• Kyodo

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Spring training for Japanese baseball’s 12 teams kicked off in camps on Tuesday, with the newly created Rakuten Eagles taking their first giant step under cloudy skies on the island of Kume in Okinawa Prefecture.

Rakuten, which became the first team to join Japanese baseball in half a century, set down on the island populated by 9,500 people with over 300 reporters in attendance to observe the Pacific League club.

“We appreciate all this attention. This will give us strength,” said Rakuten manager Yasushi Tao.

The face of Japanese baseball will see a major overhaul in 2005 with the addition of Rakuten, the formation of the Orix Buffaloes, created through the merger between the Orix BlueWave and the Kintetsu Buffaloes, and the renaming of the Daiei Hawks to the Softbank Hawks.

Orix, led by 69-year-old Hall of Fame manager Akira Ogi, set up camp on the island of Miyako and is among the eight teams holding training camps in Okinawa.

Newly appointed Yokohama BayStars manager Kazuhiko Ushijima kicked off the first day of training with a minor league intrasquad game in Ginowan on Okinawa’s main island.

Meanwhile, Softbank, which like Rakuten is owned by an Internet-related company, got started in Miyazaki with the team sporting its brand-new uniform.

The Yomiuri Giants and Lotte Marines both held indoor training in Miyazaki and Kagoshima, respectively, to protect themselves from the cold weather.

Elsewhere, Hanshin Tigers pitcher Kento Tsujimoto, who became the youngest to be picked in an amateur draft at the age of 15, got off to a strong start with the minor league team in Kochi Prefecture.

Preseason exhibition games get under way on Feb. 26 ahead of the regular season, which begins on March 26 in the Pacific League and April 1 in the Central League.

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