For Eric Campbell, some introductions in Japan have to come with an explanation. Because it’s not everyday you run into a guy who answers to ‘Soup.’
“They don’t really get it here, they ask why,” the Hanshin Tigers infielder said of some of the people he’s come across in Japan. “It’s kind of funny explaining it to them. I just try to explain that Campbell’s is a company of soup. I think everyone in the States with the last name Campbell has the nickname Soup. It’s something that people in college started calling me. A baseball nickname that ends up sticking.”
Now that he’s finally reached the ichi-gun level, Campbell is hoping he’ll be sticking with the Tigers much in the same way his quirky nickname has stuck with him.
The 30-year-old is in his first season in Japan and still trying to get into the swing of things. He hasn’t exactly had the smoothest of starts to his NPB career. After breaking camp with the rest of the Tigers on Feb. 1, Campbell was sidelined from Feb. 16-18 with viral gastroenteritis. He was forced off the field again after injuring his wrist during an intrasquad game a little over a week later. He was diagnosed with inflammation in his left wrist and it was March before he was taking fielding practice again.
The wrist injury ultimately kept him off the Tigers’ opening day roster. He was called up to the top team on April 25, and has been trying to get caught up as quickly as possible.
“It was just a tough time to get injured,” Campbell said. “I think spring training would’ve been really good for me to learn how the game is played and see some Japanese pitching. To try to rush myself back and get on the field, my game is probably a little bit rusty right now. I’m just trying to get up to speed as quickly as I can.”
Campbell has appeared in seven of the Tigers’ 30 ichi-gun contests. He’s 5-for-20 with a double and two RBIs. Campbell didn’t seek out much advice about Japanese baseball before arriving this year and has been taking a crash course in all things NPB since touching down in Japan.
“It was different than anything I’d ever been a part of baseball-wise,” he said. “The game is played completely different. The pitching is a little bit different, the way they bunt and put pressure on the defense is different. I didn’t talk to a whole lot of people before I came. I talked to a couple of guys who told me kind of what to expect and got some good advice.
“The way they pitch is pretty different. The ball just comes in differently off a Japanese pitcher’s hand. A big thing in the United States is spin rate now. I think their spin rate is very good here. So even though they throw 86-90 (mph, 138-145 kph) it looks quicker and it gets on you a little bit.”
Coming to Japan was a challenge Campbell sought out for himself after years of bouncing up and down in the New York Mets’ organization. He made 196 appearances for the Mets from 2014-16 and has seven home runs and 44 RBIs to his name in the major leagues.
“I came here just to kind of get a change of scenery a little bit, I guess is the best way to describe it,” Campbell said. “I spent nine years with the same organization and I thought this year was a good year to try something new. Baseball-wise, I thought it was a good chance for me to get a lot of at-bats. I spent the last three years really just pinch hitting and playing once a week or so. My game got a little bit rusty and I thought this would be a good way to get back going.”
Now he’s just trying to adapt to everything. Among all the adjustments he’s made, one of the biggest has been in the clubhouse, where his interactions with teammates have been largely shaped by the lack of a shared language.
“That’s the hardest part I think, the language barrier,” he said. “My whole life, I’ve been one to talk to people in the clubhouse and on the field. I just gotta keep my mouth shut the whole time here, because nobody understands what I’m saying. But the coaches have been nice to me, and they say ‘whatever you want to talk about, we can talk about.’ But the only thing is you need an interpreter and all that.
“The team has been really good to me, and so far it’s been a lot of fun.”