Everything you ever wanted to know about Fukuoka’s baseball team and how to enjoy a day at the Dome
(c) SoftBank HAWKS
Four years ago, Fukuoka Now sports correspondent, Matt Schuelling, penned his first report on the SoftBank Hawks. A lot’s changed in the world of Japanese Baseball since then, but one thing that hasn’t is Matt’s undying love for the sport. Following the Hawks’ winning season in 2014, we asked Matt to take another look at the team and write a report to give you all the information you’d ever need for the upcoming baseball season. So crack open a Bud and take to your lazyboy and read on for Fukuoka Now’s guide to the SoftBank Hawks.
I enjoy Japanese baseball now even more than when I originally penned this article. I’ve found that to be true about a lot of things here: natto, horumon, picking tsukushi in the spring, imo shochu, wearing surgical masks to work, public transportation, the absence of public trash cans… maybe I’ve just got used to most of those things, I’m not sure. For baseball however, I can pinpoint exactly why I like it more now than I did before. I was recently at a game with a large Hard Rock Cafe mushroom swiss burger sitting in my stomach, slowly drowning that digesting deliciousness with Asahi Super Dry, sitting in the same seat where I watched my first Japanese baseball game, when I was hit with a wave of nostalgia.
Because for me, watching Japanese baseball is like stepping back in time. There are short players, long lanky players, some of players with good sized beer guts. You know when players are going to bunt (tap the ball into play) and strategic choices often seem to be made based on old-school baseball rather than following the new-school style of algorithms and mathematical logic. Japanese baseball and the baseball of my youth seem much more similar to me than modernday Nippon Professional Baseball and Major League Baseball ever do.
And who doesn’t love stepping back in time? Watching that game I almost felt like Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams, minus the corn and voice of Darth Vader. Japanese baseball takes me back to warm memories of Ken Burns movies in a time before Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill simplified sabermetrics for Hollywood in Moneyball, when Ken Griffey Jr. was still a kid, and Montreal still had a baseball team in hideous uniforms. Watching that game was weird. I almost felt young again, if only for a nine-inning ball game.
My first Japanese baseball game was back in 2007. The SoftBank Hawks were playing a struggling Orix Buffaloes team. I had some good seats just a bit up the first base line and close enough to the field that you could read the left handed batters’ names as they dug in at the plate. But as I sat there and watched the Hawks pick apart the Buffaloes I wasn’t able to completely enjoy myself. It was baseball, all the elements were there to assure me I was watching a baseball game, but something was a bit off. It was like watching a movie based on a book you love, but as good as the movie is it can’t perfectly match what you envisioned.
The Hawks Honeys © SoftBank HAWKS
There were cheerleaders in miniskirts waving pom-poms and directing chants, beer girls toting (awesome) beer-keg backpacks circling the stadium like clockwork and war drums pounding throughout the entire game in the right field bleachers. I don’t think there was a peanut anywhere in the stadium, but vendors were selling everything from takoyaki and dried squid to KFC chicken and pizza. Even the thirty-five thousand fans were a little different. American fans spend as much time trying to get on the jumbo-screen as they do watching the game sometimes. But the Hawks fans, if they’re not in the middle of some chant or smacking their thunder-sticks together, are generally quiet – they stay seated, eyes focused on the field and the players. It’s a very orderly, yet passionate, watching the games live.
It was a very Japanese experience.
A Quick History Lesson
Baseball, also called yakyu (literally ‘field ball’), came to Japan in the Meiji Era. An American professor named Horace Wilson introduced the game to his students at Kaisei Gakko, (present day Tokyo University). In its infant stages it worked its way through the universities in a way that mirrored American Football’s early start in the United States at the same time. No admission was charged for any of the games for the first thirty years because the players thought it would be morally wrong to accept money for something they loved to do.
