The hype surrounding Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters rookie Yuki Saito has just been phenomenal.
From the grand entrance-to-the-team ceremony for the former high school and college pitching star at Sapporo Dome before 8,000 fans on Dec. 9, to the atmosphere at the Fighters’ spring training site, the excitement is sky high.
He is on the cover of every preseason baseball magazine in Japan, and his name has appeared in headlines on Japanese sports papers on numerous occasions since the Fighters won his draft rights in November.
I checked it out first hand with a visit to the Nippon Ham camp last week in northern Okinawa, and the Saito spectacle is having a booming effect on the local economy there. All the hotels in the town of Nago were said to be booked throughout the duration of the workouts which began Feb. 1 and conclude with Sunday’s exhibition game against the Rakuten Eagles.
The Nago site is about a 75-minute drive from Naha and is near the Okinawa Ocean Expo Park, and the surroundings at the ballpark gave fans the feeling of being at an expo or a festival.
Shuttle buses ran in a continuous circle; pulling into a lot adjacent the stadium, dropping off full loads of passengers carrying cameras and autograph boards, then leaving as the next bus drove up with another crowd.
A Guardian Angels-style detail, complete with red berets and jackets, patrolled the area to maintain security and order.
Among those at the camp that day were former Fighters general manager and Yakult Swallows field manager Shigeru Takada, ex-Rakuten manager and current Fuji-TV commentator Yasushi Tao, NTV analyst Kiyoshi Nakahata and one-time San Francisco Giants, Chicago Cubs and Kansas City Royals pitcher Al Hargesheimer, now working as a scout for Nippon Ham.
There was a rumor Saito might be pitching an inning that day (Feb. 16) in a practice game against the Hanshin Tigers, so there was a nice crowd on hand to watch in case he was to make his second appearance, but he did not take the mound that afternoon.
Had he come out to warm up in the bullpen down the right-field line, there most likely would have been a mob scene in the stands along the fence on the first-base side, with fans trying to get close and snap off a photo.
The biggest Saito news to that point had been made on Feb. 13 when he threw an inning in a practice game against South Korea’s Samsung Lions.
Fighters manager Masataka Nashida put in the rookie to face the Nos. 2, 3 and 4 hitters in the Samsung lineup, and he got them out consecutively on a strikeout and two infield grounders.
It will be interesting to see, assuming he is on the first team Opening Day roster, when Saito will make his regular season professional debut. Speculation has it he may start one of the games in the Fighters’ second series of the year. That would be March 29-31 against the Orix Buffaloes at a home game for Nippon Ham — but not in Sapporo.
Tokyo Dome is the venue for that series, and the Fighters would be in a position to take advantage of the publicity and the Pacific League rule making it mandatory for managers to name their starting pitchers by 5 p.m. on the day before each game.
Usually the upper deck is closed for Nippon Ham games at the Big Egg, but you can bet it will be open if Saito is named to take the mound one of those weekday evenings.
They could draw a crowd in excess of 45,000, and it would be reminiscent of the time the Fighters cashed in with a full house at the debut of another highly touted right-hander, but a visiting player.
Then-18-year-old Daisuke Matsuzaka made his first regular season professional appearance for the Seibu Lions against Nippon Ham at Tokyo Dome on April 7, 1999, and more than 44,000 spectators paid to see that one.
Now the Fighters can benefit from one of their own, but can Saito produce results anywhere near as good as his reputation?
Can he stay healthy?
He was scratched from a scheduled Feb. 19 appearance in an intrasquad game at Nago because of “stress,” according to the papers.
How will Saito cope with the rigors of the pro game?
As we know, with pitchers, stuff happens. Arms get tired, elbows become inflamed, rotator cuffs tear, shoulders get strained. Hopefully, Saito will not encounter any of these problems any time soon.
All the buildup surrounding Saito reminds me of when Daisuke Araki, another promising right-hander and the No. 1 draft choice of the Yakult Swallows in 1983, broke in during the 1984 season.
Unlike college grad Saito, Araki came straight from high school but, like Saito, had a big throng of supporters and was expected to become a great professional pitcher.
Instead, Araki struggled though 13 seasons, winning only 39 while losing 49 with Yakult and a brief stint at the end of his career with the Yokohama BayStars. His work as a pitching coach with Seibu and now as mound mentor and chief coach with Yakult is more prominent than was his pitching.
I don’t expect Saito to fail, and I surely want him to succeed. No pun intended, but he will be a shot in the arm for Japanese baseball if he can achieve on the mound what the team has accomplished in the public relations department.
Contact Wayne Graczyk at:wayne@JapanBall.com
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