Pitcher Carter Stewart, last season's history-making signing for the Pacific League's Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks, is learning to make the most of his eye-opening opportunity to play in Japan while dealing with the constraints imposed by the coronavirus pandemic.
In a joint interview with Kyodo News and the Japan Baseball Weekly Podcast to be released Sunday, Stewart, the eighth overall pick in Major League Baseball's June 2018 amateur draft, said he has gotten even more than he expected when he signed a six-year deal with the powerhouse Hawks.
The warmth of the fans, the cultural experience, the quality of the baseball and his interactions with veteran players have all turned what looked like a good opportunity into the chance of a lifetime he hopes others take advantage of in the future.
Stewart joined the Hawks after turning down an offer from the Atlanta Braves, who cited injury concerns as the rationale for their low-ball offer.
"With the timing, the way everything happened back in the States with me, everything just came together and gave me an opportunity to do something overseas and do something groundbreaking," the 20-year-old Stewart said. "I really like trying new things and going down paths people haven't done before."
After bringing Stewart along slowly in 2019, Hawks general manager Sugihiko Mikasa said the organization expects Stewart to make his mark with the big club this year.
"Both manager Kimiyasu Kudo and the coaches believe he should be able to contribute on the big league team this year," Mikasa told the podcast.
Stewart got through a nervous debut in a March practice game against the PL-rival Chiba Lotte Marines at the Hawks' home park with no fans in the stands.
"It was a step up for me to get to face these guys," he said of a game in which his poor command contrasted with a hard-running fastball and the big curve that was his calling card as an amateur. "In the end, the thing that stood out for me was I was able to work out of situations. I got myself stuck in situations and I got out over and over."
Since Stewart arrived, he has been overwhelmed by the fans' response and his teammates' welcome, and said that while practices are long, being a professional means fewer distractions limiting the amount of work he wants to get in.
"There are days when I'm like, 'I can't even believe I'm doing this.' And then I get to the baseball stuff and I realize how hard it is, the different training style," he said.
"When we're together, practicing normally…I have the guys to motivate me to get better. Right now (due to the coronavirus), I'm definitely learning a little bit more about motivating myself and getting better by myself."
Although Stewart is still far down the Hawks' depth chart, the small community of imported players has brought him into contact with veteran players.
Hawks teammates Matt Moore, Rick van den Hurk and Dennis Sarfate all pitched in the majors. Moore is new to Japan, but has started 151 major league games, while van den Hurk has had success in Japan and was an ERA and strikeout leader in South Korea. Sarfate's 234 career saves are fifth all-time in Nippon Professional Baseball.
"Being around them has taught me a lot about the game of baseball," Stewart said. "Just seeing every day what they do, the way they work, their ability, what they went through in the States, what they went through here, Vandy (van den Hurk) what he went through in Korea."
Stewart said Sarfate, NPB's 2017 MVP has encouraged him to use this time to not only maintain but improve and get better because that's what his rivals were doing.
"Maybe because I'm a foreigner I have a little bit of a special privilege," Stewart said. "But that guy wants to beat you out no matter what."
Many will point out, of course, that pro baseball in Japan is not identical to baseball in the major leagues. The playing style is different and Japan's talent level is not quite as deep, but the commitment in Japan to executing the game is unsurpassed.
Stewart admitted that learning Japan's system is a challenge but emphasized that focusing exclusively on doing his own thing would leave him on the outside looking in.
"I think that's the biggest thing if anybody else wants to come over here at my age or…older," he said. "Once they know you want to be a part of their culture, and you want to be a part of their baseball…they'll want to learn with you and want to help you learn."
"If I came over here and it was only worrying about (my) baseball, and I wasn't worrying about anything else, I would have no chance to succeed," he said.
And if he succeeds, other amateurs may follow and develop elite skills in a much better environment than what's offered in American minor league baseball.
"I realize not everything's perfect here, but compared to playing in the States, I feel like everything is better here than it was in the States at the time," he said, while alluding that recent MLB moves to further reduce American amateurs' options have made turning pro in Japan look better still.
And now, he said, it's up to him to use this opportunity, and push it as far as he can.
"My goal being here is to show…they made the right decision to sign me at such a young age and help develop me," Stewart said. "Prove to the people in the States that I was healthy even when I was 17 and 18 and they thought I wasn't."
"I think the baseball is fantastic over here. I really enjoy the fan base. I enjoy the people. I enjoy everything about it, so what is the driving factor for me to go back home? Maybe at some point I'll have an opportunity to go back to the States, but I have no restraints for staying over here until I'm 50."