“Me and Bacque are Friends!” Hanshin pitcher Randy Messenger (36) did an interview at his home in Sevierville, Tennessee, and spoke of his surprising connection with former Hanshin pitcher Gene Bacque (80). The legendary righty holds the club’s import record for most wins with 100 – which Messenger will reach with 16 more wins. He looks to lead the team to its first “Nippon Ichi” in 33 years, and become the best import in team history.
You’re coming up on a few records and milestones. Just 16 more wins until…
RM: Until I reach 100 wins. That would tie me with Gene Bacque. I’m aware of it, of course.
How important is it to you?
RM: It’s Bacque’s record, so…
What do you mean by that?
RM: Actually I’m been in close touch with him even during the season.
How did that come about?
RM: At first, Venessa (Randy’s wife) hooked up with him on Facebook. From then, whenever I won games he would send a congratulatory message to her. And when I broke my ankle, he wrote us right away. He really cares about us, and he’s rooting for me. He even said, “I want you to break my record.” So because of that, I have that number on my mind. I don’t know who holds the all-time record for foreigners, but it makes sense to aim to surpass Bacque. I heard he can’t ride planes anymore, but I bet if he was in good enough shape he would be on the plane coming to Japan to see me break his record.
You get to hear about what the old Hanshin Tigers were like, too?
RM: He’s told me a lot. He’d ask me, “What’s the clubhouse look like now?” and when I explained it to him, he would tell me what it used to look like. He also talked about restaurants that were near Koshien back when he was here, and asked me if they were still there. I love hearing about times gone by. When I send him pictures of Koshien, he is really overjoyed.
This year you earn domestic free agency status, and next year you will count as a Japanese on the roster.
RM: Just 18 more days (registered on the top squad) I think.
So is making your next step a big decision?
RM: I dunno. If I intended to change teams, it would be really meaningful. But I have no intention of changing teams. I can tell you with 100% certainty that I will not wear a uniform other than Hanshin’s. I can’t imagine it. They’re really good to us, and I want to reward their kindness to us. I won’t even think about whether things might be better if I were on another team. More important than that, I would love to be remembered as the best import in Hanshin history. Sorry, Bacque (laughs). But I want to be remembered by Hanshin fans in that way. The foreigner with the most wins in Hanshin history. The most innings pitched. The most strikeouts. (Note: He already has that one.) I’d be extremely happy to be remembered by those marks. So I really don’t feel like anything will change just because I earn free agent status.
If that were to happen, perhaps number 54 would even be retired.
RM: That would be awesome. It would be the biggest honor if my accomplishments were that highly esteemed.
How many more years do you want to play?
RM: Three, four years at the very least. If I can play that long, I should be the top name in the record books among foreigners. And of course I wanna win the Nippon Series, too.
Randy Messenger will be arriving in Japan soon. He is scheduled to arrive earlier than he ever has before in this, his ninth season with Hanshin. He’ll undergo a physical and then head down to Okinawa for spring training in Ginoza. He’ll be getting himself in shape for Opening Day, March 30 against the Giants (at Tokyo Dome). Manager Tomoaki Kanemoto has already named him Opening Day starter (his fourth straight, and fifth overall). “It’s a great feeling,” said Messenger, who has also expressed a hunger to pitch on 4 days’ rest – encouraging words from our ace.
RM: I threw my first bullpen session 5 weeks after breaking the bone – 4 weeks after the surgery. The trainers did a great job of getting me to that point. They put a lot of work into getting me back on the field as quickly as possible. I also drank a lot of milk (laughs).
A milk effect?
RM: You need calcium, right? To tell the truth, I don’t know if the milk helped me come back earlier, but I drank over a gallon a day (laughs).
There was still a possibility you wouldn’t be able to throw…
RM: At first I didn’t think I’d be able to come back either. But from the moment that I started thinking it was possible, that became the only important thing to me. When I came back, Coach Kanemoto asked me if I was OK. That first game I threw four innings, and I had a chance to get the win. I asked him if I could throw one more inning, but he told me not to push it. He stopped me from going back out there (laughs).
What did you and the manager talk about when you were ready to come back?