The first professional Japanese teams formed in 1920, but, strapped with financial difficulties, they lasted only a few years. The second time around they got it right though. In 1934, the Dai-Nippon Baseball Club was formed in Tokyo followed by the Osaka Baseball Club the following year. Both teams are still around today, Dai-Nippon became the famous Yomiuri Giants and the team out in Osaka is now known as the Hanshin Tigers.
Though play was briefly stopped during WWII, the game picked up where it left off with renewed frenzy following the war. The league was revamped and renamed in 1950 to the current setup that exists today as Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB). It is also referenced as “Nippon Besuboru”, “Nippon Yakyu” and “Pro Yakyu”, as well as “Japanese Baseball” by those outside of Japan.
“A Bat is a Wondrous Weapon,” – Ty Cobb
Perhaps in the kendo strikes, or on the judo mats, or in the salt thrown by sumo wrestlers, a strong sense of the ancient ideals and philosophies we know as Bushido are most authentically preserved. But it’s on the baseball diamond that the evolved spirit of the warrior is readily available to everyone. While there’re no katana (usually), top-knots, or seppuku, the Japanese baseball player is regarded by many as the modern day equivalent of the samurai.
In the twilight years of Japanese baseball, the Japanese players quickly realized that the American style of play didn’t really suit them. They needed a more Japanese method, something that would reflect their spirit and ideology. The training method that was designed with that in mind resembled martial arts more than a western sport.
© Paul Sancya/AP
A team called Ichiko, from the First Higher School of Tokyo, pioneered this true Japanese style of baseball in 1896. They believed that training was about pushing yourself mentally and physically to the edge of exhaustion and breakdown. They incorporated teachings from the legendary samurai Miyamoto Musashi’s The Book of Five Rings, practicing day in and day out with the goal: “Surpass today what you were yesterday.” They also followed the principles of judo, in that through rigorous training, a strong spirit, and mental discipline it is possible for a smaller combatant to surpass larger opponents.
Managers that copied the Ichiko system of training had a ‘train until you die’ mentality. Pain was ignored and weakness forbidden. The training camp of the 1936 Giants was designed not to develop baseball skills, but to sharpen fighting spirit. The camp was nicknamed “Vomit Camp.” It was written that “from the mud and sweat… the soul of the Giants was born.” The Hanshin Tigers’ camps in Osaka were equally extraordinary, with players walking barefoot over the naked blade of a samurai long sword to strengthen mental control. To wit, in a publication by the Alumni Association of Ichiko published in 1903 they explained that baseball, “came from the West. In Ichiko baseball, we were playing sports, but we were also putting the spirit of Japan into it. Yakyu is a way to express the samurai spirit.”
Japanese Baseball Today
Nippon Professional Baseball is made up of twelve teams divided into two separate leagues.
The Pacific League:
• Orix Buffaloes – Osaka, Osaka Prefecture
• Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles – Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture
• Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters – Sapporo, Hokaido Prefecture
• Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks – Fukuoka City, Fukuoka Prefecture
• Saitama Seibu Lions – Tokorozawa, Saitama Prefecture
• Chiba Lotte Marines – Chiba city, Chiba Prefecture
The Central League:
• Yokohama Bay Stars – Yokohama, Kanagaw Prefecture
• Hiroshima Toyo Carp – Hiroshima, Hiroshima Prefecture
• Chunichi Dragons – Nagoya, Aichi Prefecture
• Yomiuri Giants – Tokyo
• TokyoYakult Swallows – Tokyo
• Hanshin Tigers – Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture
Like America’s National League and American League the only remarkable difference between the two leagues is the designated hitter rule in the Pacific League while the pitcher must still bat for himself in the Central.
Unlike many Major League Baseball (MLB) teams in America, teams in Japan are owned by companies meaning team names typically use the company name in lieu of the cities they are based in. Instead of Fukuoka’s team being named the ‘Fukuoka Hawks’, they’re referred to as the ‘SoftBank Hawks’ and the logo on the hat is an intertwined ‘S’ and ‘H’.
