Hanshin’s Senior Advisor, Yutaka Wada (54) has started a special column. In this one, he answers a reader’s question: “Which imports in Hanshin history left a mark on you?” Wada answered thusly:
The first import that left an impression on me was Randy Bass, who was with the team when I joined in 1985. He was the most equipped batter I ever met.
Many of you already know this, but he loved playing shogi. Even during the short time between pre-game practice and the ensuing meeting, he and (Kozo) Kawatoh would exchange a few moves. He would take on anyone. He even asked me to play a few times, but as a younger inexperienced player, I didn’t have time to play shogi. By the time I was able to get to the table, the game was already over, so unfortunately I don’t remember ever playing him.
He apparently learned the game from Mr. Kawatoh, and by the time I met him, he was already really good… and he just kept getting better and better! He was really smart. I have a feeling his ability to play shogi well came from his ability to read pitchers’ next moves well, too.
As far as pure home run hitting ability goes, I’d have to say Cecil Fielder. When he put his bat on the ball, it flew far. His were not mere home runs; I saw countless home runs of his leave the stadium altogether. But he wasn’t able to hit anything early on. He couldn’t even get wood on breaking balls in spring training and exhibition games. He would sometimes come to the park saying, “I dreamt I struck out on a slider.” But he studied the Japanese way of playing, and increased his contact rate. Before you knew it, he had hit 38 home runs. I wonder how many he would have hit if he had stayed around for another year…
He was tough as nails, but also a really friendly, jovial guy. He sometimes even got out of hand and got yelled at by coaches. He really tried hard to fit in and understand the Japanese culture. It seems to me that the players who try hardest to understand Japanese culture and fit into it are the ones who have the most successful careers here.
When it comes to pure hitters, I’d have to say Tom O’Malley and Matt Murton. O’Malley was a clever player, and started putting more balls into play the opposite way because he recognized that the winds off the coast made pulling the ball to right a bad idea for lefties. But then when he moved to the Yakult Swallows in 1995, making Jingu Stadium his home park, he sprayed the ball all over the field, and clouted 31 home runs in his first year there. He transformed himself into Bass. He was smart and able enough to change his hitting approach based on what stadium he was playing in.
Murton was extremely passionate about research. I’ve never met a player who was so talkative. He could easily talk over 2 hours about baseball once he got started. I remember the day before spring training started in his first year. We always have an all-team meeting the evening before camp starts. Well, before that, he came to my room to talk about hitting, as I was the hitting coach at the time.
“I want to talk to you about something real quick.”
“Is it true that even when pitchers are behind in the count, they won’t throw clean strikes? Do they really throw breaking balls in a 3-ball count?” Wow, I thought to myself, this is a passionate guy. But that was just the beginning. I had to cut him off so we could get to the meeting on time, but looking back, that was probably the shortest baseball talk we ever had.
After games, he would always go to the scorers’ room to review video. That was his routine. His interpreter worked really hard. He was locked up with Murton for a lot of hours. He was a fiend for writing down everything he noticed. And he was constantly looking for ways to improve himself.
Usually guys will study the game carefully when things are going bad, but he even looked for things to improve when things were going well. I would even worry at times that he was going to change something that didn’t need changing. He always wanted more, and at times he took steps backwards on the things he was doing well… but it was all in the name of improving. As a coach, no one left as strong an impression on me as he did.
As a bonus, Senior Advisor Wada mentioned Trey Moore as someone who left an impression on him. “He was a pitcher, but he was incredible at the plate.” Moore was with the team in 2002 and 2003, earning double digits in wins each year. And his career average as an NPB hitter was an amazing .295 (31 of 105). “He held on to his spot on the rotation and contributed to the 2003 pennant. He was good enough to be used as a pinch hitter.”