Sunday, February 14, 2016

Two Days In Peoria

As I've mentioned before, the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters are doing their "winter camp" in Peoria, Arizona for the past two weeks at the Padres spring training complex.  They will wrap everything up tomorrow and head for Nago, Okinawa on Tuesday for the remainder of spring training.

I had an extended business trip that involved babysitting a rack of equipment in Yuma, Arizona for a test event so I was not far away during much of the Fighters' camp.  I wasn't sure exactly when I was going to get there for a while but finally everything fell into place and I was able to spend last Tuesday and Wednesday (the 9th and 10th) in Peoria.  This worked out very well for me for a number of reasons - number one is that Deanna Rubin arrived in Peoria in time for camp on Monday and was able to give me a heads up on what to expect, number two is that Deanna and Dani would both be there when I was and would be able to help me out in getting autographs (and generally just be awesome to hang out with) and number three is that Shohei Ohtani was going to pitch two innings in the exhibition game against the Lotte Giants on Wednesday afternoon.  I love it when a plan comes together.

I showed up to camp at around 9 AM on Tuesday morning but the gates did not open until 9:30.  After going in I discovered that the Fighters were already on the practice fields working out.  I walked around a bit, watching catcher drills (I think) on one field and pitcher fielding practice on another.  I was trying to identify players but I was having issues because (1) I don't know the Fighters real well and (2) they were wearing some sort of workout jersey that had small uniform numbers on them.  I managed to get an autograph from Brandon Laird but wasn't quite sure how to proceed when I ran into Dani - I had never met her or Deanna before but I recognized her from Deanna's post and Deanna had given her a heads up that I'd be there so we were both on the look out for each other.  Deanna showed up a little bit later and the two of them were able to point out players that I had cards of that I could autographs on.  I got Hirotoshi Masui and pitching coach Masato Yoshii relatively quickly after that.  We hung out where the pitchers were working out for a bit while Yuki Saitoh was throwing - eventually we were able to catch him coming off the field and Deanna got her picture taken with him while I got a card signed - if he only knew how mean the two of us had been to him over the years he probably wouldn't have been so nice!  (Deanna has more details on our encounter with him in her post on the day's activities.)  I also was able to get Tomohiro Kuroki to sign a card on his way to lunch.

After a bit of a break to go back to Dani's hotel to say goodbye (and hello in my case) to Joe who'd been hanging out with Dani for a few days but had to fly home to Boston that afternoon and to go get lunch ourselves, we returned in time to watch Shoheo Ohtani take batting practice.  Deanna had told me that there were a number of people in camp that I hadn't brought baseball cards for and I had stopped at Target that morning to pick up some 3x5 index cards just in case I ran into any of them.  I used one to get former Fighters pitcher Yoshinori Tateyama's autograph.  There were some amusing moments while we watched Ohtani hit - at one point Tateyama had moved onto the field right in front of us, gotten hold of a baseball and whirled and threw it into the fence right in front of us.  He then grabbed his shoulder and said "OW!  I can't throw".  When Ohtani was finished hitting, coach Kazuyuki Shirai, who had been hitting fungoes while standing next to the batting cage, turned to the assembled media people who were watching and said (in Japanese but Deanna translated it for me) something along the lines of "OK, he's done.  Go somewhere else now!"  I made an attempt to get Ohtani's autograph but he declined to sign.  I was able to get Daikan Yoh (on his 2006 BBM 1st Version rookie card when he was still going by Chung-Shou Yang) along with coaches Shirai and Shinji Takahashi.  I also got an autograph of recently retired Fighters catcher Satoshi Nakajima on a 3x5 index card.

By 3:30-ish training camp was pretty much done - the player's were going inside to do there weight training.  There wouldn't be much opportunity to see the players again until they were finished and heading across the parking lot for their hotel so the three of us decided to split up and head for our individual hotels with the intent to meet up again in an hour or so.  I got checked into my hotel and relaxed for a bit before heading back over around 4:30 or so.  I think I just missed Ohtani - he was heading across the parking lot as I got out of my car.  He was surrounded by a bunch of people but he wasn't stopping to sign for anyone so I didn't see any reason to pursue him.  I did chase Kensuke Kondoh across the parking lot after Dani showed up and pointed him out to me - he was gracious enough to stop and sign my card.  Deanna soon joined up and we had a lot of fun hanging out and watching for players and coaches - I was able to get autographs of Hiromi Oka and coach Shinichi Kawana.  (Kawana was kind of funny - Deanna and I were kind of running after him on the parking lot with her calling out "He's got an old card of you to sign" while I was desperately trying to find the card!)  We stuck around until around 6:30 or so before calling it a night and going our separate ways.

