Brandon Laird was on his way back to the clubhouse after practice on Saturday when he spotted a young boy looking down on him from the stands. The boy wore a yellow shirt and black-rimmed glasses and a baseball glove covered one of his hands. He offered a small wave as Laird looked up and noticed him.
From Laird’s position, he could read the white letters on the underside of the brim of the boy’s hat. It read “Laird 5.”
The Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters third baseman stopped and exchanged a brief greeting with the child before heading through the door at Zozo Marine Field in Chiba. He was back a few minutes later, clutching a bat he later passed through the net to the woman the child stood with, and thanked the boy for cheering for him.
For Laird, it was a throwback to his own childhood spent watching baseball and idolizing those who played the game.
“It’s what makes it exciting,” Laird told The Japan Times. “To see how excited they get when they see their players. It reminds me of when I was a kid. I was doing same thing, being decked out in all the gear and yelling out to all the players for their autographs, it was cool.”
Laird’s older brother Gerald spent 13 seasons in the majors, so he spent a lot of time around MLB clubhouses. But he was a fan first, and had players who stood out to him.
“Growing up, I’d have to say Chipper Jones, he said. “He’s probably my all-time favorite. He was a switch hitter, he played third base. Eric Chavez with the A’s, I loved him. More so, I just loved baseball. I didn’t really have favorite players, I had a couple, but I just liked watching the game and all the teams. It was just something I loved watching.”
Laird is in his fourth season in Japan and has built quite a following in that time. He’s perhaps most famous for his sushi pose, which he does after home runs. The move, in which he mimics preparing sushi by holding out one hand as if he’s cupping rice and tapping his palm with the index and middle fingers of the other, sparked a fan craze in Hokkaido, aided largely by Laird’s propensity to hit homers, of which he had 109 entering Wednesday’s game.
The Cypress, California, native shook his head and smiled at the thought of having endeared himself to a fan base on the other side of the world.
“I see it all over Japan,” Laird said. “You see a kid wearing a Brandon Laird hat or a jersey, it definitely puts a smile on my face. It makes you feel good. I’m coming all the way from another country, and he has a lot of great Japanese players here and chooses to wear my jersey and be my fan. It’s kind of special.
“I think we were in Yokohama during the All-Star game last year . . . We were walking around and these guys kept looking at their phone, like ‘I think that’s him.’ And it was the baseball (video) game, and they came up to me and they showed me I was on their team and everything. It was a Japanese game. Stuff like that, it’s cool. To be in the Japanese video games and have the fan base that I do, it’s cool.”
For Laird, it’s just part of the experience that has come with playing in Japan the past few years. Since 2015, he’s been part of a Japan Series winner (and was the MVP of that series), won a home run title and been an All-Star twice. He said he’s genuinely loved his time in Hokkaido playing in front of the fans in Sapporo.
“It’s been an unbelievable experience, and not just from a baseball standpoint,” he said. “Getting a chance to play baseball in Japan, do what I love, it’s awesome. But just to experience living in Japan, getting to know the culture and the people and the food, that’s something I’m going to be able to tell my kids one day. ‘Me and your mom got a chance to live in Japan for four or five or six-plus years.’ Japan will always have a place in our heart. We always talk about once we’re done here, we’ll probably come back just to visit. We definitely love it here.”