Yomiuri Giants reliever Tetsuya Yamaguchi, for some reason, thought he could get away with a first-pitch, 128-kph slider over the outside of the plate against Jonny Gomes.
A few seconds later, Gomes, the newest member of the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, was jogging around the bases as the throng of Eagles fans in the left-field stands, where the three-run home run ball landed, were voicing their approval.
It was an emphatic return to Tokyo Dome for Gomes, who also faced the Giants in an exhibition in 2012. He was a member of the Oakland Athletics then, preparing for the MLB season opener against the Seattle Marines at the Big Egg (he homered during that series). Gomes’ season begins in Japan again this year, the major difference being that it won’t be for a cameo but an entire campaign.
“I was always interested in playing in different places,” Gomes told The Japan Times. “I chose on my own to go to winter ball (in Mexico in 2005) and I chose on my own to come here. It wasn’t like my last resort. This is 100 percent my decision, I wasn’t forced upon it. That being said, I’m happy to be here.”
Gomes was one of the most notable signings of the NPB offseason. He’s a two-time World Series winner who spent 13 years in MLB, where he hit 162 homers and drove in 526 runs. He has a career .769 on-base plus slugging percentage and 3.3 WAR (according to Baseball Reference) in MLB.
The 35-year-old finalized a one-year deal with the Eagles Feb. 3, three days after the start of spring camp, and joined his new teammates in Miyazaki on Feb. 23. Since then, it’s been a crash course on the ins and outs of Japanese baseball.
“It’s a lot different,” he said. “I would say, as far as your approach at the plate, in the (United) States, there’s almost like a team-wide approach. Because there’s a pitch count and you want to try and get that starting pitcher’s pitch count up so you can get him out of the game. Over here, there’s not really a pitch count. In the States, it wouldn’t really be a good inning if the pitcher threw four, five, six pitches. You want to work them.
“Over here, you don’t really have to work the pitcher because he’s going to stay out there. You’ll get a guy in the States, he’ll come out of the game in the fifth inning because he’s got 100 (pitches), maybe not giving up any runs.”
Gomes also noted how many Japanese teams work to manufacture runs.
“Obviously there are way more hit-and-run and bunt and speed aspects to the game,” he said. “But I tell you what, at the end of the day, whether here or in the States, whoever has the most runs wins, however you do it.”
Still, the Eagles, who tied for last in the Pacific League with 85 home runs in 2015, could use a little power. Gomes potentially gives Rakuten a replacement for Andruw Jones, who put up good power numbers during his two years with the team in 2013 and 2014. Gomes would certainly help a team that struggled offensively in 2015 and leaned heavily on whatever Zealous Wheeler and Kazuo Matsui could provide.
Gomes gave Eagles fans a taste during spring training, hitting four home runs, tied for second-most in NPB, in 31 open-sen at-bats.
While Gomes is getting used to life on the field in Japan, he’s experiencing new things away from the diamond.
The Petaluma, California, native is known for proudly wearing his patriotism on his sleeve — quite literally in 2014, when he wore an American flag suit to the White House, when U.S. President Barack Obama hosted the 2013 World Series champion Red Sox. Even so, he’s also interested in new places and cultures, saying part of the reason he came to Japan was to expand his “world knowledge.”
“I love the United States, where I was born and raised, but that doesn’t mean I dislike other places by any means,” Gomes said. “I’m very passionate about the States and the military and the history of our country. But it’s funny, I’ve already found myself going to monuments and going to shrines and learning about the history over here.”
Gomes feels his time playing winter ball in Mexico, with Mexicali, will help him adjust to being in a new culture. He says he’s enjoyed the food in Japan, describing himself as a “red meat and potatoes guy,” before praising Japanese beef as “unbelievable.” As far as everything else, he’s keeping things as normal as possible.
“One of the things I’ve always tried to stick to is being myself,” Gomes said. “Don’t change anything because I’m in a different place. Whether I’m in the States, in the minor leagues, in winter ball, in Japan, I’m going to play my style of ball. I think that has been respected.
“When you play the game hard and when you respect the game, that plays pretty much anywhere in the world.”