A few thoughts on Vin Scully

By Ed Odeven
TOKYO (May 30, 2016) —In the final season of Vin Scully’s remarkable announcing career, there have been many fine tributes to the legendary broadcaster.

Scully’s humility despite the constant attention is admirable. His polite demeanor is impressive, too.

He is, after all, a big shot. A living legend.

But he doesn’t act like one. He doesn’t boast constantly about his longevity as a broadcaster or his huge list of accolades in the business.

He does his job. He broadcasts Los Angeles Dodgers games. He lives his life.

In his May cover story for Sports Illustrated, Tom Verducci provided quality insights on Scully’s day-to-day life (http://www.si.com/mlb/2016/05/10/vin-scully-dodgers-tom-verducci-profile). He mentioned the fact that Scully is a longtime parishioner at St. Jude the Apostle Catholic Church in Westlake Village, California.

And so I reached out to Father Jim Stehly at St. Jude, asking him via email about how he feels Scully has carried himself at the church and how he has been a role model on and off the airwaves.

Father Stehly wrote back with these words: “I’ll say this about Vin:  He’s made extreme Dodger fans of us all here at St. Jude’s! He’s been a parishioner here far longer than I’ve been pastor (three years).  But I can tell you that one of the greatest things about being here at St. Jude’s is finding out that Vin Scully is indeed exactly the man that we all want to think he is.”

Eddie Oropesa’s story: Living every day like it’s his last

This feature on Arizona Diamondbacks reliever Eddie Oropesa appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun in April 2002.

Living every day like it’s his last

By Ed Odeven

PHOENIX (April 20, 2002) — Veteran pitcher Eddie Oropesa treasures every day. For him, every day is a blessing, another day to do what he loves.

“Every day when I wake up I thank God, come to the ballpark and give 100 percent,” he said.

With Oropesa’s optimistic outlook and pitching talents, he’s been a positive addition to the Arizona Diamondbacks.

A free-agent pickup by the D-backs during the off-season, Oropesa arrived at the D-backs’ spring training camp in Tucson as a non-roster invitee. A slight hamstring strain limited his availability during Cactus League action — he made six appearances. And with injuries causing veteran pitchers Armando Reynoso (neck), Todd Stottlemyre (shoulder), Matt Mantei (elbow) and Greg Swindell (shoulder) to begin the season on the disabled list, Oropesa was given an opportunity to make Arizona’s Opening Day roster.

It was not an opportunity Oropesa would waste.

“He got the ball and little by little he was breaking in,” D-backs pitcher Miguel Batista said.

“He was really excited the day they told him he made the team.”

Through Friday, Oropesa, a submarine-style lefty, has been the busiest reliever out of the D-backs’ bullpen, making 11 appearances. He’s tied with four others for the most appearances in the National League. Oropesa’s ERA sky-rocketed to 5.23 after a shaky outing Friday.

PURSUING A DREAM

Oropesa, 30, was born and raised in Cuba. He attended the University of Matanzas. On the baseball-crazed island where talent is abundant, Oropesa made the Cuban National Team.

However, he yearned for more. He wanted a better life for his family. He wanted to pursue his dream of playing in the major leagues. And he wanted freedom from dictator Fidel Castro’s communist regime.

“When I had my first opportunity, I said I wanted to defect,” Oropesa said.

While in Buffalo, N.Y., in 1993 for an exhibition game between a Cuban traveling team and a team from South Korea, Oropesa defected. He climbed over a fence at the ballpark and never looked back. Oropesa’s wife Rita was pregnant at the time with the couple’s first-born child, Edilberto, back in Cuba.

It was not an easy road to take. Oropesa toiled for eight years in the minors, starting with the St. Paul Saints of the Independent Northern League in 1993. He pitched in four games that year for the Saints, posting a 3-1 record with a 1.93 ERA.

The Los Angeles Dodgers drafted him in the 14th round of the amateur draft the following year. The well-traveled Oropesa pitched for Vero Beach in 1994, San Antonio, Vero Beach and San Bernardino in ’95, San Bernardino in ’96, Shreveport in ’97, The President Lions in Taiwan (Chinese Professional Baseball League) in ’98, Fresno, Bakersfield and Reynosa (Mexican League) in ’99 and Shreveport again in 2000.

