Spring Camp Report – Ishigaki, Baseball Paradise

I’ve been back from Ishigaki about a week now but the memories and good feelings about the 2012 Marines are still very fresh in my mind. There’s just something about escaping the winter chill and relaxing in the sun watching your team get ready for the season that clears the mind.

Ishigaki goes all out for Lotte Spring Camp. There’s signs everywhere, pamphlets and special newspapers. Even my hotel had a special “Baseball Cheering” package. Once people found out I was in town for baseball, it was all anybody wanted to talk about.

“Steve, I just don’t get last year”
(This was within 5 minutes of my arrival at the hotel and within 30 minutes of my plane touching down)
“Well, it was a crappy season. No runs = hard to win games”
“Yeah, but… We threw a victory parade last spring and everything!”

Yes, yes they did. The recent lack of success for two of Ishigaki’s favorite sons – Yuta and Shota Ishimine – was also a hot topic.

Me, to taxi driver: “It’s nice that Ishigaki really supports Lotte”
Taxi Driver: “Eh. Yuta’s no good. Disappointing.”
“Well, yeah, he didn’t have much of a year last year. But Shota?”
“Eh, he’s no good either”

Harsh! But hey, Ishigaki is such a small place that I suppose favorite sons are very much like actual sons – everybody’s allowed to be critical. Me? Well I LOVE Marines so I like to focus on the positive. And really, there’s a whole lot positive going on in Lotte land.

My biggest desire this training camp was to see No. 18 in action – our #1 draft pick Takahiro Fujioka. Well, I sure got to see plenty of Fujioka, right off the bat! After dropping my stuff off at the hotel and taxi-ing it to the camp site, I was just in time to catch the first action of the year, the “Kohaku-sen” intrasquad game. On the hill – Fujioka vs #2 draft pick, Yuhei Nakaushiro. Starting at short for the red team – #3 pick Daichi Suzuki. And #4 draft pick Naoya Masuda would make an appearance later in the game. All the rookies in one spot! Close to heaven, for sure.

Fujioka went three innings and looked lovely doing so. I mentioned as much on my Facebook during the game, and not 30 seconds later Shota Ishimine smashed a HR to right. Still – lovely. Nakaushiro, not so much. He got knocked around pretty good. He’s been struggling a bit in camp so far so I think he will probably get the start in Ni-gun for the season.

Fujioka? Rock star. Everybody I talked to expects, maybe even demands that he’s in the rotation this year. When he hit the bullpen for some simulated pitching on Sunday, everybody showed up to watch. Everybody!

Signing session for selected fans? Despite the “random” nature of the draw, Fujioka had 2x as many lined up as anybody else. Including me!*

*OK, I must confess that I had to pull a little Gaijin Smash to get to meet Fujioka-san. My random ticket was to meet players I had already met so I had to come up with a scheme to meet Fujioka. With some friends of mine, I schemed. “Steve, just hop in the next line and slide over at the last minute” “No, they’re checking tickets.” “Steve, just pretend you don’t speak Japanese” “C’mon, everybody knows me here.” Here’s what I did. I went to the neighboring line, stood around looking confused/upset. One staff member came to help and I said “Oh, I am supposed to be in line 3 (Fujioka’s line) but my ticket. It fell!” “Oh, just hop in!” Several people looked at me dubiously, and I still had to make it past the young gatekeeper in front of Fujioka-san. When I got to her I repeated the same story. “My ticket? Oh, it fell.” Sneer. “It fell.” “Fell.” …….. “Whatever, just go ahead”. Yay!

In the three days I was at camp I was able to meet quite a few players, and actually talk with a few for a few minutes. Fujioka-san, not so much, but I did have a chat with Atsushi Kobayashi, Hiroki Ueno, and Shunsuke Watanabe! So cool. Kobayashi was quite laid back as he seemed content to just hang around and chat like he had nothing better to do. Ueno was funny, too:

Ueno, signing my shiki: “Thank you!”
“Oh, you speak English?”
“No, only ‘Thank you'(laughs)”

Ueno-kun and Shunsuke had plenty of fans wanting to get signatures and take pictures with them and both were relaxed and seemingly happy to spend the time chatting with the fans. Honestly, you just don’t get that when you’re at the stadium during the heat of the season – you gotta go to camp to catch the players when they are relaxed.

We’ve had two new foreign additions as well; both are quite familiar to NPB fans. The most prominent addition is Seth Greisinger, formerly of Yakult and (grr) the Kyojin. He’s been injured most of the past two years but if he is anywhere near the form he had his first two years in Tokyo Dome, in our pitcher’s park, look out. Could be a very good pick up indeed.*

*I talked to Seth for maybe a minute or so as he was leaving training. He was nice, and had obviously been around enough to be a bit of a politician about chatting with fans (I don’t mean that negatively at all!) I asked him if he liked his time with Lotte so far and he replied “Best fans in Japan, so yeah” Certainly it’s true!

I got to see a bit of our other pickup in the two Kohaku games – Former Yakult slugger Josh Whitesell. Josh had a lovely 2010 season and a bit of a downer last year. He’s probably going to be sitting in the DH role for the season so hopefully he comes close to what he gave the Swallows in 2010. We could use the pop!

Much more to come. I changed the format of my image uploads to a clickable gallery. I’m sure my large, inline images weren’t so easy to read before so hopefully this is a cleaner look. Some of these are duplicated from the last post but most are new for this one.

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