The Panda is living amongst the Tigers in Osaka.
At least that’s how the Hanshin Tigers and their fans refer to the team’s newest addition, first baseman Jason Rogers. When it’s not “Panda,” his nickname, it’s “Rogers,” and the East Point, Georgia, native wonders, somewhat jokingly, if anyone even knows his first name. Then again, he’s still learning all of theirs, not to mention how to pronounce names comprised of sounds so foreign to him.
It was only July 1 that the Tigers signed Rogers to help in the pursuit of their first Central League pennant since 2005 and first Japan Series title since 1985. The 29-year-old former Pittsburgh Pirates infielder was playing for that team’s Triple-A affiliate in Indianapolis a few weeks ago. Now he’s getting used to life on the other side of the world.
“My sleep schedule is still a little bit off, but it’s getting better,” Rogers told The Japan Times. “I try to get my sleep here and there. I don’t know if I’m ever going to get used to the humidity here. But just playing and the work we put in everyday, I’ve kind of gotten used to that. I’m glad to be here.”
Because he came over in the middle of the season, Rogers has had to make adjustments on the fly, especially when it comes to facing Japanese pitching.
“It’s nothing different than what I’ve faced,” he said. “They don’t throw as hard. So I can’t get geared up for 94, 95 (mph) always. I really have to sit on more breaking balls, which I really haven’t done in a while. It’s not bad, I’m just making my adjustments as I go.”
He’s played in 23 games so far, and is hitting .263 with four home runs and 17 RBIs.
“The timing, the pitchers’ motions, it’s kind of throwing me off a little, but I’ve gotten used to it,” Rogers said. “Funny thing is, I feel like I’ve gotten used to the Japanese, but I’ve kind of lost my timing with the American pitchers. I’m just getting used to how they go about their business.”
Rogers, who played three seasons in MLB with the Pirates and Milwaukee Brewers, had thought about playing in Japan prior to getting the call from the Tigers. Once he did, other players he knew told him he’d love it.
“When I heard (Rogers was coming to Japan), I thought it was good,” said Yomiuri Giants closer Arquimedes Caminero, a former Pittsburgh Pirates teammate. “I thought it was good for him to get another opportunity.”
Rogers is playing without the benefit of having been able to get acclimated to Japan during spring training. So not only has he stepped into a new culture where everyone speaks a different language, but into a clubhouse environment that’s already fully formed with players who have already forged relationships and have chemistry. But Rogers says the Tigers have embraced him, which has helped make the transition easier.
“They’ve opened their arms to me, let me be a part of the family here, and welcomed me and helped me adjust,” he said.
Having other former major leaguers around, like Randy Messenger, Kyuji Fujikawa and Kosuke Fukudome, has also helped.
“Those three guys I’ve spoken to a lot,” Rogers said. “I talk to Kosuke a little bit, he helps me out on the offensive side. Messenger has been helping me out in total, he and Fujikawa have been helping me out with everything. They tell me how it’s going to be, what we’re going to do, what to expect. It’s been very helpful.”
One thing that’s been familiar in the clubhouse is his nickname, Panda, which was given to him during his Pirates days. Apparently once the Tigers found out they ran with it, to the point some fans hold up panda signs when Rogers is at the plate.
“I guess they (his U.S. teammates) feel like my mannerisms are like a panda,” he said. “I do like to sleep.
“I’ve had quite a few nicknames throughout my career, but with the Pirates it was Panda or Big Bear. They told them about Panda over here, and everybody’s been running with it. That’s all they call me. They might not even know my first name,” he joked.
Off the field, Rogers is embracing being in Japan, saying he doesn’t want to waste the opportunity of experiencing another country. When possible, he ventures out to sightsee and shop around the area he lives in. He’d like to see more of the country next year, hopefully with Hanshin.
“Hopefully the opportunity presents itself,” he said. “I want to help the team win. They brought me here to help them win. I love winning, it helps everything. Hopefully we win and play until late October.”