Although the start of his Japan career was truly forgettable, Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters third baseman Brandon Laird has not forgotten those who helped him get through it.
Laird was named the May winner of the Pacific League’s Player of the Month Award on Tuesday, but despite hitting for power last season, it was anything but a given that he would still be with the Fighters in 2016.
“I was at an all-time low,” Laird said Sunday about the start of his career here in the spring of 2015. “I didn’t know what confidence was. But the team did great helping me get it back. They were patient with me, told me they believed in me. I was their guy at third base and I wasn’t going anywhere.
“It helped me relax a little bit, instead of trying to put too much pressure on myself.”
The 28-year-old played briefly in the majors over three years with the New York Yankees and Houston Astros from 2011-2013, but spent all of 2014 in the minors before the Fighters came calling.
A career .271 hitter in Triple-A, few thought he’d hit for a high average in the pitching-rich PL. Fighters scout Matt Winters, however, believed he would hit for power, which Laird did.
But when Laird was still hitting .183 last June 30, Winters, a popular former slugger with the club, was concerned.
“Heck, I thought I might get fired,” he said.
But Laird pulled out of it, batting .278 with 22 homers from July 1 through the end of the season, leading the Fighters to offer him a contract for 2016.
After getting off to a slow start, again, this April, Laird reached a new high in May, when he batted .326 with 12 homers, scored 19 runs and drove in 21. He started the month on fire, going 8-for-14 with three homers in the first three games.
“I’m kind of superstitious,” he said. “When I wake up in the morning, I try to do the exact same thing if things are going right. Like maybe the way I tie my shoes or something I eat, I eat the same thing. As long as I get a hit, I keep it going. When it stops, I try something new.”
Laird’s home run trademark has been mimicking a sushi chef making sushi as he rounds third base, but he declined to say how much sushi he ate over those three days.
Instead, he preferred to talk about how his manager, Hideki Kuriyama, always reaches out to him. The two had a prolonged animated discussion before Sunday’s interleague game at Tokyo Dome against the Yomiuri Giants.
“He is great at boosting my confidence,” Laird said. “And that really helps.”