TOKOROZAWA, Saitama Pref. — The stairs must have seemed endless.
Jose Fernandez had just helped the Saitama Seibu Lions overcome the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters 7-0 on Thursday, done a hero interview and taken a victory lap.
Now the mountainous flight of green stairs — which stretches from the field to just under the box-seat level — that the player of the game climbs in order to interact with fans, was the last obstacle standing in the way of a well-deserved rest.
“I forgot how beautiful those stairs are after the hero interview,” a weary Fernandez joked in front of the Seibu clubhouse. “It’s good though, it’s good.”
Fernandez and the Lions are together again after five years apart, and the slugger is hoping to make his return to Tokorozawa a triumphant one.
“I’m happy to be back,” Fernandez said. “Especially since the fans have been so welcoming since I’ve been back.”
A litany of injuries, including an elbow ailment that may sideline the team’s home run leader, Takeya Nakamura, until August, led the Lions to turn to Fernandez for help.
Added to the team in late June, Fernandez is making a late start to his eighth season in Japan. He began his career in the NPB with the Chiba Lotte Marines in 2003, then spent the next two seasons with the Lions.
Fernandez signed with the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles in 2006, spending three seasons there before playing out 2009 with the Orix Buffaloes.
He began his second stint with Seibu on Wednesday night, going 0-for-4 in the Lions’ 3-2 win over the Fighters. He drove in a pair of runs with a run-scoring single and an RBI double in his second game back.
“I thought it would take a bit more time for him to regain his game,” Lions manager Hisanobu Watanabe said. “It was reassuring.
“What we expect from him is to come up with RBIs for us.”
After one good night, Fernandez was hardly ready to rest on his laurels.
“There’s no relaxing in this game,” Fernandez said. “I don’t want to relax. I just want to go out and play hard every day. I don’t believe I’m back. Baseball is played every day. You’ve got to go out there every night and try to do a better job.”
Fernandez remembers a lot of faces from his first go-round with the Lions, many of whom are still with the team. The only difference is they’ve gotten a lot better since he last saw them.
“Even though I left, I’ve been playing against them,” Fernandez said. “I saw how these kids were growing into great players. Which I knew they were going to be because I played with them when they were young. So they were going to get better.
“That’s what I was noticing. They kept getting better and better. You’ve got guys like (Yasuyuki) Kataoka, (Hiroyuki) Nakajima, (Takumi) Kuriyama and Nakamura. All those guys, when I was here, they were young kids, but they had a lot of talent. So they’ve just gotten better.”
They might have been kids then, but the 35-year-old was the one feeling like a youngster when they gave him the ball after his first hit and RBI of his second stint with the team.
“Yeah for my ‘first’ hit in Japan,” he joked. “I got it. The guys got it for me. Like I’m a rookie. But that’s fine. I’ll take it.”