Some time before the end of the year, I hope to post a top 10 Hanshin Tigers stories of 2016 article… but time is of the essence! In the meantime, here’s a shorter one for you: my personal five top moments as a follower of the team. And… here we go!
5) Going to spring training in Okinawa
For the first time in my life, I was able to head down to Okinawa to see the Hanshin Tigers at their spring training camp in Ginoza. Having lived there 11+ years, I knew the land fairly well, and had a ton of friends to hang out with when the action on the field lagged (or rain meant indoor practices only, which were extremely hard for fans to watch). I arrived in Okinawa on January 31 and made sure I was at camp the next morning… though sleeping in meant not being able to see the “Opening Ceremony” (which took place indoors due to inclement weather anyways). It was really cool to see some of the players up close, watch some bullpens, and meet some of the other hard core Hanshin fans who withstood the elements to see their heroes. If I could, I would go back again in 2017, but right now that is looking doubtful. But I tell ya, once I make it big and am recognized as an official media/liaison guy, I will be there year in and year out! It’s one of the most exciting times of the year!
4) Being on TV twice
On the first day down in Okinawa, the media’s presence was overwhelming. At one point, yours truly was standing outside the practice facility, barely able to see through the three screens and past the cameramen who had established their positions so they could report on players stretching, throwing the ball around, and jogging. I was under my umbrella and saw a reporter going around to different fans and asking them questions. I honestly had no reason to stay any longer – nothing exciting was going on. But I had a feeling that if the reporter saw me, the lone foreigner at camp, he wouldn’t be able to resist at least asking me what I was doing there. Sure enough, he asked. And we spoke. And I was one of just two fans they aired on TV that evening.
The second TV appearance was an interesting one, in that my failed attempt last year landed me on TV this year. Let me explain. I made a Happy Birthday Gene Bacque/Randy Messenger (August 12 and 13, respectively) to parade around at a game on August 12, 2015. (Randy was the starting pitcher that night.) I really hoped it would land me on TV, but alas, nothing came of it. I happened to go to a Tigers game on August 12 of this year, and happened to still have the poster, and figured, what the heck. So I brought it along, and I guess I was sitting in a better part of the stadium, because I made it on TV at the end of the game. It helped that Randy was the winning pitcher and co-hero of the night.
Anyhow, I am not a huge fan of myself, and don’t need to be on TV or anything to gain self-esteem, but it’s still pretty cool to have been on TV’s throughout Kansai twice in the same year, thanks to the Tigers.
Some of you may be familiar with my “bumping into Matt Murton” story. I happened to be at the right Starbucks (there are several in downtown Kobe) on the right day and at the exact right time. All because my friend chose that particular store. Well, while I was down in Okinawa for spring training, as I said earlier, I had lots of friends that I wanted to meet up with. I asked one of my friends where we should meet and at what time. She suggested Obbligato’s at 7:00pm so I texted my other friend, got his approval, and it was set. I happened to arrive early and sat myself down in a position to see them come through the door. I picked up my phone, texted my friends, put my phone down and looked up. Randy Messenger. Marcos Mateo. Mauro Gomez. Matt Hague. Tom O’Malley. Team interpreter. WHOA! So I went up and said hi to them but also let them have a meal in peace. As they were leaving I had to at least ask them for a picture together, and I got my wish. But MAN did I ever feel SMALL standing next to these guys! Anyways, this was like a dream come true in a lot of senses, because I had come down to Okinawa hoping to be able to meet the players and talk to them a little. Little did I know, it would take place far away from the fields of Ginoza, in a little Mexican restaurant that I used to frequent frequently when I lived on the island so many long years ago.
Now, one of the cool things about being a blogger is that people send e-mails and let me know when they are passing through the area. One particular man sent me a notice that he would be in town towards the end of March, just as exhibition season was drawing to a close. Would I like to take in a game with him? Sure, why not? He says he will take care of getting tickets. In fact, it would be Rafael Dolis who would secure them for us. Then he called me the day of the game and said he would be late, so I would have to figure out how to get my ticket from the will call window. What’s a will call window, I asked myself? I googled it and then had to figure out (a) if such a thing existed in Japan; (b) what it is called in Japanese; (c) where it is located at Kyocera Dome. Somehow I managed to do all three successfully. My friend called me again and said that although I had reserved a table at a restaurant in Osaka for myself, him, Dolis, Mateo and Gomez, that dinner would have to be cancelled because Dolis was not with the team for that game. He did his morning workout and headed home. Bummer, I thought. Then, he continued. “I have some things I need to drop off for Dolis. He told me to head to his house after the game. Do you want to come with me and make sure I don’t get lost?” It didn’t take me long to answer that question! So after the game, we head over to where the Tigers import players live during the season. We got in the building, rang him up, and started heading for the elevators. Behind us, we hear, “Hey guys, how you doin’?” It was Hague and his wife. We chatted for a few minutes and rode the elevator up to the floor where Dolis lived. That’s when the fun began. We got to hang out with Dolis for an hour or so, and I got to interview him a little. It was just really cool to be able to make a personal connection with a player, sit in his house, and feel like I was one step closer to “making it” as a “journalist.”
1) Talking with Tigers and their Families
Speaking of journalism, the most exciting thing for me has been “chasing down” current and former Hanshin Tigers. Sometimes they found me, and sometimes I found them, but so far I have been able to have conversations with: Mike Solomko (first ever caucasian import player in the Central League), Gene Bacque (first import player to win the Eiji Sawamura Award), Matt Murton (holder of the NPB single-season hit record for 5 years), Matt Hague (first import to get RBIs in his first three games as a Tiger), and I have also talked with family members of Mike Reinbach (he died tragically in a car accident in 1989), one-time Hanshin manager Don Blasingame (he passed away in 2005), and thanks to my new connection with former Rakuten Eagles GM Marty Kuehnert, I might be able to soon talk with Matt Keough and Randy Bass, too! Let me tell you, being able to talk baseball with people who were on the field during some of the team’s greatest moments is easily the most exciting part of my job.
This past year has been a really exciting one for me personally off the field as well. My wife and I had our second son in September, and while life has been a whole lot more hectic, it is also incredible to have a supportive, loving family with me here in Japan. I am sure 2017 has a lot of excitement in store for the T-Ray clan. I wish you all a safe, joyful end to 2016, and a fabulous new year!