Many ballplayers would have given up and changed professions. Oropesa did not. He kept with it, kept striving to get a shot at “The Show.”

Oropesa, a non-roster invitee to the Philadelphia Phillies camp last spring, made a good impression, pitching in 13 exhibition games without giving up an earned run.

Finally, he made his major-league debut last season with the Philadelphia Phillies and pitched on Opening Day

“I’ve gone through so much, fighting and struggling,” Oropesa was quoted as saying at the time in the Miami Herald. “There were times in the past eight years I felt my head was going to explode from all the pressure inside it. I came here to be free, to have a future, to give my son a life different from the one I had, and to see him in the crowd.”

“It’s hard to play so many years in the minor leagues, especially those first few years when my family was back in Cuba,” he said earlier this week.

Oropesa’s wife and three kids and his parents now live in the United States. He said they are grateful to enjoy the freedom and opportunities that exist in America.

Pitching in Cuba helped prepare Oropesa for the high-pressure situations of being a major leaguer. He said that no ballplayers influenced his pitching style. Instead, he credits his father, Eddie, for passing on to him his love for the game.

“I thank my father every day for taking me to the park in Centrales Espana, Cuba,” he said.

MAKING HIS MARK

Oropesa feels grateful for the opportunity to pitch for the D-backs.

“I was very happy when they called to my against to come to spring training to try out for the World Champs,” he said.

“Every day when I come into the ballpark, I’m ready to play. They gave me the opportunity, so I want to give 100 percent.

“They gave me the opportunity. I need to say thank you to the organization for giving me the opportunity.”

It’s an opportunity that doesn’t rattle him. He has proven he has the nerves and the inner strength for this profession.

“(Playing) in the major leagues is like (playing in) Cuba,” Oropesa said. It’s hard to play for your country, especially when it’s a communist country.”

It may be hard for Oropesa to remain one of the league’s best-kept secrets.

“He’s a guy who has come a long way,” Batista said. He knows how to pitch. He just needed an opportunity and so far they are giving him the opportunity.

“He’s opening people’s eyes…They can think he can do the job as well as anybody else.”

Here’s where Oropesa figures to be a top commodity:

“There are going to possibly be situations in the fifth or sixth inning of games where you have to get a tough left-hander out and then that same situation may occur in the eighth or the ninth,” D-backs manager Bob Brenly said.

Like fellow southpaw submariner Mike Myers, Oropesa has had his fair share of success against righties, too.

“I think he’s fine against righties,” Brenly said. “Him and Myers are fine against right-handers. They both have such an unorthodox delivery that hitters, right-handed or left-handed, aren’t used to seeing. They both have tremendous movement on their pitches.”

Movement is a word that perfectly sums up Oropesa’s adult life. After all, he’s pitched for 14 teams in three countries on two continents in the past nine years. It’s been a journey well worth it.

For the love of the game: a baseball tale

This feature story appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun on June 9, 2003.

HARDBALL HEAVEN

By Ed Odeven

It’s the first inning of a Sunday baseball game at Flagstaff High School. The Blue Sox, a Flagstaff squad, are taking on the Sedona Rockies. Ty Van Dyke, a slender, tall left-hander is on the hill for the Blue Sox. Bob Pastor is his battery mate.

Van Dyke, who played for the Yavapai College Rough Riders in the mid-1980s with a hard-throwing Phoenician named Curt Schilling, is working the corners, firing a few fastballs here, a few curveballs there. Pastor is in his element, showing the classic form of a sharp defensive catcher.

With two outs, the Rockies have a couple runners on base. There’s a single slapped to left-center. Pastor, Sinagua High School’s assistant baseball coach, shouts instructions to his squad.

“Cut it, Ty. Cut it. Hold it. Hold it,” Pastor, the Blue Sox coach, said as the ball is thrown back into the infield. The runners keep their positions and nobody scores as the cut-off man, Van Dyke, executes the play to perfection.