Perhaps the biggest difference in rules between America and Japan are extra innings games. Games in Japan that are tied after nine innings of play can only be continued for an extra three innings. If a winner can’t be decided by the bottom of the twelfth then the game is recorded as a tie. Ties are a rare occurrence in MLB where there is no limit in the length of time or innings games can be played for, but last year alone the Hawks had six of them.
The regular season is between 130-144 games long. It starts in March and lasts until early October. The top three teams of each league go on to the playoffs called ‘Climax Season.’ When entering the ‘Climax Season’, It’s much more advantageous to finish first as opposed to second or third. The second and third place teams play each other in a three game series for the chance to take on their league’s first place team. The winner of that three game series will advance to the second stage and a best of seven series against the first place team. In this best of seven series, the first place team starts off with a single game lead over the challenger, so needs only three wins to in advance, while their opponent must win four to continue. The Japan Series is a best of seven games set.
An American baseball player named Roger Hornsby was once asked what he did in the off-season when there was no baseball. He replied, “I stare out my window and wait for spring.”
That’s not the Japanese way.
One winter I went down to Miyazaki to watch the Softbank Hawks prepare for the coming season. They’d already arrived two weeks ago and while I didn’t see any sword walking, I did watch the then team captain Kokubo Hiroki stay long after team practice was over. He pulled ball after ball over the left field fence, so many that I stopped counting after his 100th swing and had to run to catch my bus home after what I guess was swing number two hundred. In comparison, the teams in America didn’t have players arriving at spring training until February 17th this year and practices didn’t start until the following week.
The influence of the Ichiko system is still prevalent. Ten hour practice days are not unheard of and some teams still hold intense autumn camps designed to increase mental toughness and build character. It’s this dedication to their style of baseball that makes Japanese baseball unique. They run out every play, they bunt and sacrifice at nearly every opportunity, they train and they train, and each player aims to improve himself individually to maximize his contribution to the team. Players play through injury and hide pain for the sake of the team and the fans. Each at bat is a mental battle, each game is a war, and every season is a campaign to be better than they were before.
At a press conference going into the 2009 World Baseball Classics the national team manager, Hara Tatsunori, explained the choice of ‘Samurai Japan’ for the team name. “In Japanese baseball,” he said, “the Bushido code is a big part of the game. We really want to play a brand of baseball that reflects Japan.”
The Hawks are originally from Osaka where they were formed in 1938 by the Nankai Electric Railway Co. They moved to Fukuoka when Daiei, Inc., a department store chain, bought them in 1988 and then renamed the SoftBank Hawks in 2005 when the team was purchased by SoftBank.
As of 2015, the Hawks have collected sixteen Pacific League Championships and they’ve won the Japan Series five times – most recently in 2014. They are known for being a strong team in the Pacific League with dedicated ownership and a strong fanbase that consistently fills out the stadium.
“Take me out to the ball game…”
The Hawks play in the Yafuoku Dome, commonly referred to as the Dome. It was the first and only stadium built in Japan to feature a retractable roof. The roof remains closed most of the time to provide a climate controlled game experience which is a welcome break come summer.
The right side of the field is the main Hawks cheering section. I like to avoid it just because of the heavy percussion section that tirelessly pounds out cheers, but give it a go if you enjoy a good drum-line and want to see the most ardent fans up close.
Each Hawks player has their own cheer that involves chanting their name accompanied by a series of hand motions that look more complicated than parking instructions for a jumbo jet. Personally, I prefer waving my Hawks towel in a circular motion, but make sure you’ve got plenty of room before attempting this.
When I was playing ball in the Florida swamps I often wondered why American football and basketball had cheerleaders and the only women that cheered at my baseball games consisted of a troop of mini-van driving mothers. This is not the case for the Hawks. The Honeys, the Hawks’ cheerleader team, cheer for the team throughout the game and even have performances in the 5th and 7th innings so make sure you don’t run to the concessions then.
Some seating options:
This year, the Dome has introduced several new seating options which will take your viewing experience to the next level. Access the official webpage for special seats and reservations.