I got over to camp at around 9-ish again on Wednesday and walked around the "big" ballpark that the game would be played in that afternoon while I waited for the gates to open.  Once inside, I again just hung out for a while watching practices going on on different fields.  At one point I tried to get Shota Ohno to sign a card but he called out to me that he had to practice.  I did catch Luis Mendoza and Kenta Uehara however - although my worst fear was realized with Uehara at one point.  I had seen him go into a dugout at the field where Yoh, Laird and Sho Nakata were taking batting practice and approached someone that I thought was him coming back out of the dugout a few minutes later - it wasn't him!  I apologized and went back to the field to wait.  Luckily after another few minutes Uehara did come out (he had a uniform top on so I could see his number) and he signed the card for me.  I struck up a conversation with a guy named Richard who was sitting in the stands and ended up trading a Shohei Ohtani card to him for a baseball he had gotten during the week - apparently the Fighters were using a ball that just had the Fighters' logo on it for practice and maybe for the exhibition games as well.  When Nakata came off the field after he was done hitting both Richard and I tried to see if he would sign but he just kept walking.  I was able to get Fighters coach Makoto Kaneko to sign a card as he was coming off the field however - he was with an American I didn't recognize in a Padres cap who was kind of amused to see a card of Kaneko from his playing days.

Deanna showed up just after this and we hung out for a bit.  She ran into a Red Sox scout that she had met in Japan back when he worked for the Marines and we talked with him for a bit and then she ran into former Fighter Fernando Seguignol who is now a scout for the Cubs and we talked with him for a longer time.  He also signed an index card for me.  It was rapidly getting close to game time at this point and we were getting ready to head over to the "big" ballpark when a golf card pulled up and deposited Fighters manager Hideki Kuriyama near us.  He was basically rounding up all the remaining players and coaches but he was gracious enough to stop and sign an autograph for me.  I had figured it was a long shot at best that I was going to get him to sign so I was very happy that I got him.

We got over to the ballpark and grabbed seats in the front row above the Fighters dugout where Dani soon joined us.  Deanna had brought an Ohtani cheer towel that she set up over the dugout where hopefully he would see it when he came off the field but it didn't look like he ever did.  We occupied our time waiting for the game to start by taking a ton of pictures and looking to see who was around.  There were a lot of scouts sitting behind home plate and there was also a guy who cosplays as Yu Darvish who goes by the name "Minivish".  Deanna pointed out where Atsunori Inaba was sitting and I ran over to get his autograph on an index card.  He was getting fitted for a wire when I walked up - presumably for commentary during the game but who knows, maybe it was for a sting on Kazuhiro Kiyohara - so I had to wait a few minutes but he was very nice.  I meant to get a picture with him but it didn't happen.

The game itself went by pretty quickly.  Ohtani started and went two innings.  He faced seven batters, gave up one hit and struck out four.  The Fighters scored a run in the sixth and looked like they were going to win but the Giants scored a run in the bottom of the ninth to tie it up and that's how it ended.  Most of the Fighters' starters were out of the game by the fourth and most of the scouts had departed shortly after Ohtani was done pitching.  I had to leave shortly after the game ended to get ready to return to Maryland the following day (and try to adjust to temperatures in the 20s after two weeks of Arizona sun) so I said my goodbyes to Deanna and Dani.  Deanna was heading to the Phoenix Suns game that evening while Dani was planning on coming back out to parking lot in a little bit like we had the previous evening.  I found out from reading her twitter feed that I probably would have gotten Ohtani and Nakata's autographs if I had come back out but I was pretty exhausted at that point (hadn't slept well the previous few nights) so I'm content with what I got.  I managed to get 15 of the 27 cards I had brought out autographed along with four others on index cards.

It was great getting to meet Deanna in person after something like 10 years of corresponding with her on-line and I can't thank her and Dani enough for helping me get autographs and letting me hang out with them.  It was great meeting Dani, Joe and Richard and a lot of fun getting to talk with Fernando Seguignol too.  I really had a blast and I wish I could have stayed longer.

Check out Deanna's posts for Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday/Friday to see more details about what was going on, both when I was there and when I wasn't.  The Fighters official spring training information page has links to summaries for each day as well (and there's at least a couple photos that you can see me in the background).

