Giants and 'Maru-chan' a perfect match

Yomiuri Giants first baseman Domingo Martinez last week celebrated his one-year anniversary with the team, and plucking him out of the Mexican League last June and bringing him back to Japan was one of the best things the Giants have ever done.

“Maru-chan” had been inexplicably let go by the Seibu Lions after putting up great numbers as the Lions’ DH in 1997 and 1998. He averaged 30 1/2 homers and 101 1/2 RBIs during those years, hitting .294 and helping Seibu into the Japan Series both seasons.

When the Giants needed to add some punch to their lineup last spring, someone in the Yomiuri organization thought of Martinez and found him toiling south of the U.S. border. They signed him, despite the fact the team was covered at first base (Maru-chan’s position) by star and fan fave Kazuhiro Kiyohara.

Playing some at first base when Kiyohara was injured, a few games in left field and serving occasionally as a pinch hitter, Martinez has socked 16 homers, drove in 56 and hit .324 in 83 games. This year, with Kiyohara hurt and making only one start, the Dominican native has taken over as the Kyojin full-time first sacker and is among Central League leaders in all offensive categories. He’s also the leading vote-getter in early All-Star balloting for CL first basemen.

Through games of June 15, Martinez was fifth among league batsmen with a .327 average, fourth (behind teammates Hideki Matsui and Akira Eto, and Tsuyoshi Shinjo of Hanshin) with 14 homers and second in the league after Matsui with 44 RBIs. Eleven of his home runs have come at home in the Tokyo Dome, where he says he sees the ball well and, when he gets into the batter’s box, “I feel good, real good.”

As for playing with the Giants, he says they’re a fine bunch of teammates, and he’s grateful to the Yomiuri organization for giving him a second chance in Japan not offered to many foreign players. He does occasionally get slightly irritated by the hounding Japanese press, who ask him questions such as, “Are you going to win the batting title?” or “How come you can’t hit more home runs?”

Despite the numbers he’s put up, Martinez says, “Japanese baseball is not easy. People see me hitting the ball up there (off the back wall above and beyond the Tokyo Dome bleachers) in batting practice, and they think it should be simple to do it in a game. But in B.P., you tell the pitcher what to throw and know what’s coming.

“There are some great pitchers in this league too,” he points out, naming three particular unfavorites: right-handers Tomohito Ito of the Yakult Swallows (and his wicked slider), Shinji Sasaoka of the Hiroshima Carp (with that rosin-loaded powdered fastball) and Keiichi Yabu of the Hanshin Tigers (a thinking hurler who knows what to throw to keep hitters off-balance).

Maru-chan is still somewhat bitter about being let go by Seibu, another driving factor behind his effort. His dream is to play in this year’s Japan Series — against the Lions and manager Osamu Higashio, who fired him after Seibu lost the 1998 Series. It might come true; a look at the standings sees the Giants and Lions at or near the top of their respective leagues, and it appears they’ll be there right through to October.

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As mentioned here last column, the Nippon Ham Fighters will stage their American Ballpark Weekend Series July 1-2 when they host the Pacific League rival Seibu Lions at the Tokyo Dome. This is one of two international events held annually by the Fighters; the other being Yankees Day (scheduled this season on Sept. 3). The Saturday, July 1, ABW game begins at 6 p.m., while on Sunday, July 2, a day game starts at 1:30 p.m.

Activities and events will include American-style pre-game entertainment and ceremonies, kids’ baserunning, the performance of the national anthems of Japan and the United States, public address announcements made throughout the day in English and Japanese, the group singing of “YMCA” during the fifth inning infield clean-up and “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” during the seventh-inning stretch.

Door prizes will be offered by international corporations supporting the event. Title sponsor for both days will be Northwest Airlines, who will present round-trip tickets for two to a U.S. destination to lucky fans winning a lottery draw. A Northwest official will perform the shikyushiki first-pitch throwing ceremony prior to both games.

Kirin Tropicana, Universal Studios and Upper Deck will also participate, offering door prizes and handouts to fans attending on both days.

A limited number of free tickets have been distributed to U.S. military bases in the Tokyo area and the Tokyo American Club Recreation Office, and discount tickets are available with coupons picked up at Eidan Subway stations in Tokyo.

Come on out and have some fun!

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