SAPPORO - It all began with a dinner.
Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters infielder Brandon Laird was out having dinner in Sapporo one night last year, when the chef delivered a serving of sushi that would spark a movement among Fighters fans.
“I went to dinner and the chef said, ‘this is going to be your good-luck meal, this is going to get you started,’ ” Laird told The Japan Times. “He said if you hit a home run tomorrow you just gotta go like this (mimic making sushi). The next day, I hit a home run and started doing it.”
Now when Laird hits a homer, as he runs the bases he holds out one hand as if he’s cupping rice and taps it with the index and middle fingers of the other hand, as if he has fish and is making sushi. Third- base coach Kazuyuki Shirai usually gets in on the act and mimics the motion as Laird rounds the bases. It wasn’t long before the fans caught on and the sushi craze spread like wildfire.
“Everybody likes it,” said Soya Aoki, who is part of the Fighters’ Baseball Operations Team Management Group and the public relations division. “Sushi is kind of famous in Sapporo. The TV crews put sushi dolls on the cameras, and the sushi pose has kind of become a trademark of his.”
Some fans bring stuffed sushi toys and other sushi-themed items to games. One of the between-inning activities during home games is to have fans mimic the sushi-making motion on the video boards. Laird has often let out a shout of “sushi daisuki (I love sushi)” from the podium during hero interviews, and fans eagerly snatched up T-shirts that were made bearing the phrase (and the other one, with the phrase “sushi power”). When they see him off the field, more than a few call him “sushi boy.”
“Now look at it, it’s huge,” Laird said. “I feel like even Hiroshima fans are doing it. Calling me sushi boy and doing it. I think it’s pretty cool and something I can always remember and look back on in Japan.”
Laird has already brought it to the Japan Series, homering in Game 1 in Hiroshima.
Laird’s sushi-ya (sushi shop) has been busy this year. The 29-year old hit 39 home runs this season to lead the Pacific League. Among all NPB players, he finished behind only the Yokohama BayStars’ Yoshitomo Tsutsugo, who hit 44.
Laird, who is in his second year in Japan, hit .263 during the regular season and drove in 97 runs. He also recorded a .516 slugging percentage that was second best in the PL. He improved on his performance from last season in all three categories and his home-run total was also higher this year.
“I think last year definitely helped,” he said. “This year I had an idea of who I was facing, what they threw and how they pitched me last year. That’s huge. So I had a lot more confidence going into these at-bats this year. I just want to continue to try to have fun, try not to do too much and not put so much pressure on myself.”
Going through a full season gave Laird a blueprint to work with during the offseason. This year he was able to put his experience to good use.
“I feel like last year, they were expanding the zone on me quite a bit and I was swinging at a lot of bad pitches,” Laird said. “This year, I feel like I have a lot better approach. Now I know what these guys are doing, how their pitches are moving and I’m actually laying off their pitches and putting myself in good hitter’s counts and giving myself the best chance to succeed.”
Laird’s success at the plate may have helped him get noticed, but the way he interacts with the fans has helped him stand out with Fighters supporters.
“It’s because of him,” Aoki said of the way the sushi craze has taken off. “He loves chatting with people. He has good character and everyone likes him. I think that’s the reason he’s become so popular doing the sushi pose in Sapporo.”
Laird is hoping to see everyone in the stands making sushi during the next few days, as the Fighters try to dig out of an 0-2 hole in the Japan Series. The Carp’s famously loyal supporters came out in force during the first two games, but Nippon Ham will have the crowd on its side for at least the next two.
“Their fans are great,” Laird said of the Hiroshima crowd. “They’re loud and they’re into the whole game. You know it’s going to be tough.
“We have a big stadium, a lot of fans. They come to support us and they’re just as loud.”