Baseball’s Back

Baseball’s Back

...and it’s brought some familiar old faces with it


Originally published on on March 2010

Courtesy of Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles

One of the best things about baseball is that it officially disappears for a couple of months every winter, while soccer is with us virtually every week of the year. The offseason here follows a familiar pattern. After the draft in October, the Japan Series ends the season and everything shuts down… until the next week, when everyone’s back in training and the media are going nuts about the top draft picks.

This is such a regular occurrence, you might have thought that the media would notice that most rookies don’t actually do much in their first season (with the notable exception of those drafted from quasi-pro company teams). Some of them don’t even get off the farm team. So as the Japan baseball season gets underway, I’m trying not to get too excited about spotty teenager Yusei Kikuchi, the Seibu Lions left-hander who’s being hyped as the next big thing.

Rookiemania will never go away—and, on the early evidence, there’s every indication that 25-year-old Hisayashi Chono of the Yomiuri Giants will be the top rookie this year. But perhaps some of the more interesting stories will come at the other end of the age/experience spectrum, with a few old faces reemerging.

The catch of the off-season was Kenji Jojima, who opted to join the Hanshin Tigers rather than stay in the US with the Seattle Mariners (or rejoin the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks, who have unretired his old number). The 2003 Japan MVP could have stayed in Seattle, but injury, split playing time and declining stats reduced the attraction for the 33-year-old, who is still in his prime as an athlete. Jojima could lead the Tigers up the standings after their fourth-place finish last year. He’s being joined on Hanshin by former Mariners teammate, pitcher Randy Messenger.

Other players returning to Japan include former Chiba Lotte Marines pitcher Masahide Kobayashi, who joins the Giants from the Cleveland Indians; Ken Takahashi, who has signed with the Hiroshima Carp after being released by the New York Mets; and So Taguchi (ex-Cardinals/Phillies/Cubs), who has joined the Orix Buffaloes.

The Tigers’ main rivals, Japan champions the Yomiuri Giants, are doubtless hoping that the return of right fielder Yoshinobu Takahashi will make them absolutely dominant in the league. Some say they already are, of course, having won the Central League by a 12-game margin over the Chunichi Dragons (after tying nine games last year, no less). A healthy Takahashi is a huge bonus for the Giants, but since 2005, the former Keio University star has missed many games—and, effectively, the whole of the last season. Still, 2010 sees Takahashi healthy and happy after his back problems in 2009. Even a modestly good season from the 34-year-old will make the Giants stronger.

Talking of getting stronger, how about them Golden Eagles? No, really. The former whipping boys of the Pacific League finished in second place last year, just 5.5 games behind the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters. However, the brilliant Katsuya Nomura has left the team. At 74, the oldest manager in Japanese baseball history has figured it’s time to enjoy life a little more, and he’s been replaced by former Hiroshima Carp skipper Marty Brown (left).

As well as being the oldest manager, Nomura once held the title of longest-serving player, having played for 26 years. That title is now held by Kimiyasu Kudo, who has rejoined his original club, the Seibu Lions, after detours to Fukuoka and Yokohama. This may be a sign that he’s about to retire, but for now, Kudo is heading into his 29th season as a pitcher. That’s either fantastic or just very, very sad. Hasn’t he heard of golf?

The Pacific League begins play on Mar 20, while the Central League starts on Mar 26.

Central League
* Yomiuri Giants vs. Yakult Swallows. Mar 26-27, 6pm; Mar 28, 2pm. ¥1,500-¥4,500. Tokyo Dome. Tel: 0570-005106/03-5800-9999.
* Yakult Swallows vs. Chunichi Dragons. Mar 30-Apr 1, 6pm. ¥1,500-¥4,500. Jingu Stadium, Gaienmae. Tel: 03-3404-8999/0570-029999.
* Yokohama BayStars vs. Yomiuri Giants. Mar 30-Apr 1, 6pm. ¥1,800-¥6,500. Yokohama Stadium. Tel: 045-661-1251.

Pacific League
* Seibu Lions vs. Chiba Lotte Marines. Mar 20-22, 1pm. ¥800-¥22,000. Seibu Dome, Tokorazawa. Tel: 04-2925-1151.
* Chiba Lotte Marines vs. Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters. Mar 26, 6:15pm; Mar 27, 2pm; Mar 28, 1pm. ¥2,500-¥4,500. Chiba Marine Stadium, Makuhari. Tel: 03-5682-6341.
* Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters vs. Orix Buffaloes. Mar 30-31, 6pm. ¥1,000-¥6,000. Tokyo Dome. Tel: 03-5800-9999.
* Seibu Lions vs. Fukuoka Softbank Hawks. Mar 30-Apr 1, 6pm. ¥800-¥22,000. Seibu Dome, Tokorazawa. Tel: 04-2925-1151.
* Chiba Lotte Marines vs. Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles. Mar 30-Apr 1, 6:15pm. ¥2,500-¥4,500. Chiba Marine Stadium, Makuhari. Tel: 03-5682-6341.