Saturday, February 20, 2016

Yuma, the Swallows and the Arizona Winter League

As I mentioned previously, I was in Yuma, Arizona on business in late January and early February.  Before going there, I didn't really know much about the city.  I only kind of vaguely even know where it was - somewhere in the southwest corner of the state (it turns out it's in a little bump on the Arizona border that's kind of odd - it's south of California and east of Mexico).  About all I really knew about it is that once upon a time the Yakult Swallows did spring training there and the only reason that I know that was because of this card from the 2007 BBM Atsuya Furuta Memorial set (#17):

I did a little research and I discovered that what is now called the Ray Kroc Baseball Complex was the original spring training home of the San Diego Padres.  In some ways Yuma was an idea spring training home for the team as it's only 170 miles east of San Diego - pretty much all on Interstate 8.  Unfortunately it's also about 170 miles from Phoenix where most of the rest of the Cactus League trained which made for long road trips for the team so after 1993, the team moved to a new spring training home at the Peoria Sports Complex near Phoenix, the same facilities that the Fighters used earlier this month.

After doing a little more research I discovered that the Padres were well acquainted with sharing their spring training facilities with a Japanese team.  The Swallows had trained in Yuma for about 20 years, from the late 1970's until the late 1990's.  That picture of Furuta could have been taken any year from 1990 (his rookie season) until 1998 (the Swallows' last year in Yuma) - although the thick red cuff on his jersey identifies a style the Swallows wore from 1990 to 1993 so I can narrow it down a little more.

Armed with this knowledge, I thought it would be fun to drive out to the complex (if it still existed) and get a picture of the water tower (if it still existed) from the same perspective.  If nothing else I figured I could get a "Card Of The Week" post out of it (despite having already used this card in one  last year).  It turns out that the complex (and the water tower) still exist so on the first Sunday that I was in town, I drove over to get a picture.

As you can see, I got the picture of the water tower.  But as you can also see, the field was in use.  I had noticed, of course, that there were a bunch of players on the field as I walked up and I briefly wondered if one of the Korean teams that I had heard was training in Arizona was actually training in Yuma rather than Phoenix or Tucson.  I stopped someone kind of official looking and asked what the players were there for.  I was told that it was spring training for the Arizona Winter League which, of course, lead to a whole bunch of other questions.

In a nutshell, the Arizona Winter League is essentially an extended tryout camp for unsigned players.  There were a hundred or so players on the fields of the complex, working out for a number of coaches.  After two days of workouts, the players would be "drafted" into six teams that would play a 17 game season between February 3rd and the 24th which would allow scouts to view the players in game situations.  The six teams were somewhat misleading named the Edmonton Capitals, the El Paso Tejanos, the Laredo Apaches, the Pericos de Puebla, Team Canada and the Yuma Wranglers.  I say misleadingly as obviously no one was playing any home games anywhere but Yuma and Team Canada actually had no Canadians on it.  I kind of got the feeling that the six teams were basically what uniforms the league had available.

The players for the league come from a wide variety of backgrounds.  A few have experience in major league organizations, a few more have some experience in the independent minors while the vast majority of them are former college and high school players.  There are a couple 19 year olds and two pitchers in their 40's but most of the players appear to be in their mid to late 20s.  The only name that seemed vaguely familiar to me was Todd Gossage whose father is Hall Of Fame (and former Fukuoka Daiei Hawk) pitcher Rich Gossage.  Some of the players had been through the Arizona Winter League in previous years (the league has actually played every year since 2007 although I believe the last two were actually held in San Antonio, not Yuma).

What I was most intrigued about the league was that there were a handful of Japanese players involved.  Once the rosters were published, I quickly went through them to see if there were any familiar names, any former NPB player trying to continue his career in America?  I was disabused of this pretty quickly.  None of the names looked familiar and none of them had spent any time in NPB, at least according to Baseball-Reference.  I asked Deanna Rubin to take a look figuring if anyone was going to know who any of these guys were, it would be her.  She didn't recognize anyone off the top of her head but she did a little bit of research and found some information about some of the guys.