Sedona’s next batter crushes Van Dyke’s offering to right-center. Jack Pastor, Bob’s son, makes a diving catch to end the inning. He’s greeted with a slew of high-fives and pats on the back as he steps toward the dugout.

The Blue Sox load the bases in the home half of the first but strand three runners. They are one of seven teams in Northern Arizona’s National Adult Baseball Association, a league that runs from April until mid-September. The other teams: the Rockies, the Thunder, the Merchants, the Pioneers, Los Rebueltos and the Mad Italians.

In this league, games are held every Sunday. Ballplayers can use wooden or aluminum bats. Bryan Butterfield, who graduated last week from Sinagua and was a Daily Sun All-City selection this spring, is the youngest player on the squad at 18 years old. Bob Pastor, 50, is the team’s oldest player. A former Yavapai player in the early 1970s, he spent time in the Montreal Expos organization long before the days of the O’Henry craze (outfielder Henry Rodriguez’s brief stint as a cult hero).

The Blue Sox have won the league’s title in eight of the last nine years. Sure, they love winning, the players say. But more than that, they are enjoying the opportunity to play ball.

“It’s fun playing with these guys because the competitiveness stays with us,” Bob Pastor said. “We might slow down a little bit, but it sure is nice to play with all the kids from Glendale. … It kind of makes you feel good.”

Keith Killeen, a 1991 Flagstaff High School grad who played college ball at Eastern New Mexico, summed up why these guys keep playing.

“It’s a good way of keeping us in shape, and it’s so fun,” said Killeen, who’s father, Joe, is Coconino High’s athletic director. “If I could do it seven days a week, I would.”

Along with Pastor, Flagstaff coach Mike DoBosh and Mingus coaches Brad Grauberger and Seth Melton give the team an interesting mix of coaching combatants who put aside their natural rivalry as players during the Blue Sox season.

“It’s nice to play with the coaches that we get to have as our enemy throughout the season in high school,” Pastor said. “We’ve got the Mingus coach (Brad Grauberger), the Flag High coach (Mike DoBosh) and all levels at Sinagua are up here. So it’s fun to get together and have a good time. The camaraderie, you just can’t beat it now.”

Melton, for one, is not ready to hang up his spikes and join the slow-pitch softball circuit.

“The biggest thing about it is, this is still baseball, whereas slow-pitch softball is not baseball really,” said Melton, who played at Glendale Community College and New Mexico Highlands. “So this is just a chance to come out and hit a baseball, catch it and throw it. Plus, you’re against a bunch of guys that you played against in high school. It’s kind of nice to get out here and do some stuff on Sundays. That’s why I really enjoy it. I love being out here.

“I think it’s just a chance for us all to still play the game we love so much. That’s how I think everybody’s mentality on this team is. Nobody takes it (too) serious. It’s all in good fun.”

In the second inning, the Rockies pull ahead 1-0. The Blue Sox rally in their half of the second. It all starts when Tim Tapia, a former Sinagua and South Mountain CC player, reaches on a leadoff single and scores on an RBI double by Miles Ormon, an ex-Midland (Texas) College player. The Blue Sox score another run to go ahead 2-1.

Van Dyke is tagged for a first-pitch home run in the third as Sedona ties it at 2.

The Blue Sox put five runs on the board in the fourth to take a 7-2 lead. Tapia, who moments before was rubbing his eye and telling his teammates of his irritating case of pink eye, ripped a two-run homer to left.

“I closed my eyes when I swung,” he said jokingly as he returned to the dugout.

Van Dyke leaves the ballgame with a five-run lead and right-hander Louis Lucero, a former Eastern New Mexico player, takes the hill in the fifth.

Lucero shows some of his old pitching tricks, firing a few heaters and then mixing in a few mind-numbing, super-slow change-ups for good measure.

With the Blue Sox leading 11-3 entering the top of the seventh, Cliff Bryson replaces Lucero, a hard-throwing right-hander. As Bryson, the team’s starting center fielder and leadoff hitter, takes his warm-up pitches, teammates in the dugout and on the field started joking around, making predictions about how man pitches he would need to retire the side.

