69 RBIs for the Triple-A affiliates of the Cleveland Indians and Texas Rangers. He hit .224 with a home run and eight RBIs in his first 13 games with Seibu.

Spilborghs has the requisite baseball ability to succeed, but the main thing in his favor is a positive outlook.

“I bet it would probably be a little different if I didn’t want to be here,” he said, “but I really wanted to be here because I knew it was a good opportunity for baseball and for myself and for my family.”

One of the biggest pitfalls for first-time players in Japan is the belief that Japanese baseball is easy. Many have stepped on the field with visions of grandeur, only to experience a rude awakening.

It’s easy to fall into that trap, and it’s mostly those who stay grounded and adjust that wind up succeeding in Japan.

“When you’ve played in the major leagues, you have that confidence,” Spilborghs said. “But this is not easy. I wish I had set the world on fire the second I got here, but I knew it wasn’t going to be that easy. Over the course of the year, with the amount of at-bats I get and type of hitter I am, I’m going to hit what I’m going to hit. I’m not going to set any records, I’m not going to make myself the MVP, but I’m going to be a good enough player to show there’s a reason why they brought me here.”