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Congratulations to the Hanshin Tigers on winning their second Central League pennant in three years. The victory was a true team effort highlighted by a potent offensive attack, a balanced pitching staff and clever use of an adequate pool of talent by manager Akinobu Okada.

One of the key players on the 2005 Tigers championship team is American first baseman Andy Sheets, who transferred to Hanshin this season after two years as the shortstop with the Hiroshima Carp.

Sheets was a free agent after playing out consecutive one-year contracts with Hiroshima, and he decided to sign with the Tigers, a move that has proved to be one of the best of his career. He’s going to the Japan Series this month and maybe to the Asian Series in November.

Sheets was brought to Japan by the Carp in 2003 to shore up that team’s defense, which had been weak up the middle, but Hiroshima got an added bonus. Not only was he outstanding with the glove, but also potent with the bat, hitting for a combined .298 with an average of 24 homers and 80 RBIs per year during his two seasons with the Red Helmets.

With Hanshin, he made the switch from short to first with no difficulty and, batting third in Okada’s lineup, Sheets was part of the most productive cleanup trio in Japanese baseball.

Through the Tigers’ pennant clinching game on Sept. 29, Sheets had compiled 19 home runs, 85 RBIs and a .290 average. He also led the Central League in doubles with 37.

Following Andy as Hanshin’s No. 4 batter was left-fielder Tomoaki Kanemoto (the likely CL MVP this year) with 38 home runs, 120 RBIs and .325, and the fifth hitter, third baseman Makoto Imaoka, who was batting .281 with 28 homers and an incredible 144 RBIs.

Not many in baseball, either in Japan or the major leagues, have converted from shortstop to first base. One who comes to mind is Ernie Banks, the Chicago Cubs Hall of Famer who split his 19-year career about half and half at the two positions.

Like Banks, Sheets insists he had no trouble moving to the other side of the infield.

“The transition from short to first was about what I expected,” he said. “The way the ball comes off the bat is a little different, and I had to get used to that, but I had played some at first base in the States, so I do miss playing short at times, but playing first has been easier on my body. I don’t have to dive as much, and I enjoy playing there.”

Another thing that made this season more enjoyable for Sheets, besides winning and playing the new position, was the interleague play introduced in Japanese baseball this year.

“I enjoyed the interleague play just because we got to see different stadiums, different crowds, different pitchers, and it seemed like the season went a little quicker,” he said of the 36-game schedule against Pacific League teams that ran from May 6 to June 16.

Asked if he would rather play the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks or the Chiba Lotte Marines or, for that matter, the Seibu Lions in the Japan Series beginning Oct. 22, Sheets said he has no preference.

“I know some guys on those teams, and playing any team from that (Pacific) division will be tough.”

As for the Asian Series, a four-team tournament with champion teams from the professional leagues in Japan, Korea, Taiwan and China to be played Nov. 10-13 at Tokyo Dome, Sheets says, “I haven’t even thought about that yet. We have to get by the Japan Series first. We’ll see about that later.”

While Sheets and his teammates have enjoyed a pretty much fair-weather season, his life on and off the baseball field was affected when he dodged the threats of two storms, one each in Japan and the U.S.

On July 27, Tropical Storm Banyan was bearing down on the Japanese archipelago, approaching the capital that afternoon when the Tigers were scheduled to play the Yomiuri Giants in a night game at Tokyo Dome.

At 3 p.m. a decision was made to play, rather than postpone for fear trains may later stop running, leaving fans stranded with no way to get home.

That was the night Sheets slammed three home runs, including one off Yomiuri ace Koji Uehara, in a one-sided win over the Kyojin. It was the first time he managed that hat trick in his pro career, and he’s thankful the game, at the brink of being called, went on as scheduled.

Then on Aug. 26, as Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast, Sheets had some anxious moments worrying about his family and home in Lafayette, La., where Katrina hit with a lesser impact.

“My wife and I were watching it and, fortunately for my family, (the hurricane) moved (away from Lafayette). Unfortunately for a lot of others, it moved to where they were. We got lucky.”

One bump in Sheets’ season came on Sept. 15 when he was hit by a pitch in a game against the Giants and sustained a bruised hand that put him on the disabled list for 10 days, but he got lucky there, too. At first, it was feared the hand was broken, and he might be out for the rest of the year. But that was not the case.

He returned to the lineup on Sept. 28, just in time to help the Tigers beat the Giants in a two-game series at Koshien Stadium and clinch the CL title.

The 10 days on the sidelines may have cost amicable Andy a 25-homer, 100-RBI, .300 season but, he says, “Baseball is not about individual numbers; it’s all about the team winning,” and the Hanshin Tigers have done a lot of that this season.

Contact Wayne Graczyk at: wsgraczyk@yahoo.com

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