Home Run Terrace
This area was new created as a result of shortening the Dome’s outfield. Both table seats and funky sun loungers now fill this area for a uniquely close viewing experience in what can only be described as the Home Run danger zone. Don’t worry though, there’s ample netting.
Sankyu Home Run Terrace along the 3rd base
Table seats (2 seats) x 7 (¥4,000~¥7,000)
Table seats (4 seats) x 17 (¥8,000~¥14,000)
Table seats (6 seats) x 4 (¥12,000~¥21,000)
Deck chairs (set of 2) x 7 (¥4,000~¥7,000)
Sun lounger ahoy
Infield Double Seat
If you’re keen to get close to that special someone or just like the colour red, these new double seats are for you. Perfect for relaxing and with great views over the infield. Two person sofa-style seats. 120 seat capacity. Prices range from ¥5,000~12,000 per seat depending on day.
The new double chairs, perfect for relaxing
These posh suits have all the amenities you could ask for with clear sightlines to the field from private balconies, VIP entrances and elevators, special menus, bathrooms, and attendants on stand by. Great for large groups and families. At the time of this article reservations were not being accepted from the general public, but this is expected to change.
One way to enjoy the game in style
Harry and Honey Hawk © SoftBank HAWKS
The Hawks truly have one of the more complicated mascot groups in sports today.
• Harry Hawk—Yellow. He replaced Homer Hawk, his older brother, as the main mascot years ago. It appears from pictures of Homer Hawk that he just wasn’t modern enough to keep his job. I could find no data on Homer Hawk’s current whereabouts (conspiracy??)
• Honey Hawk—Pink. Harry’s main squeeze, head of the cheerleaders.
• Harculy Hawk—Orange. He’s Harry’s teammate and his long time rival from their university days, why he sticks around playing second fiddle to his rival we don’t know. Maybe Harry is just that magnanimous.
• Honky Hawk—Yellow. Harry’s middle-aged uncle, wears a round hat. Incumbent mayor of Hawks Town.
• Helen Hawk—Yellow. Honky’s wife since high school, resembles a California gold prospector.
• Huck Hawk, Rick Hawk, and Hock Hawk—Three brothers and Harry’s nephews.
Some of the more popular players also have their own mascots, so it’s easy to spot fan favorites as they’ll have a doppelganger with an oversized head patrolling the grounds.
Globophobia and the 7th Inning Stretch…
(c) SoftBank HAWKS
I suffer from globophobia. It’s a fear of balloons and a medically recognized phobia (honestly). I’m not sure where I rank as far as severity, but I’m well known for bolting out the door when confronted with one of these rubber menaces. Because of this, the 7th inning stretch – in Japan it’s called “Lucky 7” – is pure hell for me.
Starting at the top of the 7th inning, nearly every fan in the Dome starts inflating their balloons. These aren’t your garden variety balloons either. Fully inflated they grow to nearly a meter in length – like shiny yellow snakes. By the end of the top half of the inning nearly everyone has their balloons fully inflated, some of them holding one in each hand. By that time I’ve typically run off to order a last helping of seasoned fries, or to browse through the rare MLB merchandise exclusive to the stadium in the gift shop, or to try to get an autographed ball out of the UFO crane games that are stationed around the stadium.
Armed with my iPod blaring Weezer and my trusty camera, I did stay for the spectacle once. It really did look amazing. The stadium was transformed into a sea of yellow. The crowd sang the Hawks anthem. The cheerleaders danced and jumped around. And then at the end everyone let go of their balloons and this cloud of yellow rose like a sudden flame and I was lost in a yellow wriggling world. The balloons shot this way and that before they fell back down. It was over in an instant, but it was amazing and at least for me…terrifying.
