Fire in veteran Miyamoto still burning strong


Staff Writer

There were a handful of NPB players in their 40s last season, and they performed at varying states of effectiveness.

A few pieced together respectable seasons, but the majority didn’t add much to their respective clubs.

The outlier of the 40-and-over set was the Tokyo Yakult Swallows’ Shinya Miyamoto, a steady contributor all season.

“I think I practiced really hard when I was younger and that’s aided my longevity,” Miyamoto told The Japan Times. “(Hanshin Tigers veteran Tomoaki) Kanemoto is another who practices a lot. You’re better off practicing hard early than to start practicing all of sudden once you get old. I don’t know if it’s appropriate to say, but my battery is definitely running out, but I’ve got the techniques to make up for it. I can’t beat out the younger guys in terms of the physical strength any more.”

Miyamoto, who turned 41 on Nov. 5, 2011, appeared in 136 games last season, batting .302 and driving in 35 runs. The third baseman was even more impressive in the field, becoming the oldest NPB player to win a Golden Glove, surpassing Sadaharu Oh’s record of 40 years and 5 months set in 1980.

“Well, you don’t really get credit for your fielding as you get older, so I was very pleased,” he said. “Originally I made it here because of my fielding, so I was pretty happy.”

What the veteran infielder wasn’t happy about was the way Yakult ended the season. The Swallows led the Central League for most of the year, but faded down the stretch, allowing the eventual Central League champion Chunichi Dragons to chase them down in October.

“We ended up with some injured players and have to admit we didn’t have enough physical strength to play throughout the whole year because we stalled,” Miyamoto said. “So we increased the volume of our practices and we’ve been working on that since spring camp started.

“We don’t know what kind of result we’ll get, but I think we are headed in a good direction.”

The Swallows will be pushing forward without star outfielder Norichika Aoki, who was posted and signed with the Milwaukee Brewers over the offseason.

Aoki was a dynamic player during his heyday with the team, but Miyamoto doesn’t feel losing him will hurt the team’s quest to win the pennant too much.

“We don’t really have any dejected feelings because Aoki left,” Miyamoto said. “As far as our fielding and base-running, (Tsuyoshi) Ueda will probably fill the hole. He’s definitely better in terms of fielding and base-running.

“As for hitting, Aoki won the batting title three times, and it certainly hurts us a little, but overall, I don’t think we have a big void. We play as a team and have to win games with defense. This Yakult team is a team that wants to be ahead of opponents at the end of games. We kind of did that last year, and if we play a few more games like that, I believe we have a chance to win the championship.”

A championship would be a great note for Miyamoto to go out on.

Taken in the second round of the 1994 draft, Miyamoto made his pro debut in 1995 against the Chunichi Dragons. He won his first Golden Glove as a shortstop in 1997, then won four more (1999-2003) at that position and three as a third baseman (2009-2011).

Yakult won the Japan Series in Miyamoto’s rookie season, and the Osaka native was a regular by the time the team won again in 1997 and 2001.

Miyamoto enters his 18th professional season with 1,975 hits, putting him on track to reach the 2,000 — which merits induction into the “Meikyukai,” or “Golden Players Club” — early this year.

“That’s something I never imagined I would reach when I became a professional,” Miyamoto said. “I’m extremely surprised myself. As there are so many great players’ names on the list, and my ability isn’t on par with theirs, it feels weird to me. At the same time, I’m very honored.”

He’ll take his first step toward that goal when the Swallows’ quest to finish what they started in 2011 begins in their regular-season opener against the Yomiuri Giants on Friday.

Staff writer Kaz Nagatsuka contributed to this report.