“Fifteen pitches,” one guy shouted.

“Nah, 26,” another said.

This is a fun little “game within the game” the Blue Sox have been playing for a couple weeks now.

Bryson, grinning with delight on the mound, doesn’t seem to mind the distraction.

“It’s fun, and at the same time it’s a little pressure that they put on you,” said Bryson, who played ball at Yavapai and the University of Kansas. “It’s something a little new we did about two or three games ago where I come in and they guess the pitch count, as you guys would say.”

The Rockies made things interesting in the seventh, scoring three runs off Bryson. All the while, his teammates keep reminding him of how many pitches he’d thrown.

“With our team it’s a lot of fun and it’s good to come out here and play a sport that you love and play with some of the guys that you played high school and college ball against and with,” Bryson said. “There’s times when we take it seriously, but we seem to have fun.”

And they’ve had success, too, at the regional and national level. Last year, for instance, players from the Blue Sox and the league’s other teams formed an all-star squad and competed in a 40-and-over national tourney in Phoenix, and they finished third out of 100-plus teams.

Other players on this year’s Blue Sox team include: Matt Ormon (Midland), Kevin Cashatt (Sinagua and Yavapai) and Adam Jacobs (Sinagua).

The Blue Sox, who improved to 6-0 with wins on Sunday against Los Rebueltos (13-2) and the Rockies (11-6), take on the Thunder, a team comprised of NAU students, at 10 a.m. next Sunday at Sinagua High School.

“To be successful in life you have to give up something” — Billy Hatcher

This featured appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun (June 19, 2004).

2015 update: Billy Hatcher is in his 10th season as a coach for the Cincinnati Reds.

LIVING A DREAM

By Ed Odeven
PHOENIX — He had seven consecutive hits in the 1990 World Series, helping the Cincinnati Reds sweep the heavily favored Oakland A’s. He hit a game-tying 14th-inning home run in the action-packed Game 6 of the 1986 National League Championship Series.

Those were, of course, memorable moments. But Billy Hatcher’s point of view is this: His biggest thrill as a big league ballplayer occurred the first moment he donned a Chicago Cubs uniform in 1984, his first day in the majors.

“My first time getting called up to the big leagues was just amazing,” said Hatcher, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays’ first base coach, before Friday’s game against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Bank One Ballpark. “It was something that I had worked for, for my entire life, and then getting that opportunity (was indescribable).

“I don’t think winning the World Series or doing the job I did in the World Series (hitting .750, 9-for-12) would ever (compare) with that moment, the feeling I had. … It’s a feeling that I can never, ever cherish again. I would cherish winning another World Series, because I would win one as a coach.”

Hatcher, a 1979 graduate of Williams High School, has been a mainstay of the Devil Rays’ organization since beginning his coaching career on Dec. 1, 1995, two-plus years before the franchise would play its inaugural season.

He spent the 1996 season as Tampa Bay’s roving minor league instructor and then worked as a coach for St. Petersburg, the 1997 Florida State League champion. He has served on the D-Rays’ coaching staff since ’98, spending time as the third base coach (2000), bench coach (2001-02) and first base coach (1998-99 and 2003-present).

Hatcher has taken a natural liking to this occupation.

“I probably get more enjoyment out of teaching than I did playing,” said Hatcher, who retired as a player in 1995 after playing a dozen seasons for seven ballclubs: the Cubs, Houston, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Boston, Philadelphia and, lastly, Texas.

“I love playing the game,” he continued, while sitting in the dugout and champing on a mouthful of Bazooka bubble gum. “When you were playing, you only had to worry about yourself. As a coach, you teach and worry about so many other players. To see these guys get better every single day just makes you feel good.”

Tampa Bay left fielder Carl Crawford, one of the team’s talented, young players, said Hatcher has the natural disposition to be a coach.

“He’s real patient, laid-back, trying to keep everybody loose,” Crawford added. “He’s not up there in your face; he just lets you know what you need to do.”