The Hawks in 2015
A New Boss
New Hawks Coach: Kudo Kimiyasu (c) SoftBank HAWKS
Manager Akiyama Koji caused waves last season when he announced amidst the frenzy of the climax season that he would not return in 2015. After taking over for the legendary Oh Sadaharu in 2009 Akiyama enjoyed a successful tenure with three pennants and two championships. Popular with the ownership his departure came as a surprise to many. Replacing Akiyama is another large figure in the history of Japanese baseball. Kudo Kimiyasu set the record in Japan by playing for 29 years. He was an ace pitcher in his prime, playing for the Lions, Giants, and Hawks. Kudo took number 81 to honor Akiyama and to show that he plans to continue the level of excellence that the Hawks enjoyed under Akiyama’s tenure.
The Hawks have led the Pacific league in runs scored for the past two years now. Last year they batted an average .280 as a team compared to .252 from the rest of the PL combined. While they led the league in home runs 2013 they had only modest power numbers in 2014. The Hawks do like to run, and speed is a big element to their game as well.
There is very little offense from the catcher position from the Hawks, but that’s by design. The Hawks’ primary concern for their catcher is with their ability to work with their pitchers. It seems to be working, but it’s hard to evaluate pitcher-catcher relationship from the outside. Any offense the catcher position provides should be viewed as an added bonus. Hosokawa Toru and Tsuruoka Shinya share catching duties, but Hosokawa will be seeing more and more rest days as age and injuries have delayed his return to the Hawks in 2015.
First Base: Lee Dae-Ho © SoftBank HAWKS
Most days will see Korean slugger Lee Dae-ho at first. A middle of the line up bat, Lee saw his power numbers dip last season, but he maintained a .300 batting average and he smacked 30 doubles in 2014 to go with his 19 home runs. With the fences moved in in 2015, 20-25 home runs will be a realistic ceiling, but he could see his playing time dip slightly as the team tries to find room for all of its outfield batters.
Second Base: Honda Yuichi © SoftBank HAWKS
Second base time is split between Honda Yuichi and Akashi Kenji. Both are left handed batters so there is no real platoon split and both have had some injury problems in the last few years. Honda is the superior batter and better runner. The two should combine for around 30-40 stolen bases with Honda leading the timeshare. Both are off to slow starts in 2015, but there is no reason to suspect any changes in this position.
Third Base: Matsuda Nobuhiro © SoftBank HAWKS
Matsuda Nobuhiro mans the hot corner. He hasn’t really become the superstar I thought that he could be, but he is a solid bat with a compact swing that drives the ball. His problem has been health, but in 101 games played last season his rate of production was as good as ever. I don’t think he has much room to increase his power potential, but with a full season he could get close to his career high of 25.
Short Stop: Imamiya Kenta © SoftBank HAWKS
Imamiya Kenta is the incumbent shortstop. Still just 23 he has room for growth, but so far his biggest asset has been his health in his short career. Takata Tomoki might steal some playing time from time to time and if Takata hits well they could move to a full platoon with the Imamiya starting against lefties and Takata against righties, but the upside of Takata isn’t so high that I think Imamiya will lose his job anytime soon. I think Imamiya could be more effective if he shortened his swing and slapped the ball more and used his legs more. As a power hitter in high school, the switch to wooden bats has been hard for his offensive side of the game.
Offense: Yanagita Yuki © SoftBank HAWKS
The Hawk’s offensive strength is in its outfield. Nakamura Akira and Yanagita Yuki are entering their peak years of performance and their upside is huge. Nakamura is a short, but muscular outfielder who occasionally moves to first base. In his first full year in 2013 he hit .307 and he followed that up with a .308 average in 2014. His best weapon is his hit tool as he led the team in hits last season with 176. At the top of the lineup he’ll have the opportunity to score in almost every game.
Yanagita Yuki led the team in stolen bases last season, but his swing is a thing of beauty. Violent and fast it looks long to me, but he’s so fast and strong that it doesn’t matter at this point. He hit .308 last season and led the team in walks and on base percentage despite striking out 131 times. I think he can improve in the power department this season, I like him for 20-25 home runs and 20-25 steals. WIth a high batting average and high runs and RBIs (Runs Batted In) I can’t see how Yanagita won’t find himself in the MVP discussions at the end of the year.
