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Ex-Dragons star Powell reminisces about playing days in Japan

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One of the most prolific hitters among foreign players in Japan, and a most fan- and media-friendly personality, returned to the country earlier this month to say “konnichi wa” and offer batting instruction to Japanese youngsters.

He’s Alonzo Powell, a former Chunichi Dragons outfielder who found success playing in Japan more than 20 years ago after a brief major league career with the Montreal Expos and Seattle Mariners.

Powell, now 52 and a full-time batting coach with the American League Houston Astros, was back in Japan for a series of clinics, teaching kids the secrets of hitting. He was in Okayama and Akita Dec. 6-11, and we caught up with him by phone to get his thoughts about being back in the country, his memories of his time here in the 1990s and his current job in Texas.

Powell was 28 when he reported to Nagoya midway through the 1992 season, and it appeared at first then-Chunichi manager Morimichi Takagi did not know quite what to do with the newcomer. He would play ‘Zo, as Powell likes to be called, one day but bench him the next.

He’d be in right field today but in left field tomorrow, and Powell would often not even know which position he would be playing — or even if he would be in the starting lineup — until after pre-game practice was finished and the game was about to start. It was confusing, but that’s how his time in Japan started.

About his first impression of Japanese baseball, Powell said, “It was overwhelming in the beginning. I had heard about Japanese baseball while in America but did not realize how big it is.” He was referring to the level of play, the fact some games draw 50,000 fans and the nationwide media coverage.

“It was like the major leagues,” he said. Having had his chance in the bigs and now finding himself in Japan, he was determined to make the most of the opportunity in what was likely his last shot at a meaningful career in pro baseball.

“I thought I could be successful, play well and win with my team,” he said, referring to his joining the Dragons 24 years ago. He batted .308 in 88 games that first season and was invited back for a full year. In 1993, he slammed 27 homers and hit .317 while establishing himself as one of the Central League’s best hitters.

One of his trademarks was, as the legendary former New York Yankees manager Casey Stengel used to say, “hitting it where they ain’t.” Powell would often tap soft rollers that somehow found their way between the infielders for a hit.

A line drive hitter too, he had his share of scorching shots down the lines or in the gaps between the outfielders.

In 1994, Powell won his first batting title with a .324 average. He repeated as the CL leader, posting averages of .355 in 1995 and .340 in 1996, and he matched the Pacific League batting champion who also won three titles in a row those years — a guy by the name of Ichiro Suzuki.

While Ichiro, playing for the Orix BlueWave, went on to win four more silver bats before heading for the major leagues in 2001, Powell’s streak ended in 1997 when the Dragons moved from hitter-friendly Nagoya Stadium to the newly opened Nagoya Dome. His average dropped to .253.

“For some odd reason, it took me a while to adjust to the lighting (in the dome),” he said. “That’s no excuse though. You still have to play, but it was weird.”

Chunichi let him go following that season, and he was picked up by a rival Central League club, the Hanshin Tigers. Playing at Koshien Stadium as his home in 1998, he managed to hit just .255, and his seven-year Japan stint was over.

In 1999, Powell played Triple-A ball in Columbus, Ohio, hoping to get picked up by the parent New York Yankees, but that call never came. Coincidentally, his manager at Columbus was Trey Hillman, who would later pilot the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters to a Japan Series title in 2006.

In 2016, Hillman and Powell were together in Houston as the Astros’ bench coach and batting coach, respectively.

Between 2000 and 2005, Powell served as a hitting coach with the Cincinnati Reds and also manager of the Reds Single-A minor league club in Dayton, Ohio. That team’s nickname, curiously, was the Dragons, and Powell says, “It was a marquee franchise in minor league baseball. All the games were sold out.”

Between 2006 and 2015, Powell worked as a batting coach and coordinator at the major and minor level with the Seattle Mariners and San Diego Padres before landing in Houston.

Looking to 2017 and the Astros, Powell is optimistic, saying, “The future looks bright. We have a great corps of young players, such as (2014 and 2016 American League batting champ) Jose Altuve who already has more hits at 25 than did Pete Rose at that age.” With outfielder Norichika Aoki going to Houston, Powell will have someone with whom to practice his Nihongo.

Powell expects to return to Japan next year for more clinics organized by his friend Takahiro Kondo. Powell says, “It is easy for me to return to Japan, to give something back, and I am so thankful to the fans for the time I played here. It was a wonderful experience that will always have a special place in my heart.”

He also cited his interpreters with the Dragons, Toyoharu Kunimitsu and Toru Ashiki. “I want them to know how much they helped me,” he said.

The Baseball Bullet-In wishes all readers a Merry Christmas and all the best for a Happy New Year.

Contact Wayne Graczyk at: Wayne@JapanBall.com