Baseball / MLB

D-Backs trying to set up roots in Japan

by Jason Coskrey

Staff Writer

Takashi Saito, a former major leaguer and currently a reliever for the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, announced his intention to retire from baseball at the end of the year on Monday in Sendai. It was a happy coincidence Saito’s news conference was the same day members from the front office of the Arizona Diamondbacks, the last of Saito’s five MLB stops, were scheduled to be in the area, so that he was able to greet them at Sendai Station.

Saito, who Arizona team president Derrick Hall called “a terrific individual,” is so far the only Japanese player to have played for the Diamondbacks. Arizona wants more Saitos, more players who can connect the team with Japan.

The NL West club hasn’t been shy about trying to make inroads in the country. Recently Hall, 2015 Baseball Hall of Fame inductee Randy Johnson, 2001 World Series hero Luis Gonzalez, chief baseball officer Tony La Russa and senior vice president of communications Josh Rawitch traveled to Japan on a goodwill tour.

“For us, we’ve always looked to be identified with someone in Japan,” Hall told The Japan Times on Thursday. “We’re still hoping to find that talent one day. It’s a dream of mine personally to have a Japanese player in a D-Back uniform, as well as a Mexican-born player who can have an impact. Because I’ve seen what a difference that makes having grown up and cut my own teeth in the Dodgers organization all those years. Of course I was around during the time of Nomo-san and Nomomania and that was electric.”

The group saw a pair of potential targets during their trip, getting a chance to watch both the Hiroshima Carp’s Kenta Maeda and the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters’ Shohei Otani pitch.

“Maeda showed that he’s very experienced, has a full repertoire of pitches, very good with location, and is never fazed,” Hall said. “A very polished pitcher who you can tell lives off of location and outsmarting the hitter.

“Otani is very raw and he’s so talented. He’s got great velocity. We were impressed with his velocity, his split-finger, his curveball, which looked like a 12-to-6, and just how composed he was as well.”

Hall said the Diamondbacks will be aggressive in regard to Japanese talent (as well as players from other areas) moving forward. He acknowledged the challenges of the new posting system (which allows players to negotiate with any team that will pay the posting fee) but expects to be in the hunt for star players.

“It makes it more difficult for teams like us in smaller markets,” Hall said. “When we write that big a check, we cannot miss. We’ve gotta be right. We went aggressively and firmly after (Masahiro) Tanaka, and we came very close. We were told we came in second for Tanaka-san. We showed we were willing to commit a lot of money toward him. Because we believe when you’re talking about a player, in particular a pitcher who can be at the front end of your rotation, that’s impact. Otani certainly seems to be developing into that as well. So we would have to take a chance on a player like that.

“For players that we think can make a huge impact on our roster, absolutely we’re going to be aggressive.”

The trip to Japan wasn’t a scouting endeavor, Hall says, but more of a way to entrench the Arizona brand in Japan and also connect with NPB clubs.

“Naturally we were hoping to see Otani and Maeda, and that was great, but this was more of a promise that we made to return every two or three years,” Hall said. “We’ve now established really strong relationships with executives from really every team.”

The group also participated in clinics at the MLB Road Show and interacted with NPB officials, players and fans, including Fukuoka Softbank Hawks manager Kimiyasu Kudo, Johnson’s friend from their days working out in the same facility in Arizona during some offseasons.

“We want to continue to have strong relationships with the front office guys here,” Gonzalez said. “It’s important for us to continue to come here.”

Gonzalez also got a kick out of meeting Japanese legend Sadaharu Oh in Fukuoka.

“For me it was a thrill of a lifetime to be around one of the greatest hitters, not just in Japan baseball, but in all of baseball,” Gonzalez said. “He’s a man that’s well respected throughout the world of baseball.”

If the goal was also to build awareness among Japanese fans, Arizona hit a home run by bringing Johnson.

“It’s been incredible,” Gonzalez said. “Going around town, especially with Randy, the fans go crazy for him, so it’s been a lot of fun.”

The Big Unit remains very popular with Japanese fans, and crowds swarmed him whenever the group was out in public.

“I’ve always enjoyed coming here,” Johnson said. “Of all the places I’ve traveled around the world, I’ve been to Japan the most. People are extremely friendly, very courteous and baseball is a very big sport here.”

The Diamondbacks hope many of the fans they met eventually turn into Arizona fans, or at least, that their trip has them on the map in Japan, a market Hall regards with great importance.

“It’s been nice for us to have an identity now,” Hall said. “I don’t think the Japanese baseball fans really knew about the Diamondbacks, other than having won the World Series in 2001. So for us to be able to come here and really plant our flag in the ground, take part in clinics, a media tour, goodwill tour, I think it’s letting them know that we are committed to Japan, we’re committed to international baseball and we would like to make an impact in this country.”