Left Fielder: Uchikawa Seiichi© SoftBank HAWKS
Uchikawa Seiichi usually plays left Fielder (LF). The oldest of the outfielders, he’s the model of consistency and balance. He’s actually been getting stronger as he’s gotten older despite playing in a power suppressing ballpark. He set a career high with 19 home runs in 2013. He hit 18 home runs in 2014, but that was in 22 fewer games. He doesn’t attempt many stolen bases, but he’s not slow on the basepaths. I fancy Uchikawa this season to set new career highs in home runs if healthy. Early this spring he was driving the ball to all fields with power.
Hasegawa Yuya has been a personal favorite of mine for years. He has a very fluid swing from the left side of the plate and has demonstrated plenty of power. In 2013 he hit 19 home runs when his previous career high was 6. I don’t think the power will return to that level, but he’s a tough out whenever he comes to the plate. I think he’s another .280-290 hitter for the Hawks in an overstocked outfield.
Jason Standridge © SoftBank HAWKS
The Hawks scored the most runs in the PL last season on offense. Their pitching also excelled ranking second in runs allowed, hits allowed, and strikeouts. Only two of the Hawks’ starting pitchers managed to last the full season. Only three starting pitchers started more than twenty games. But they managed to find enough starters to stay afloat and handed leads to their elite array of bullpen arms.
Settsu Tadashi is on a downward trend since he peaked in 2012. His strikeout rate is dropping, his earned run average (ERA) is rising, and he’s gone from limiting walks and hits per inning pitched at an elite level to barely better than league average. He did make twenty-two starts last year, but the number of quality games he provides is dropping. However, Settsu is still very valuable, it’s just that where he used to be a number one starter, his decline has slipped him into middle of the rotation value.
Last year the starting rotation was carried by Jason Standridge. He led the team in game starts, innings pitched, and strikeouts. On a team that relies heavily on its bullpen, having a workhorse who can eat innings is invaluable to the team. Standridge is a good pitcher who is very close to being elite and this season he could very well take another step forward.
Otonari Kenji is a crowd favorite. He lost much of 2013-2014 with a spinal disease called, “Yellow ligament ossification.” At the time it looked doubtful that he would be able to continue playing baseball ever, but Otonari returned against the odds in late 2014. His successful return to baseball was even more amazing with the level he returned at. In 8 game starts he posted a 1.64 ERA, 0.838 WHIP (walks plus hits per innings pitched), and pitched a complete game shutout. While he’s never been a strikeout pitcher or a hard thrower his pitches have a lot of movement and his game plan is to pitch to contact and let his defense work for him. Though not the prototypical sort of ace, Otonari’s experience and pitching style is a model of consistency and looks sharper than ever.
Relief: Dennis Sarfate © SoftBank HAWKS
The Hawk’s bullpen is anchored by the 9th inning man Dennis Sarfate. While the oldest current relief pitcher on the team, Sarfate has been an elite reliever since he arrived in Japan in 2011. His walk rate has been dropping for three years and he’s pitched more games and more innings in that time span as well. Sarfate throws hard with a two seam fastball with late life and a plus slider. He’s just overpowering most nights.
Player Interviews – Jason Standridge & Dennis Sarfate
Fukuoka Now spoke with two of the Hawk’s pitchers, starter Jason Standridge, and reliever Dennis Sarfate about their careers at the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks, changes in Japanese baseball and their love for Fukuoka City.
Jason Standridge with Nick Szasz of Fukuoka Now
FN: Yahuoku! Dome is smaller this year. How has that affected you?
Jason: For me personally it hasn’t affected me yet. I think that I could help with our hitting, but it also helps the opposing team’s hitting as well. I don’t know, at the end of the year you could ask me that question and maybe I’ll have a better answer for you.
