I had the pleasure of being in Okinawa from February 1-7. Six of these days were scheduled spring training camp days, with the 5th being a day off for players. As things turned out, the 4th was a day off for me. I got a little sick due to the poor weather and my lack of preparation for it. Truth be told, I may have caught something from friends as well, or it also might have just “been my turn” for sickness. I found out yesterday, at long last, that I have acute tonsillitis. It’s kind of a relief to know it’s not anything worse! Anyways, let’s cut to the good stuff – let’s look at what it was like to be a fan at Spring Training!
Day 1: The weather was rather poor, and I stayed up a little too late the night before catching up with old friends, so I did not get to camp in time for the opening ceremony. Wouldn’t have mattered, mind you, as it was held indoors and fans were kept at a distance. It was hard to see anything going on indoors, really. The inside of the dome COULD have been visible were it not for thick black and green screens running from the floor to about 10 meters up. There was a passageway / hallway between the dome and the fans as well… one through which media and special guests could pass. Players occasionally walked through but it was mostly just people who had better access to the action than we did. I took in the bullpen a few times and enjoyed seeing pitchers and catchers up close and personal. I also sat in the almost-empty stands, near the fixed cameras that Sky-A have set up for the duration of camp.
At one point, former Tiger great Norihiro Akahoshi was interviewed for a TV show. During his 10-minute set, the crowd lined up patiently at his side, waiting for autographs and pictures when he was done. He was rather startled at the numbers, but kindly signed for every single one of them. Just after lunch time, I got to see Tigers mascot Keyta as well, and got a picture with him.
My biggest surprise of the day was that… I was interviewed by the media and actually made it on TV! I was standing outside the dome and I saw the interviewer (Kazuhiro Ishida) talking to some other guy. I figured if I stayed put and gazed off in the distance, maybe he would talk to me. Sure enough, he did. Here are some stills from the finished product.
Day 2: The weather was a little nicer but still not quite worthy of starting practice outdoors. The morning was once again a bit of a wash, as visibility in the dome was the same as on Day 1. Also, the numbers at the bullpen were a little higher so it was tougher to get a seat or a good view – people’s umbrellas really interfered a lot! Back near the playing field, though, I got to see Hanshin OB Kozo Kawato, and even got my picture taken with him.
He was not too thrilled to be disturbed, it seemed, but maybe he still hadn’t had his morning smoke. At long last the players came out onto the field after lunch, and we got to see some good batting practice. I tried to get as near as I could, but every single good angle was roped off to media only. Still, after Matt Hague finished his first set, I said, “Good work, Matt!” and coach Tom O’Malley said, “I heard an English voice!” Yep, I was the only foreigner in the crowd. Later in the day, just before Matt left to head back to his hotel, a bunch of fans mobbed the protective screen and asked him to come sign some paraphernalia.
He kindly obliged, though I was not quite “on the ball” enough to get anything signed… two or three people from reaching the front of the mob, he got called to the bus. Bummer.
Day 3: At long last, players started their day outdoors on the field. I got to see the guys doing base-running relays, but the foreign pitchers (Randy Messenger, Marcos Mateo, and Rafael Dolis) were in the outfield standing around chatting.
I got close enough to listen but didn’t know if I would get told to shut up if I spoke, so I just hovered. I took a lot of video of bullpen sessions and players heading to the “sub-ground” (a pretty gritty field) where they did low-impact running and fielding practice. There was no way to get anywhere near them during this time, as the field was fifty meters from the roped-off area. In the end, I just walked here and there, trying to make conversations with people. I talked a little with Mr. Ishida (the reporter who interviewed me), got to know some of the other regular fans, and more. Finally towards the end of my day, I noticed Mauro Gomez around the same area as Matt Hague was at the previous day, signing autographs.
