There has been a certain amount of pizazz associated with Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters center fielders the last several seasons.
First there was Tsuyoshi Shinjo, who was all perfect white teeth and style. Shinjo was over the top in just about everything he did; accenting his uniform with colorful wristbands and shoes, and sometimes collared undershirts; wearing costumes during warmups; donning a belt with a scrolling LED message on the field during an All-Star game and using wires to descend from the Sapporo Dome ceiling before a game in 2006.
Maybe more amazing than his various exploits is that Shinjo somehow also found the time to be a really good player.
He retired after the Fighters won the 2006 Japan Series, which allowed Hichori Morimoto to move into his spot and assume the No. 1 uniform.
Morimoto was somewhat eccentric like Shinjo, though he was more joker than baseball cover model. Morimoto also liked to don costumes at times and just generally have a good time when the situation warranted.
The two playfully faced each other during a first-pitch ceremony before a Fighters road game against the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks in 2008, with Shinjo on the pitcher’s mound (complete with a gold glove, and a Hawks uniform with a picture of his face instead of a number on the back) and Morimoto batting. Morimoto grounded out.
Nippon Ham’s current center fielder, Daikan Yoh, who switched from No. 24 to No. 1 in 2013 and is not without a small bit of flair himself, chuckles at the memory of his predecessors.
“Both Shinjo-san and Hichori-san meant a lot to me and I’d like to play in a way that won’t disgrace the No. 1,” Yoh told The Japan Times. “At the same time, I’m having fun, and that’s the happiest feeling for a baseball player.”
Yoh is entering his fourth season with the team and may be on the precipice of becoming one of the top players in Japan.
Hitting mostly out of the leadoff spot, Yoh played in all 144 games last season, hitting .282 with 67 RBIs and a .797 on-base plus slugging percentage. He very nearly had a 20-20 year, leading Japan with 47 stolen bases and hitting 18 home runs.
“I would like to go for it for sure, Yoh said. “What I want to do is reach the number 20 first, then aim for 30 (homers) and .300 from there. That’s the goal I want to achieve and I’m hoping to get as close to it as possible.”
This might just be the year the Taiwanese native, known as Yang Dai-kang in his homeland, gets there. While he didn’t post the best numbers during the spring, the 27-year-old says he’s ready for the regular season. “I feel like I’ve tuned up pretty well,” he said. “Now, I need to get a little bit more of a feel for the game.”
Yoh moved to Japan at the age of 15 and played baseball at Fukuoka Daiichi High School. He was the Fighters’ first pick in the 2005 draft and made his regular-season debut April, 20, 2007.
Yoh was used sparingly until 2010, when he appeared in 109 games. He played 141 the next year, and has appeared in every game since 2012, holding down a .281 average since 2011. Yoh was an All-Star in 2012, and a Golden Glove winner each of the past two seasons.
Should Yoh maintain or improve upon last year’s power numbers without losing any of his prowess on the basepaths, he could vault himself into the elite class of NPB players with his mix of speed, power and defensive ability.
There have been other players with similar skills who were later swayed by the allure of the major leagues, including Shinjo, whose stint with Nippon Ham followed three years in MLB, but Yoh hasn’t looked that far ahead yet.
“Right now, I’m not thinking about it at all,” Yoh said. “I know what I can do, and right now I’m just hoping I can be the best that I can be in Japan. So I’m not thinking of the majors at all. I’m focused on Japan.”
Specifically his focus is on helping the Fighters bounce back after bringing up the rear in the Pacific League last season.
One year removed from winning the pennant in 2012, Nippon Ham sank to a 64-78-2 record in 2013, finishing 18½ games out of first place.
“We would certainly like to do better this year,” Yoh said. “As far as myself, I want to play without changing my style, with is playing with energy and giving the team a boost. I want the team to play with a lot of energy and enjoy the game.”
Staff writer Kaz Nagatsuka contributed to this report.