Here's the list of the Japanese players with what the rosters that they handed out at the games said about them (the EXP column):

Name Team DOB EXP
Abe, Yoshiya Yuma Wranglers 5/12/1991 INT - College In Japan
Aoyama, Kazuaki Edmonton Capitals 10/8/1979 INT - Japanese Club Team
Ehata, Shuya Edmonton Capitals 2/8/1992 INT - Japanese Club Team
Fukaya, Genki Team Canada 12/19/1993 INT - Japanese Club Team
Hashimoto, Naoki El Paso Tejanos 6/7/1990 AFF - Cleveland Indians (R), TWL
Iwasaki, Koya Laredo Apaches 7/1/1993 INT - Japanese Club Team
Kaneda, Kyohei Edmonton Capitals 12/8/1992 INT - College In Japan
Kotabe, Takeshi Pericos de Puebla 11/6/1992 INT - Japanese Club Team
Kunitomi, Tatsuhiro El Paso Tejanos 2/11/1993 INT - Keio University, CWL
Kusama, Satoru Edmonton Capitals 5/15/1993 CO - Clackamas CC
Machita, Takanori El Paso Tejanos 10/14/1978 INT - Auburn Orioles (Australian), 2014 TWL
Maeda, Yuki Yuma Wranglers 8/30/1993 INT - Tohoku Tech University (Japan)
Motoyama, Takayoshi Edmonton Capitals 9/2/1991 INT - Japanese Club Team
Muraki, Yoshimitsu Edmonton Capitals 9/15/1980 INT - Japanese Club Team
Sakaguchi, Fumitaka Team Canada 4/26/1991 INT - Oceans 9 (Indy Japan), Kobe Sound (Indy Japan), Puerto Rico Winter Ball, Ishikawa Millon Stars (Japan)
Sanogawa, Ryo Yuma Wranglers 4/23/1993 INT - Japanese Club Team
Shirakashi, Shota Team Canada 9/28/1992 INT - Japan, 2012 AWL
Shiroto, Hayate Edmonton Capitals 5/25/1994 INT - Japanese Club Team
Sugi, Naomichi Pericos de Puebla 11/24/1990 INT - Fukui Miracle Elephants (Japan Indy), Niigata Albirex
Takahashi, Shion Edmonton Capitals 9/13/1996 INT - Japanese Indy Team

With Deanna's help, I've found out a little about a couple of these guys.  Naoki Hashimoto made 13 appearances with the Indians Arizona League team in 2013 and 2014.  His Japanese Wikipedia page says that he went to PL Gakuen high school (becoming the ace pitcher after Kenta Maeda was drafted), dropped out to join the NOMO baseball team, went to Hannan University for a couple years before dropping out to join the Kobe Sands of the Kansai Independent League in 2012.  After spending most of 2013 with the Indians, he pitched in one game for the Kishu Rangers, also from the Kansai Independent League.  He returned to the Indians for only one game in 2014, then joined the Fukui Miracle Elephants of the Baseball Challenge (BC) League.  He spent 2015 with the 06Bulls of the Baseball First League.  It looks like he failed a tryout with the Kagawa Olive Guyners of the Shikoku Island League last fall.  Tatsuhiro Kunimoto appeared in one game in his four years at Keio University - he did not get an at bat.  Naomichi Sugi is another former NOMO baseball team member in addition to his stints with Niigata and Fukui.  I found 2013 stats for Satoru Kusama with both Clackamas Community College and the Portland Toros of something called the West Coast League Portland.  Kazuaki Aoyama, Takanori Machita and Yoshimitsu Muraki are all in their late 30's and I wonder if they are all industrial league veterans who decided to try their luck over here.

There are three games played every day.  There are two games in the morning (10 AM during the week and 11 AM on the weekend) and one game in the afternoon (1 PM during the week and 2 PM on the weekend officially but the afternoon game usually starts soon after the morning game ends).  My work schedule for the week the league started originally looked like it was going to accommodate going to the morning games as I didn't need to be at work until 3 PM that week but I ended up only getting to games on February 3rd (Opening Day) and February 6th.  I needed to come in early on the 4th and 5th, the league was off on the 7th and I left Yuma on the 8th.

