Trey Hillman Hopes Ham Ready for Repeat

The Baseball Series > Matsuzaka > Trey Hillman > Gyroball > Kazuhiro Yamauchi > Bobby V. > Rakuten

Stretched out under the JR tracks in Yurakucho one recent morning, the Captain flinched a bit after the police officer shook him for the third time. With thoughts of last night's hostess flipping through his cloudy memory, the newsman rose and staggered in the direction of The Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan. The press conference was about to begin...

The loss of key players during the off-season will be large stumbling blocks for the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters as they attempt to repeat as champions of Nippon Pro Baseball, a league where the game is played as skillfully as anywhere in the world, said manager Trey Hillman at a press conference in Tokyo last week.

Number-three hitter Michihiro Ogasawara left for the Yomiuri Giants via free agency, popular and ostentatious centerfielder Tsuyoshi Shinjo retired, and left-handed reliever Hideki Okajima took his miniscule 2.14 ERA to the Boston Red Sox.

"We can't replace him so we won't try," Hillman said in his native Texas drawl of infielder Ogasawara, who last year led the Pacific League with 32 homers and 100 RBIs. "He's the greatest hitter I have had the opportunity to manage."

In his fifth year as manager of the Fighters, Hillman, however, is quick to credit much of the team's success last year to elements that do not show up in a box score - such as the work of his baseball operations and scouting staff.

"If we don't draft and sign [Tomoya] Yagi last year," he said of the rookie who won 12 games, "draft and sign [pitcher] Takeda Masaru, and if we don't do the deal, 2-for-1, with the Giants and get Okajima, we don't win the championship."

For this year, outfielder Atsunori Inaba, who batted .307 a year ago, will hit in the third slot in the order, and two left-handed rookies, Kazunori Yamamoto and Ken Miyamoto, will be inserted in the bullpen to fill the role of Okajima.

The title was the Fighters first since 1964, when the team was based in Tokyo and known as the Toei Flyers. As recently as 2003, the Fighters called the Tokyo Dome home before heading north to Sapporo.

Known for his colorful armbands and swagger, Shinjo, who retired and has since been involved in advertising campaigns for underwear-maker Gunze, gave the Sapporo fans an incentive to go to the ballpark, Hillman said.

"Hands down, [Shinjo is] the most marketable guy I have ever seen since Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods," said the skipper, who is in his 23rd season in professional baseball. "There was no other person that put all those rear-ends in those seats."  

Hillman said that the noise created by the excitable fans at Sapporo Dome contributed to multiple victories. He went so far as to say that if the Fighters were still in Tokyo, where they were the "b-team" to the rabidly popular Giants, the championship would not have been claimed.

Like the Fighters, NPB itself will be facing challenges this season. The off-season was highlighted by a scandal in which it was learned that the Seibu Lions had been conducting an organized bribery system, dating back nearly three decades, for recruiting players. As well, perhaps the game's most recognizable player, Daisuke Matsuzaka, left the Lions this year to pitch for the Boston Red Sox. Given that he is following the departure of others stars like Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui, many critics in Japan are viewing NPB as merely a pool of players to be tapped by the majors.

But Hillman is optimistic about the depth of Japanese talent. He said that Japan's victory last year in the World Baseball Classic, which was achieved through the contributions of Matsuzaka and Ogasawara, should have been a declaration that Japan can compete with anybody on the baseball field. "If that didn't wake up the world to the strength of baseball in Japan," Hillman said, "then shame on the rest of the world...The bottom line is that Japan won the first WBC, period."

Hillman acknowledged that the handsome salaries in the major leagues - Matsuzaka signed for $52 million with the Red Sox - is an issue, but he emphasized that Japan needs to focus on its own young players and cease comparing them with those in the United States.

As an example, he said that one of the top rising stars of NPB - if not anywhere - is on the Fighters roster. Yu Darvish, a 20-year-old born to an Iranian father and Japanese mother, is developing into a supreme talent, Hillman said.

"I think he can be the best in the world," Hillman said of the right-handed fire-baller. "I think eventually he has an opportunity to bypass a guy like Matsuzaka."

The Baseball Series > Matsuzaka > Trey Hillman > Gyroball > Kazuhiro Yamauchi > Bobby V. > Rakuten

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