RM: Just before I made my comeback, I said to him, “I love baseball, and I can’t just sit on the bench and watch others play. I hit the gym and did rehab every day so that I could stand on that mound.” I don’t think I took more than one day off after coming back from my surgery in San Francisco. The manager knew that, and when the playoffs rolled around he had nothing more to say. He treated me as though the injury had never even happened. I was really happy about that.
What do you remember about that game?
The cheering sounded different from the mound that day. Different than usual. It gave me the strength I needed. I remember that clearly even to this day.
Coach Kanemoto has already named you as the Opening Day starter.
RM: Before I left for America he didn’t mention it, but when I got back here I heard the news. I was glad. I feel as though the manager is really counting on me. I mean, to make that decision as early as November… it means a lot to me that the manager trusts me that much.
On the other hand, someone has to start to challenge you for that honor…
RM: You can’t just fluke your way to a good record. There’s always a reason for it. I really felt that to be true as I was doing my rehab. No way I could have made it back into the bullpen 5 weeks after the injury without hard work. Hope the young guys noticed that.
And you can’t win by yourself. The young guys have to develop, too.
RM: I think there’s always room for a pitcher to grow. In what areas? You gotta figure that out for yourself. Anyways, you can’t be satisfied with where you are. You gotta always try to get better. You need that feeling.
If you don’t, there’s no way to keep getting results year in and year out.
RM: I’ve thrown 143 innings (the minimum to qualify for titles) for 7 straight seasons. I heard I’m the only guy in Japan to have done so. I’m kind of proud of that.
Are you hoping to throw 200 innings this season?
RM: If the team is winning, no personal goals matter. But if I throw over 200 innings, it probably means the team will be able to win.
In the majors, you get 30 or more starts, but in Japan it’s more like 26?
RM: So to throw 200 innings in 26 starts you have to go 7+ innings per start. I’d rather get 29 or 30 starts. I’m ready to go whenever the manager calls on me, whether on 5 days rest or even 4.
What are your thoughts about pitchers doing a lot of running in their workouts?
RM: There are a lot of opinions on this, but I feel like I can’t build my stamina if I don’t run.
When you’re on the road in Tokyo, I hear you leave from Tokyo Dome and do a lap around the Emperor’s Palace.
RM: I try to do that the day after my start. It takes about 45 minutes. I wake up, run, work up a sweat, shower, eat lunch… that’s my day.
And do the other players run that much?
RM: Not as much as I do. Sometimes I ask if any of them want to go with me, but no one joins me (laughs). Either way, I feel like I need to do long distance running, and I make sure I get it done.
And in the offseason?
RM: In the offseason I run like an hour or so. Not every day, mind you. I also run to the mailbox and back. From my house it’s like a mile and a half in all. And most of it is hills. It’s a good workout! (laughs)
What other training are you doing?
RM: I don’t have anyone to play catch with, but I throw a ball into a net from different distances. I throw like 60 pitches or so. I don’t have a bullpen, but I have like 40 yards or so. My shoulder is in good shape. I think I’ll be able to throw my first bullpen on Day 1 of camp. Camp is coming soon, so I’ve been training while wearing a low oxygen mask almost every day. I wear a sauna suit while running 45 minutes – build up a real good sweat. The low oxygen mask is the hardest workout. It’s like working out at an elevation of 2700 meters. I also have a weight room at my dad’s place, and he lives just down the hill from us.
Because of heavy snow, the interview got delayed by a day. I was shocked at how huge his property was when I got there. His yard is about 4.3 times the size of Tokyo Dome. It really is a 2.4 kilometer round trip journey just to fetch the mail, and as Messenger said, “it’s a great workout because there are lots of ups and downs.”
As I entered his home, his four children greeted me at the door. They didn’t have school that day because of the snow. When Messenger started chopping wood, they began to help him knock down the horse stable. In the afternoon as Messenger started to throw the ball into the net, the kids, who were wearing gloves, would warm up the balls and hand them to their daddy. Everyone looked like they were having fun.
I ended up staying with the family until evening. The next day, I heard Messenger would be doing a workout with a low oxygen mask, so I came back. I just want to thank the Messenger family for accommodating my request to do this interview despite the frenzy of getting ready for their trip back to Japan. Thank you very much!
- Correspondent Masayoshi Tamba