I mentioned before that the league had spent the last two years in Texas rather than Yuma.  While the league was gone, Desert Sun Stadium, the main ballpark at the complex was converted into a soccer stadium.  From what the office manager for the league told me, it sounded like the outfit that converted the stadium to soccer had intended to bring a team to Yuma but had gone bankrupt before it happened.  So now there's a very nice soccer stadium that no one is using and the AWL had to play on a couple of the practice fields that were only maybe a hundred feet apart.  Foul balls from one game could (and did) land on the field of the other.  The stands were small metal bleachers with maybe five benches placed behind the foul screen between the dugouts and home plate.

Tickets for the games were $5 or you could buy a season pass for $20.  Considering the facilities they weren't drawing too badly.  Yuma has a large population of snowbirds from Canada and the league is a cheap diversion for a lot of them.  There was one couple from Saskatchewan I spoke to both days I was there who told me that they were rooting for Team Canada even though there were no Canadians on it.  Of course, at this point they're really only rooting for laundry.

The games were interesting although frequently lopsided (one of the issues with leagues of this type and independent baseball in general is that if the pitchers were any good, they wouldn't be here).  Due to the lack of crowd noise it was easy to hear the players and coaches talking to each other.  It was also easy to hear Marky Billson, the voice of the Arizona Winter League, doing play by play for the league's internet radio broadcasts from basically a card table set up behind home plate at one of the fields.  There was no PA announcer at the park so pretty much the only way to know who a player was at times was to listen to him.  That's when he knew - sometimes he'd leave his table and run over to the dugout to find out who someone was.  

Here are some pictures I took at the games:

Sign for the complex

Only advertisement I saw for the league
The "broadcast booth" for the league

Ozzie Canseco is one of the coaches for the league

Marky Billson asking Canseco about a player's name

Evidence that the Swallows had actually once played here
I tried to get pictures of the Japanese players.  I didn't get a lot of them but I did get some.  I felt kind of like a stalker actually.

Yoshimitsu Muraki of Edmonton

Pretty sure this is Takayoshi Motoyama of Edmonton

Shion Takahashi of Edmonton

Takeshi Kotabe of Pericos de Puebla

Naomichi Sugi of Pericos de Puebla

Yuki Maeda of Yuma
There's two other pictures of Japanese players that have a little story behind them.  While I watched the El Paso - Yuma game on February 6th, I became aware of a bit of a commotion in the bullpen area.  El Paso pitcher Naoki Takahashi was warming up.  The coach was asking him how fast he could throw like that and it took me a second to realize that Takahashi was warming up left handed.  Which isn't a big deal unless you happened to know that he's a right handed pitcher.  I don't know if he's pitched at all in the league as a lefty but it was fun watching him throw.

I had struggled some during the El Paso-Yuma game to try to get a good picture of Tatsuhiro Kunitomi.  The sight lines at the ballpark were pretty bad for getting pictures due to the cyclone fencing between the bleachers and the fields.  So I decided that I'd actually approach him after the game to get a picture.

I told him I had a friend who was a Keio fan and he expressed surprise that anyone in the US had heard of Keio.  We spoke for a few minutes - his English wasn't very good but it was much better than my meager (and that's being very generous) Japanese - and I wished him good luck.  What was entertaining about this is that one of Kunitomi's Keio teammates is Akihiro Hakumura of the Fighters.  Deanna told him that Kunitomi was in Yuma on Monday in Peoria and on Tuesday we showed him this picture.

And speaking of the Fighters, I was somewhat surprised to see that on the off day they had the day after the exhibition game that Ohtani pitched (the day I was finally going home), manager Hideki Kuriyama made the three hour drive down to Yuma to visit the AWL!  And actually it makes some amount of sense as Kuriyama played for the Swallows from 1984 to 1990 and would have trained with them in Yuma.

The league has another couple days before the "regular" season ends.  There will be playoffs this coming Friday and Saturday with the Championship Game on Sunday.  It will be interesting to see who gets signed out of the league and if any of the Japanese players end up in any major league organizations.

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