According to Devil Rays manager Lou Piniella, Crawford and center fielder Rocco Baldelli, a rising star, have especially benefited from Hatcher’s coaching.

“Hatcher is an excellent coach,” the manager said. “He’s outgoing. He communicates well. He’s got a lot of baseball knowledge. He works primarily with the baserunners, with the outfielders and him and (third base coach Tom) Foley sometimes do a little bit of the bunting (instruction).

“Billy is a good baseball man, he really is. He’s got some passion for the game. He’s enthusiastic and he’s a hard worker.”

In his own words, what sums up Hatcher’s coaching style?

“They understand how to play the game,” he said. “I give them a few tips on how I used to do things. But basically, I tell those guys to never get down on themselves. You are going to make mistakes. … The best baseball players forget real quick.”

THE LONG ROAD

Hatcher, who turned 43 in October, credits his father for giving him the proper perspective in regards to reaching his lifelong goal: to be a major leaguer.

He says he recalled hearing time and time again his father’s words of wisdom: “To be successful in life you have to give up something.”

For Hatcher, that initially meant playing for the Vikings’ varsity baseball team (from 1976-79) and running on the track and field team during the spring months. In those days, he’d step off the baseball diamond and run sprints just minutes after taking off his batting helmet and unlacing his baseball spikes.

It was time to work on becoming a well-conditioned athlete, which, he said, meant sacrificing time that could’ve been spent hanging out with his friends.

After he became a pro player, it meant spending five consecutive years (1981-85) playing winter ball in Venezuela, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.

But the extra months on foreign soil paid off, giving Hatcher the opportunity to work on his skills — and get better.

By 1986, he was in the big leagues to stay. And he didn’t leave “The Show” until hanging up his hat at the end of the 1995 season, when he played for the Rangers. The speedy outfielder with an excellent glove wound up playing in 1,233 games and collecting 1,146 hits.

And forever, Hatcher’s name is one future generations of ballplayers will know about in the tiny town of Williams: The WHS baseball field is named after its famous alum.

“I’m very blessed and I’m very thankful that I’ve had the opportunity to be in the game of baseball as long as I’ve been,” said Hatcher, who lives in St. Petersburg, Fla., with his wife, Karen, and their two children: Derek (18) and Chelsea (14).

RETURNING TO ARIZONA

Believe it or not, Friday’s trip to Bank One Ballpark marked the first time Hatcher stepped foot in the Diamondbacks’ home facility.

Is this a special building for you? he was asked.

“Yes, it is,” he said.

Growing up during a time when the Phoenix Giants (later known as the Firebirds) of the Pacific Coast League were the closest thing the Grand Canyon State team had to a big league ballclub, Hatcher said he was thrilled when Arizona was awarded an expansion franchise. And even though the 2004 Diamondbacks do not resemble the team that won the 2001 World Series, Hatcher said it’s important for the fans to continue to support their team wholeheartedly.

“You never know what you really have until you don’t have it anymore,” he said.

The same could be said for the opportunity Hatcher has had getting to play and coach for one of the game’s all-great skippers, Piniella.

“Lou was my manager in Cincinnati. I won a world championship with Lou,” said Hatcher, whose mom, Gracie, and sister, Nell, reside in Williams while his two brothers, Johnny and Jesse, call Flagstaff home.

“Lou was not only my manager, Lou is also a good friend of mine. Lou has helped me in so many other ways besides baseball. He’s just been a friend to talk with … So, to me, he ranks No. 1 in my book.”

Even so, he’s eager to put his stamp on the Devil Rays, always ready to make things happen from the first-base coaching box. In essence, his position there is a direct extension of his playing days.

“At first base, we have some guys with some speed that can steal some bases,” he said. “In fact, I’m stealing bases with ’em, because I’ve picked up a move, (noticing) what a guy is doing, the first move. I tell guys a lot of times when to go. … That’s how I learned how to play the game.”

Having been raised in a small town, Hatcher never forgot his roots, never forgot the people that were his emotional backbone in his formative years.

