Hanging Out with a Tiger

Now, I’ve had my encounters with Hanshin Tigers players before. Some of you remember my report about meeting Matt Murton at Starbucks. Others will have read my more recent report about bumping into (not literally, thank God) Randy Messenger, Mauro Gomez, Marcos Mateo, Matt Hague, and Tom O’Malley at a Mexican restaurant in Okinawa. But this one surpasses them all, at least in quantity and quality of time. Here’s the story:

One of the literally dozens of three people who follow H-TEN contacted me and let me know that he was going to be in the Osaka area, and perhaps we could meet for dinner at some point. I love meeting my fellow Hanshin fans so I said yes. Well I had no idea that he actually knew half of the baseball universe, or so it seems. He told me that he was able to get tickets from Rafael Dolis, who, as you know (or should know — if you don’t, start following H-TEN a little more closely!), is a newly acquired relief pitcher who hails from the Dominican Republic. So since I was arriving at the game first, I was the one who had to pick up the tickets. I felt weird going up to the security guard and saying, “Where do friends of players go to get into the game?” But eventually I got in, sat in the 5th row behind the 3B dugout, and enjoyed a great view of the game.

I got a call from my friend around the top of the 5th inning. “I just landed in Osaka and will be at the stadium in about 45 minutes if the game is not over by then. Oh, we can’t do dinner with Dolis because he practiced in the morning and went home. He isn’t scheduled to pitch today.” Bummer, I thought. I was supposed to be able to meet him and Mateo and Gomez for some Mexican food. Ah well, another time, I thought. My friend continued. “I have some stuff that I need to pass on to Dolis so I’m heading to his place after the game. If you have time, you can come with me.” Ummm, let’s see. Time to visit a Hanshin Tiger at his apartment? “I think I’ll be okay to join you.”

So we head out to Kobe Area 51 Dolis’ apartment. The building itself is towering and the entrance is hard to find for first-timers like us. Finally we find it, but obviously we need to punch in his apartment number to be buzzed in. As I’m looking up his suite number, I hear “Hey guys, how’s it going?” from behind me. Turn around. Mr. and Mrs. Hague. Fancy meeting them here! So we walk in with them, ride the elevator up with them, say “we’ll catch you later” and then proceed to Rafael’s pad.

“Hola, how’s it going? Welcome!” We walk into a cavernous living room. Nice place for a single guy! A movie blares from the TV and Dolis’ friend sits coolly watching the screen. We exchange greetings and sit down. The conversation goes on for almost 2 hours. I got to ask a few questions but was kind of nervous in all honesty. Still, here are some of the cool things I learned about Rafael Dolis.

He only started playing baseball when he was 13 years old. He actually grew up playing basketball. He was scouted by major league scouts for the first time when he was 14, by the Boston Red Sox. But he didn’t know what they were asking him, and he was really nervous when they talked to him, so he didn’t end up agreeing to anything. He later (at age 16?) got scouted by the Chicago Cubs, with whom he played for 10 years (mostly in the minors, of course). He started out as a shortstop, though. He was “only” 5’11” (180 cm) at age 16 and hit the ball reasonably well, but at one point decided he didn’t want to bat anymore. He wanted to be a pitcher. He told his agent this, and when his agent called the Cubs, they said no. He was not a pitcher. He threw some down in the Dominican, hitting 95 and higher on the radar gun. The Cubs finally agreed to let him try pitching, but he “had better be good.” Otherwise, he would be unconditionally cut – no returning to short, nothing. His first bullpen with the Cubs, he only threw 85 miles per hour. But he got better and better, and even got his fastball up to 100 mph at one point.

He and Mateo were teammates with the Cubs, as was Kyuji Fujikawa. After several years in the Cubs organization, he was released. He made his way to the San Francisco Giants, where he was in the locker room and was amazed at how good team harmony was. There were no egos, no veterans who thought they were too good for the others… “except that Venezuelan third baseman, what’s his name? He moved on to the Red Sox.” “Pablo Sandoval,” I offer. “Yes, him. But I was sitting there and I wanted to know where Buster Posey, the catcher was sitting. I wanted to talk to him.” (Naturally, because Dolis is a pitcher… he would want to get to know the catcher, right?) “He was sitting just next to me on the other side, laughing because I didn’t recognize him.”

After his release from the Giants, he moved on to the Tigers. San Francisco to Detroit. Not Tokyo to Osaka. Anyways, he spent the season with the AAA Toledo Mud Hens, a team that I learned from my buddy once employed Casey Stengel. Now that’s a team with some history. Well, despite the team being in last place towards the end of last season, they did not bring Dolis up to play and they did not include him on the 40-man roster. (Apparently, doing so would have meant having to guarantee him a certain amount of bonus money, which the team obviously did not want to do.) In any case, it was during his time with the Cubs that he expressed an interest in playing ball in Japan, and here he is.

Dolis must not be standing up straight because he is a lot taller than I am!

Dolis must not be standing up straight because he is a lot taller than I am!

He’s really enjoying his time in Japan so far, though it has not been very long, and his days off have been few and far between. Still, he is learning a few words of Japanese here and there, and is very friendly and personable. Once I got a hang of his accent (after hearing Japanese English for all these years, any other accent will take some getting used to) and was able to block out the TV noise, it was a great conversation. We shook hands, took pictures and he even extended the offer to me to stop by whenever I want to. Careful, man… you might regret those words! Hahaha.

A special thanks to my friend for arranging the tickets and the meeting with a pitcher that I hope gets a chance to excel with the Hanshin Tigers. (Of course, I want every Tiger import to excel, and there’s only room for 4 of them to do so!) Until next time, Rafael… adios!

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T-Ray is the founder, chief writer and Junior Executive Vice President of Hanshin Tigers English News (H-TEN). Find him on Twitter @thehanshintiger.