Dennis: It doesn’t really affect me. I don’t worry about it. Tokyo Dome is so small, Yokohama’s really small, I try not to think about what the hitter’s going to do, I try to stay in my game and getting him out. If I start worrying about the fences being short I’ll start making mistakes and they’ll start hitting them out. I try not to let that bother me at all.
FN: OK. What’s your favorite thing about playing baseball?
Jason: Probably competition. Going out and competing, getting after someone else and just beating them. And you know, it’s not anything that I’m really trying to go after, but it’s just more like a determination to your best.
Dennis: Oh man… I have more least favorite things than favorites (laughs). Favorite? I guess just competing on the field and getting to play a game for a living is pretty cool.
FN: What are the differences playing here versus in the States?
Dennis: Big difference. Fans. The games here are really loud, the fans are really enthusiastic. That makes it a lot better. The way the game is played is a little different. It’s more about bunting guys over, small ball. And there’s a big respect thing, so you don’t see a lot of showboating, even though some of the hitters do still showboat here you see it’s a love of the game. They practice really hard. Whereas in the States I think the guys who are so talented just kind of let it go and play, and that’s it.
FN: What do you like about Fukuoka the most?
Jason: I feel like it’s a family friendly city. I feel like there are a lot of things here to do for families. I’m comfortable here, my family is comfortable here. I don’t think I have a particular thing, or area, that I love. We go to Tenjin and go walking and Ohori Park.
FN: And there’s a nice beach too!
Jason: Yep. So we go to the beach in the summer. We have just really nice areas around.
Dennis: I like how everything is so close. I spent two years in Hiroshima, so to be in a smaller setting is nice. This city is small… but it’s still yet a little bit big. There’s things to do and the food is really good. We actually use Fukuoka Now to find restaurants. And I love being by the beach. Being able to go to the beach in the summer with the kids is awesome. And I like how close we live to the Dome.
FN (to Dennis): Is pitching the 9th inning more difficult than pitching middle relief? Or is it mostly dependant on where in the lineup you are?
Dennis: You know, the 9th inning, I used to think it was such a difficult thing before I did it. I was a starter. I think it’s the anticipation. Anytime you put someone against the wall and make them have to fight their way out, when I go into a game and we’re winning the other team is trying to score a run, so when you put that pressure on the other team it puts more on you. Obviously the fans are getting crazy in the 9th inning. So I think if you took a regular reliever and put him in the 9th inning he would struggle with the pressure. Where now If I throw in the 5th inning or 6th inning I think it’s boring. I don’t like it. I did it in spring training and it’s really boring. My adrenaline doesn’t get going. The 9th inning is special because you come in and everyone knows you have to get three more outs, and it’s so hard to get that final three outs. It’s like if I was going to box you to death you’re going to fight until the end. And that’s what the other team is going to do to me. They’re going to fight until that last out is out. So it’s definitely a big difference.
FN (to Dennis): What do you think is the most important thing you can do to prepare to close a game?
Dennis: Nothing about baseball. I literally sit in the clubhouse. 6:00 p.m. I get a massage. I’ll watch other things. I talk to my family. I go see my girls, they come to the stadium and I go see them. When I go into the bullpen it’s usually the 7th inning. I start stretching. When I start warming up I have no idea what’s going on in the game pretty much. And I just don’t want to think about it.
FN: So you’re not monitoring the game at all?
Dennis: No, I don’t care. The more you start thinking about it, the more you start watching, and if they’re hitting well it starts putting thoughts in your head. So I try to lighten everyone up. I joke in the bullpen, I pull pranks on guys. But once I get on the mound then it’s business. I take it very seriously. But I’m in the clubhouse sitting in my chair watching TV until about the 7th inning. It’s a really good job. I’m lucky!
FN (to Dennis): Are the umpires in Japan different? Is there a noticable difference in the strike zone?