“I want to thank all the people in northern Arizona for supporting me during my playing days,” Hatcher said. “I really appreciate it, and I still love them.”

MLB’s mission to find a cure for Lou Gehrig’s disease (column flashback)

This column appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun on June 6, 2002.

Baseball’s support of ALS research an homage to Gehrig

By Ed Odeven

It’s easy to criticize Major League Baseball. The owners’ greed, the players’ ridiculous salaries, recent revelations of a troublesome epidemic plaguing the game (rampant steroid use) and the outrageous price of tickets are too much for the average fan to afford: All are clear-cut reasons why many fans have been turned off by the grand ol’ game.

Today, however, let’s discuss something baseball is doing right. Baseball is doing its part to help raise awareness and find a cure for Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, commonly called Lou Gehrig’s disease.

It’s been just over 61 years since legendary Lou Gehrig died (June 2, 1941) from ALS, but he is not forgotten, nor are his on-the-field accomplishments.

The New York Yankees first baseman batted cleanup, for years hitting behind Babe Ruth — talk about job security, y’all — in the famed Murderers’ Row lineup that dominated baseball like few teams ever have — or ever will.

Gehrig played in 2,130 consecutive games, an amazing streak later topped by Cal Ripken Jr., before taking himself out of the Yanks’ lineup in 1939. He would never play again. But Gehrig touched the hearts of ballplayers and fans when he gave his now-famous speech.

“Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth,” Gehrig said on July 4, 1939.

Gehrig is remembered for both his brilliant career and the progressive neurodegenerative disease that bears his name.

Perhaps more than anyone associated with the game today, Curt Schilling has made sure that Gehrig is not forgotten.

The Diamondbacks’ Mr. Good Guy, Schilling, is more than just a dominant figure on the mound. He’s a guy with a keen sense of history and respect for the game’s legends. And he’s a guy with a heart as big as the Great Wall of China.

Since 1992, he has helped raise more than $3 million for ALS research. Since joining the D-backs, Schilling has become an active supporter of the ALS Association’s Arizona chapter. At the same time, Schilling, who first made a name for himself with the Philadelphia Phillies a decade ago, continues to provide financial contributions to the City of Brotherly Love’s ALS Association’s chapter.

Schilling realizes the influence he has as a public figure, raising awareness for a worthwhile cause.

“Over the past eight years I’ve met many ALS patients and their families,” Schilling said. “I’ve learned that ALS can strike anyone. The emotional and physical toll is devastating to the whole family.”

Last Saturday, MLB gave a heartfelt tribute to Gehrig at ballparks around the country on a special day dubbed “Project ALS Day.” Before each game, celebrities read his speech and urged fans to help support ALS research.

It’s a great start. But there’s so much more that society and athletes can do. Too many players worry about getting a shoe contract, getting lucrative endorsements and getting “respect.”

As noted humanitarian and late baseball Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente once said, “If you have an opportunity to make things better, and you don’t do that, you are wasting your time on this earth.”

If only more athletes, especially those with the means to improve the lives of countless others, would realize that.

Amateur baseball in England

This featured appeared in the April 20, 2004, issue of The Rafu Shimpo, Los Angeles’ English-Japanese newspaper.

YE OLDE AMERICAN PASTIME

The Sidewinders are enjoying the increasing popularity of baseball — in Great Britain.

By Ed M. Odeven
Rafu Correspondent

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — Professional baseball players don’t really have off-seasons anymore. Well, at least that’s the case with most players nowadays; year-round conditioning has become the norm.

Travel across the Atlantic Ocean and there’s a slightly different identity: baseball, a minor sport.

A drawn-out spring training is not realistic for all ballplayers in the British Baseball Federation, as it is made up of amateurs, many of whom also hold full-time jobs.

“Yes, it is always an issue with us,” said Yuzo Saito, a player/head coach for the London Sidewinders. “We are an amateur club and we have to rely on people’s commitments. However, we have to make sure that players have their priorities right and make sure that their careers do not go off the line

“I am excited and cannot wait for the new season to start, but at the same time I am extremely worried for some of the players as they will not be as fit as the rest, as they are not able to train week in and week out.”