I would not miss my chance this time. I even got to speak a few words to him as he signed. (It made me realize, most of these fans were probably jealous that I could actually communicate with these guys!) My Ultra (Uru Tora) jersey from last summer now has Gomez’s signature on it! Great day! Oh, I also ran into Nekketsu Tigers Toh co-host Ryo Kiuchi, and talked very briefly with him.
Day 4: As I said, despite this being the first beautiful day of my time in Okinawa, I was knocked out cold. I did not even make an attempt to go to Ginoza. Too bad, as I heard it was a fun day.
Day 5: This was a day off for the players, meaning the chances of meeting any of them was slim-to-none. I’ll take those odds though! In the evening I had plans to meet a former student and a penpal from my early days in Okinawa. The destination: Obbligato’s, a “Mexican” restaurant near a popular area called Mihama (a.k.a. American Village). Our meeting time was 7pm. I got there about 10 minutes early, parked myself in a seat, and texted my mates to say I had arrived. I was about to whip out a postcard to write my son a little note, when I looked up and saw… Mauro Gomez. No way. Marcos Mateo. Wow. Randy Messenger. Are you kidding? Matt Hague. COOL! Tom O’Malley. Unbelievable! So I shook their hands but let them find their own seats and proceeded to wait for my friends, who arrived soon afterward. I’m not gonna lie to you. I wanted to abandon my old mates for the stars… but I didn’t. However, I could not let the evening pass without a group shot, which I got as the men left the restaurant. Here it is:
Day 6: Though I was still not feeling 100%, I was definitely charged up to head back to the stadium for the weekend. After all, Kanemoto had promised scrimmage games, and now I had made personal contact with four of the most important people on the field (in my view)! Well actually, the action on the field was nothing extraordinary… no scrimmage, nothing extremely eventful. I enjoyed watching Shintaro Fujinami pitch a bullpen session by himself – no other pitchers at his side, just him and a catcher. He was especially working on his “quick” delivery, and he looked great! I was second or third from the front, and when his session was finished he actually came up to the crowd. Everyone was abuzz and in the end, everyone was impressed with his kindness when he handed a little boy a baseball before walking off and fixing the mound. Also, I ran into another member of the Nekketsu Tigers Toh program – Akihiko Yuasa.
Nice guy but seemed a little taken aback by a foreigner wanting to talk with him.
Day 7: I felt awful in the morning… made it to the park a little later than usual, and found myself having to park about a kilometer from the field. Not a great start for a sick man. So I lay in my car for 30 minutes, hoping to gather a little strength. When I started heading to the park (keep in mind I’m a kilometer away, and it’s approaching 11am already), I hear two guys behind me arguing with each other: “Isn’t that Randy Messenger?” “No chance.” “No, I’m sure that’s him! RANDY!” I ignore them and keep walking. Amazingly they are the sixth or so who have made the same mistake this week. I met with a few friends at the park, sat with them and enjoyed watching a whole lot of batting practice. Then they did some situational drills (runners on 1st and 3rd, one out). Good times, and the sun actually came out. But by around 2pm I started to feel pooped again and decided to walk around the training facility one last time before saying farewell to Ginoza Baseball Park for the week, for the year, or maybe beyond. Just as I was heading back towards the car, I ran into yet another member of Nekketsu Tigers Toh – Kunika Takeda – as well as the head honcho himself, Yutaka Fukumoto. The latter was on the phone so I talked with Kunika a little before the man actually reached his hand out to shake mine, hung up his phone and said, “Let’s take a picture.” So there you have it.
I have so many positive memories of my week in Okinawa, walking around at camp and getting to know fans, media and players alike. Obviously nicer weather would have made it that much better. Not getting sick would have been nice. Showing up a little earlier and leaving a little later could have gotten me more autographs. But come on… if I had been told at the start of the week that I would be on TV, meet the whole cast of my favorite offseason Tigers program, and then bump into the four projected first-squad foreigners on the team… I wouldn’t have believed it. Pretty awesome first experience… wouldn’t you say?