The 12 Japanese pro ballclubs are about halfway through their spring training, having begun formal workouts on Feb. 1. The camps will close at the end of the month at which time exhibition games will begin in preparation for the regular-season openers on April 3.
For the 63 foreigners, including the newest signee Edgardo Alfonso of the Yomiuri Giants, the four-week period can seem like a military boot camp.
First-year foreigners have it the toughest with many obstacles to overcome, including the language barrier, unfamiliar food, loneliness, possible injury and illness.
The guys from North and Latin America must go through the paces to get their bodies back in shape, after four months of relative inactivity, at out-of-the-way locations such as Nichinan or Nango, Miyazaki Prefecture, in south Kyushu or a remote island in the Ryukyu chain of Okinawa.
Newbies must depend on their interpreters or a foreign teammate with Japan experience for communication, and they find themselves eating a lot of noodles, onigiri rice balls wrapped in seaweed and curry rice instead of cheeseburgers, chicken and french fries, during the practice ground lunch break.
A few foreign players have had their careers cut short or even ended by trying to do too much too soon and keeping up with their Japanese teammates who have the advantage of having been in fall camp as late as the end of November and were doing “ji-shu (self-) training” on their own during most of December and January.
Every year I go to a camp to find some foreign pitcher already having arm soreness or a tight shoulder, and often I’m talking to a “rookie” import who is coughing and sneezing, having caught a cold or even the flu because his body was shocked and totally unprepared for the unpredictable weather. The climate in Miyazaki is not the same as Florida or Arizona.
Last year, I went to the Giants camp to welcome Alex Ramirez to the club, but I never saw him. He stayed back in bed at the hotel, too sick to go to practice.
Then there is the kafunsho, hay fever caused by the pollen in the air which affects some worse than others. Just ask Tuffy Rhodes, who trained his first 10 years in Japan with the Kintetsu Buffaloes and the Giants in Miyazaki and gets hit by the bug harder than he hits a baseball.
Rhodes was rarely seen in camp without a surgical mask, even while taking batting practice.
Most married foreign players leave their wives and kids at home until they can complete the boot, er, spring camp and get settled in the city where they will be playing home games throughout the season. Hence, the lonely feeling, although daily phone calls and frequent e-mails with attached photos may erase the melancholy suffered by their predecessors in pre-Internet days.
All 12 Japanese clubs take all or part of their training in Miyazaki or often rainy Okinawa, and the Hanshin Tigers and Orix Buffaloes spend the final two weeks working out in Kochi Prefecture on Shikoku island.
The Seibu Lions and Fukuoka Softbank Hawks moved from Kochi to Miyazaki in 2004.
There is a history of Central and Pacific League teams training overseas. The Giants were guests of the Los Angeles Dodgers in Vero Beach, Fla., in the 1960s and ’70s and set up camp in Agana, Guam, for several years in the 1980s.
The Kintetsu Buffaloes used to train in Saipan.
One year the Nippon Ham Fighters went to train with the New York Yankees in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., but gave that up after complaining about the poor practice field conditions and lack of interaction with the Yankees players and coaches who were not scheduled to show up until the Fighters were ready to return home.
Throughout the ’80s, three CL clubs went to Arizona: the Yakult Swallows, Hanshin Tigers and Yokohama Taiyo Whales.
In the ’90s, the Lions went to Maui, Hawaii, for part of their training, and the Chiba Lotte Marines were in Peoria, Ariz., in 1997.
Most recently, the Chunichi Dragons and the Marines tried the Australian Gold Coast but, in most of the above cases, an important negative factor was the sudden change from working out in hot and sunny weather to the relatively cold and often rainy days upon returning to Japan.
In 1978, I visited the camp of the Crown Lighter Lions, then based in Fukuoka, at their training site in Shimabara, Nagasaki Prefecture. I was there to interview American players Willie Davis and Bob Hansen, who were bundled up in heavy jackets, ski caps, gloves and ear muffs.
Gene Martin, an American who played for the Dragons from 1974 to 1978, recalls his Nagoya-based team used to train in Hamamatsu, Shizuoka Prefecture.
“Ridiculous,” said Martin one mid-February day after running laps around the field in snow flurries. “We’re the only team in the world that goes north for spring training,” Martin noted.
Fortunately, all the Japanese clubs these days go south and, although the facilities and climate may not be as nice and warm and hay fever-free as Miami or Phoenix, they are where they are.
To all the foreign players — especially the newcomers — the message is to hang in there, guys. Like basic training in the army, it does get better.
Finally this week, win or lose on the field this season, Hiroshima Carp manager Marty Brown has become a winner off the field and established a permanent Japan connection. He married a nice Japanese girl late last month.
Brown, currently running his team through spring camp workouts in Nichinan (and hopefully staying healthy) says he and his bride are very happy and looking forward to their life together. Congratulations.
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Contact Wayne Graczyk at: wayne@JapanBall.com
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