Saito, a pitcher/catcher, and the Sidewinders began the 2004 season last Sunday against the Richmond Knights. The Sidewinders, who play in the Premier Division’s Southern Conference (the Rawlings National League, one tier higher, is the British equivalent of Major League Baseball), are coming off a successful 2003 season in which they finished second in the league and advanced to the playoffs.

Naturally, the team is hoping to replicate last season’s success and that it has created a buzz entering this season.

“It appears that more people are willing to have a go at baseball than before,” Saito said.

Perhaps the league’s increased stability will help, too. Like a blackjack dealer at an Atlantic City casino shuffling a deck of cards on a frequent basis, it appeared that that was what league officials were doing with the divisions, i.e., they never stayed the same year after year.

Now, that could be changing. And, Saito said, that’s a good thing.

“The game has improved and the standard has risen as a result of this stability in the game,” he continued. “Though the northern league went through another overhaul to match what we have down in the south, it will be interesting to see how well they cope to the adjustments.”

As any baseball manager will tell you, pitching is the key ingredient to consistent winning. Adding new pitchers to the mix always adds and element of intrigue for any skipper.

The Sidewinders’ new pitchers are Mamoru Kageyama and Takeshi Tomita.

In other words, it remains to be seen how the 2004 Sidewinders’ pitching staff will perform, but Saito said he expects good things from his new hurlers.

“We were fortunate to find two new pitchers this season,” said Saito, who has made ends meet in the U.K. by working in the advertising department of the Asahi Shimbun and coaching at an American baseball school.

“It will be difficult to say how good they will be compared to the pitchers we had last year, but they played at a very high standard in the past and it will be interesting to see how they will do this year.”

MEET THE SIDEWINDERS

Like last year’s squad, the 2004 Sidewinders feature a strong blend of British and international talent, including nine Japanese players.

Here’s a brief rundown on each of them, with insight provided by Skipper Saito, who also serves as catcher and pitcher.

*Pitchers: Mamoru Kageyama, Takeshi Tomita and Hiroyuki Hoshino.

Kageyama, a veteran ballplayer, is expected to pitch a few innings each week. He played for Keio University and is a journalist by trade. In fact, he covered Ichiro Suzuki day in and day out during his magnificent 2001 rookie season with the Seattle Mariners. He should also see time in the outfield.

Tomita is a submarine-style pitcher who should get playing time at the middle infield positions.

Hoshino, a third-year Sidewinder, is not expected to play a lot this year due to family commitments. He is a valuable team leader and a strong outfielder.

*Infielders: Masa Saito, Toshio Watanabe, Kazuwa Doi and Takeshi Torimoto.

Saito, another third-year player, is a first baseman with a clutch bat.

Watanabe, meanwhile, appears ready for a breakthrough season after emerging as the “revelation of the year” in 2003.

The versatile Doi likely will begin the season sidelined with an injury.

Torimoto was one of the team’s top starting pitchers last year. But he broke his right arm while pitching in Germany. This year he is making a comeback as a left-handed throwing infielder.

*Outfielder: Tomoyoshi Wakamatsu.

The steady Wakamatsu has a knack for the big hit. “(He was) invaluable to our success last year,” Saito concluded.

Profile of then-Hiroshima Carp (and former MLB) player Chad Tracy a few weeks after 3/11/2011

This feature appeared in the Kinston (North Carolina) Free Press on April 17, 2011

Chad-O
Former Pirate Tracy making an impact in Japan on and off field

By Ed Odeven
Special to The Free Press

TOKYO — While pro baseball is under way in Japan after the catastrophic natural disasters on March 11 forcefully and unexpectedly created a number of unique challenges for an entire nation, former East Carolina baseball standout Chad Tracy is eager to make an impact for the Hiroshima Carp this season.

The red-and-white clad Carp hope to improve on their 58-84-2 record and climb into playoff contention in Japan’s Central League. On the other hand, Tracy won’t set targets for home runs, RBIs, batting average, etc. To him, that’s not the proper approach.