This post has had a lot of text so far so now I'm going to inundate you with a lot of pictures:


Tower in the center of the practice fields

Ohtani doing pitcher fielding drills

Masato Yoshii overseeing the pitchers workout

Yoshii signing for me

Shohei Ohtani

Ohtani batting

Ohtani talking to Makoto Kaneko

Satoshi Nakajima signing for me

Deanna getting her picture taken with Takumi Ohshima

Daikan Yoh was a menace on his bicycle (he's the lead blur)
Spring Training for umpires as well

Fernando Seguignol

Hideki Kuriyama

Flags at the big ballpark - the flag in the lower left is the Fighers

Back of the scoreboard

Gate at the ballpark

Makoto Kaneko

Deanna and her Ohtani towel

One of the Lotte players doffed his hat when passing the Fighters dugout

Sho Nakata

Daikan Yoh

Takuya Nakashima
Deanna & Minivish

Haruki Nishikawa

Yoh leading off second

Ohtani warming up with Shota Ohno

Sho Nakata batting with Yoh leading off third


Ohtani pitching in the first

Ohtani and Ryo Ishikawa

Brandon Laird

Ohtani pitching in the second

More Ohtani pitching in the second

Daikan Yoh batting

Kohei Arihara

Sung Bae Kim

Go Matsumoto

Nishikawa scoring the Fighters only run

Yu Yeong Kim

Final score
And finally, here are scans of all the autographs I got, more or less in the order I got them:

Yoshinori Tateyama

Satoshi Nakajima

Fernando Seguignol

Atsunori Inaba


Jason Presley said...

Just occurred to me after reading all of this that you probably have some Lotte Giants cards you could have gotten signed as well. Sounds like you had a blast.

SumoMenkoMan said...

Wow! Great story and it looks like good times were being had by all!

Sean said...

Wow, that looks like it was a lot of fun. Its cool that you could talk to Seguinol too, I`m a fan of his (he used to play for my beloved Expos in addition to his time in Japan).

Fuji said...

What an amazing experience. Super jealous.

NPB Card Guy said...

@Jason - I thought about it but I thought it was best to concentrate on the Fighters given the amount of time I had. I had considered driving up from Yuma on Sunday the 31st to drive by each of the Korean teams that were training up there but the thought of spending 5 hours in the car just to get there and back after spending about six driving to and from Tucson to visit my uncle the day before was not terribly appealing. And as it turned out it was really good that I was in Yuma on the 31st - more about that in a few days...

Deanna said...

It was great to meet you too! Funny part is that I never got a photo or signature from a bunch of the guys that I called over for you, go figure. But that's okay. There's always next year :)

Seguignol and Matt Winters threw out the ceremonial first pitch on Saturday's game (which I still haven't written up since I basically took off for the airport immediately afterwards). That was pretty exciting.

While I wasn't really expecting to meet Ohtani in the first place (besides that you saw I said good morning to him twice and he replied both times), it's a little funny how I missed both of the times he stopped for people outside the facility afterwards. I showed up on Sunday evening and he'd signed earlier that afternoon; and then the day after I left, the next Sunday, he signed for people outside as well. On Friday there was a Peoria guy who had gotten comp tickets to the games back when the Padres thought they'd be charging admission, and he gave them to me, two pairs. I kept two of the tickets (and got them signed by Taniguchi and Kaneko) and gave one to Dani and one to this other guy Tanaka who had sort of been my wingman for half the week too. Tanaka got his ticket signed by Ohtani on Sunday. I can't even really be jealous because it just seems so random.

Same thing happened with Saitoh -- remember how you and I bothered him on Tuesday and he was Grumpy McBullpenpants? On Friday he was really bouncy and happy for some reason -- he posed for photos smiling with several fans and signed a book for Dani and was pretty much just like chilling out and chatting with fans, and this was just in the area between fields. I really don't know.

OH, and the American guy with Kaneko that time was almost certainly Keith Werman. He works for the Fighters and the Padres and helped coordinate this whole thing. Young guy, brown short hair, about my height, right? I only talked to him a little but he has a pretty sweet story -- he was playing in the Mariners minor league system for a year or two, was interested in going to Japan, ended up doing it as a front office intern instead of as a player.

NPB Card Guy said...

IIRC the guy with Kaneko Wednesday morning was African-American so I don't think it was Keith Werman.