Dennis: No, they all stink… I’m just kidding. (laughs) No. I’ve heard guys complain that sometimes they’re racist to the foreigners. I haven’t gotten that at all. I think they’re generous, I think they have a strike zone that’s a little bit generous. If anything I’ve gotten more called strikes than balls. They’re human, they’re going to make mistakes just like we make errors on the field. They’re not going to get everything right. So you have to be prepared for that and you can’t let one bad call ruin your day. So I try to not even worry about the umpires.
FN (to Dennis): Subject is a little different, but do you find the fans and atmosphere here different than in America?
Dennis: Oh, huge difference. Not even close. Some stadiums, like here the bullpens are underground so I don’t even know how loud the crowd is until you go into the game so at home is nice. But on the road sometimes when you go into the stadium it’s blaring. In the states it’s more of a social gathering, it’s more like, “Yeah, I went to the baseball game today,” or “I went to the basketball game today,” wherever you go. I feel like the fans here are above and beyond, they’re crazy. But it pumps you up. It gets you going. I do think it’s better here, fan wise.
FN (to Dennis): Are some stadiums more difficult to pitch in?
Dennis: The mounds are all different because every team uses different clay. Ours isn’t a hard clay like Sapporo’s is a hard clay like America. Coaches, stadiums, the mounds are very different. In some places like Chiba when the wind is really ridiculous, like yesterday the wind was blowing 10 meters, that can affect you. But for the most part the batter is still 60 feet 6 inches away and you gotta get him out. I don’t worry about the surroundings. The only difference is sometimes you play in these country games where we go to some smaller city like Kumamoto or Kagoshima. That’s hard because those fields are not kept up like stadiums during the season. So the mounds might be not up to par. You might be pitching in a huge hole. Those are the ones that are tough I’d say.
FN (to Jason): You’ve played in a number of professional organizations, do you typically adopt the team’s training methods? What’s something you’ve picked up in Japan?
Jason: Yes you do. You kind of carry over into each team’s style and they way they do things. I’ve definitely learned a lot going back and forth from one team to another. And coming over to Japan has been a big change too. Now it’s kind of second nature to me because I’ve been over here for so long. I’ve gotten used to the Japanese culture of baseball opposed to the states. There’s some good and bad things when you come over to each team. You’re like, “Oh, I liked it when we used to do this, or I liked it when they used to do this.” So you just find what works for you. You’re a professional and you have to get the job done so however you can get the job done you get it done.
FN (to Jason): Last question, it’s kind of the opposite of that. Is there something that you’ve shared with your teammates here. Something you’ve seen them pick up from you?
Jason: I think so. I think and hope I bring what’s inside of me and my faith. What’s inside of me is that I love God. And my relationship with God, they’ll be able to see that. They’ll be able to so the love that God has for them through the way I play, through the way I speak, through the way that I live my life. So they’ll be able to see the way that I do love God. I hope that that’s what they’ve taken from me. There’s a phrase that I always use in Japanese, “kami-sama wa watashino chikara desu.” I’m always saying that Jesus is my strength. God is my strength so I always want the Japanese people to know that about me. That’s the most important thing about me.
I see no reason that the Hawks can’t improve upon last year statistically. With Yanagita and Nakamura entering their primes there is no reason to think they Hawks won’t once again be able to lead the league in offense. It’s a relentless approach that wears down opposition pitchers and gives their own pitchers long breaks to recover between innings.
The Hawks’ starting pitchers don’t need to do anything amazing, but it will be pretty easy for them to improve upon last season just by staying healthy. A full season from Otonari could add 3-4 wins this year. If some of the younger starters continue to take positive steps, the Hawks could lead the league in many pitching statistics.
It will be a telling year for the new regime that should be very exciting and the Hawks are one of the favorites to sit atop the Pacific league in 2015.
Text by: Matt Schuelling
Originally written in Apr. 2015.
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NOTE: The information presented here was gathered and summarized by the Fukuoka Now staff. While we have done our best to check for accuracy, there might be errors and details may have changed. If you notice any errors or changes, please contact us. This report was originally written in Apr. 2015.