Rays outfielder Zobrist gets crash course in Japanese baseball culture

Japan tour teammates gain positive impressions at clinic

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

They play the game with the same rules on the same diamond. But how they develop their game based on practice looks to be a little different between Japan and the United States.

Before Saturday’s Game 3 of the MLB-Japan All-Star Series, Tampa Bay Rays outfielder Ben Zobrist was closely observing the Japan’s fielding practice with a curious look, standing in front of his own dugout at Tokyo Dome.

“Nothing specific,” Zobrist said before Game 4, asked what he was watching. “(But) I like watching good baseball, good players. I saw guys at third base. They were using catcher’s mitts. So I thought that was interesting because you don’t see that a lot (in the United States).”

Perhaps Zobrist was aware, but those Japanese players were actually catchers. It’s a common scene that the catchers take the field like that in the NPB.

Zobrist also noticed that the Japanese players get serious, focusing on their workouts and practices. For example, he said that the fielders were throwing balls hard, which they don’t do back in the States.

“A lot of times, (in) American baseball, before the game, you don’t throw hard,” Zobrist said. “You don’t throw that hard and they are throwing the ball hard, so it’s cool to see their effort that they put into the game even before the game, in the practice.”

Overall, Japanese baseball is more “regimented” and “team-oriented,” Zobrist said of his impression.

When this interview was held, the Japanese players were stretching in front of their bench. And while watching it, Zobrist was surprised to see how identical they were moving.

“Everybody’s doing the exact same thing, they are all stretching in the same way,” said the native of Eureka, Illinois. “In the United States, before a game, it’s not like everybody’s stretching in the same way. We are stretching at the same time, but in different ways. I guess they are team-oriented. It’s more individual-oriented in the Unites States.”

Meanwhile, the children in Japan and the U.S. do things differently in their practices as well, and some of the big leaguers admired how the Japanese kids worked to raise their performance.

On Sunday morning, Baltimore Orioles pitcher Tommy Hunter, Pittsburgh Pirates reliever Mark Melancon and New York Mets slugger Lucas Duda held a baseball clinic for Japanese children at a batting cage called Under Armour Baseball House Kawasaki Kuji.

Hunter and Melancon instructed pitchers, while Duda gave them some tips on hitting. As much as the Samurai Japan players seriously tackle their practices, the local kids were eager to absorb what the three major leaguers taught them. (Hunter responded with enthusiasm. He was yelling like, “Otani!” and “Next Yu Darvish!” to them)

“It was more fun for us players than the kids themselves,” said Duda, who hit a career-high 30 homers in 2014. “They are an extremely talented group. They listened well, respectful, can’t say enough about them.”

Melancon seemed to have been impressed with the kids’ skill levels, which he thought were a lot higher than he’d expected.

“The kids are very skilful,” Melancon said. “You know, typical 8- to 12-year-olds don’t usually have any idea what they are doing, you know. But these kids are ahead of the curve.”

And like Duda, Melancon admired their discipline and enthusiasm for the game.

“I think their discipline is better (than those in the U.S.),” Melancon said. “They have willingness to learn and listen. I think from my cultural standpoint, it’s a lot better.”

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