Baseball / Japanese Baseball

Sikorski says flexibility key to his success in Japan

by Jason Coskrey

TOKOROZAWA, Saitama Pref. — It’s a wonder Brian Sikorski’s arm hasn’t fallen off by now.

For well over a decade, Sikorski has sprinted from the dugout to the pitcher’s mound, jumping over the foul line, every time he’s heard his name called. There he launches into a crowd-pleasing warmup routine where he spins his right arm wildly — mimicking the motion of a propeller.

“Pretty much everywhere, I hear someone say something,” the Seibu Lions closer said during a recent interview at Seibu Dome.

“It’s a tired act. I’ve carried it through high school up until now. People ask me, ‘You going to do something different this year?’ No, it’s just the same, old tired jump over the line, swing my arm. Not going to stop now, that’s for sure.”

The routine is one of the few things that has remained the same for Sikorski during a career that has seen him make hundreds of little tweaks while remaining true to his way of playing the game.

Just over two years into his second stint in Japan and on his fourth NPB team, Sikorski has re-established himself as one of the top relievers in Japanese baseball. He led the Pacific League with 20 saves entering Thursday’s games.

“I feel good and I’m playing with a great bunch of guys,” Sikorski said. “It’s always easy to fit in when you come into a situation like this.”

Playing in Japan is a difficult proposition for many foreign players, used to the style of play and culture of Major League Baseball.

Some, like the recently retired Tuffy Rhodes, a veteran of 13 seasons in Japan, and current Yomiuri Giants star Alex Ramirez (in his 10th season) were able to adjust. Still, many do not last one full year and even more are gone after one season.

Sikorski arrived in Japan in 2001 and is in his ninth year in the NPB. He attributes his staying power to being able to embrace new things.

“When you get here — your first couple of months — it’s, ‘I’m not going to change, not going to do this, not going to do that,’ ” Sikorski said. “Then you realize if you want to stay here, you have to change. You have to tweak things.”

A product of Detroit, Sikorski played college ball at Western Michigan University, in Kalamazoo, Mich., then made his major league debut on Aug. 16, 2000, for the Texas Rangers.

He began his NPB career the following season with the Chiba Lotte Marines, where he played until 2003. Sikorski was a reliever with the Yomiuri Giants from 2004-05, and a crowd favorite at Tokyo Dome.

Sikorski spent the 2006 season with the San Diego Padres and Cleveland Indians, then returned to Japan with the Tokyo Yakult Swallows in 2007. He came full circle in 2008, returning to the Marines for two seasons before signing with the Lions.

“When I first got here I thought, ‘Three months, I’m out of here,’ ” Sikorski said. “Then that turned into five years and I went back to the States and came back. I think I’m open-minded. I listen to what they have to say. As far as making adjustments, I’ll try to make it and if it doesn’t work for me, I’ll sit down and talk with the coach or the bullpen catcher.”

He has gradually opened up to his teammates during his many years in Japan, saying that is one of the things responsible for his success in the NPB.

“When I first came here I wasn’t able, or maybe kind of timid, to approach the catcher or someone and just talk baseball,” Sikorski said. “Whereas now, I sit down in the bullpen and talk to some of the young pitchers. After every outing, I talk with (Toru) Hosokawa or (Tatsuyuki) Uemoto and tell them what I’m thinking and I want to hear what they’re thinking.

“When you open up your mind like that and are able to take bits and pieces from people, it makes it a less stressful situation.”

Now a little older and a little wiser, the wily veteran has learned the ins and outs of pitching in Japan.

“You just have to battle,” Sikorski said. “If a guy breaks his bat and bloops one down the left-field line, you have to stay focused. Pitch to pitch. It’s a cliche, ‘You know I have to take it pitch for pitch.’ In all honesty, that’s it.

“Sometimes you’re going to make a great pitch and they’re going hit it. Then you hang something, and they swing through it. So you just have to be mentally prepared pitch by pitch. You’re going to have rough outings, but it’s baseball. . . . Forget yesterday and worry about today.”