“I usually don’t set number goals,” Tracy said by phone from Hiroshima as he geared up for the Carp’s season-opening series against the Hanshin Tigers. “For me it’s about trying to help the team win baseball games. If I drive in runs and I’m out there getting on base and scoring runs, it gives us a better chance to win every night. It’s about getting hits with runners in scoring position and being out there scoring runs.”

The Carp had expected to begin their regular season on March 25 against the CL rival Chunichi Dragons in Nagoya, but plans changed after the events of March 11. Players had spent months preparing for the coming season and then everything came to a crashing halt.

“I think we’ll quickly fall back in a routine,” said Tracy, whose team lost two of three games against the Tigers at Koshen Stadium, Japan’s most beloved ballpark, in Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture.

As for the team’s offense, the West Mecklenberg High graduate believes the Carp will need to utilize their speed (119 steals in 2010) to put runs on the board. The numbers support that perspective; the Carp hit the fewest home runs (104) in the six-team CL last season.

“We don’t have big power guys,” said Tracy, a career .278 hitter in the majors, “so we’ll need to manufacture runs and (utilize) small ball. We do have some pretty good players.”

At the plate, the left-handed-batting Tracy, who broke into the big leagues with the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2004 and played for the club until becoming a free agent after the 2009 season, expects to be served a healthy dose of curveballs, perhaps more than he’d usually see in the majors. But he considers preparation will be the key to hitting successfully in Japan.

“They tend to throw more breaking balls in fastball counts, kind of keep you guessing,” Tracy observed, speaking about the prototypical Japanese pitcher. “I’m just trying to be patient and get something to hit,” he added.

“I had a good spring training, swung the bat very well, so as long as I can stay healthy it should be a good season.”

Meanwhile, Tracy is still adjusting to Japanese cuisine and blending his own workouts and on-field competition to keep a comfortable playing weight. He noted that large helpings of noodles and rice have made it “tougher to keep (weight) off than on around here.”

But after a season of uncertainty, when he bounced around the Cubs, Yankees and Marlins organizations, including 69 combined games in the bigs for Chicago and Florida, Tracy is keeping an open mind about his new team and playing baseball in the Far East.

“I’ll have to wait and see,” he said. “I’m not going to commit to anything longer than this year. I’ll see how it goes. You don’t know where your mind will be at end of year.”

He added: “I could end up playing five years here or one, you just never know.”

A pleasant relationships with second-year Carp manager Kenjiro Nomura can help make Tracy’s adjustment to Japanese baseball a smooth transition. Since arriving in Japan on Jan. 25, the Charlotte native has felt comfortable with the team’s management.

“He’s made it easy on all the foreigners here,” Tracy said of Nomura. “He’s very personable, easy to talk to and he understands where we are coming from and some of the things we are not accustomed to doing.

“He’s made himself very available.”

Asked to give an example, Tracy mentioned this: “He’s taken us out to dinner; we went to Outback. We’ve done that a couple times. He’s tried to make us feel comfortable here.”

“For him to do that, it says a lot for him,” Tracy continued. “We all respect him as a person, as a manager and as a former player. He likes to work hard, which is always fun. We are all used to working hard and he made sure we are all on the same page and understand what’s going on.”

To avoid having his words and expressions, simple or complex, lost in translation, Tracy and the team’s fellow foreigners will rely on interpreters throughout the season.

That two-way communication won’t simply be “yes” or “no” questions and answers. Instead, Nomura has clearly made a point of requesting feedback from Tracy and other ballplayers.

“When the tsunami hit, he made sure our families were OK,” Tracy recalled. “We had meetings and he asked us our opinions.”

This included the uncertainty over the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant crisis, as there were — and still are — natural fears in the immediate aftermath of the environmental disaster.

“With the nuclear reactor and stuff, he wanted to know our concerns about how we felt going to Tokyo,” Tracy said of Nomura. “We all agree we felt safe, but didn’t go up there for spring games.”

***

Every sector of Japanese society is pitching in to help Japan’s recovery from last month’s catastrophic events. All-time home run king Sadaharu Oh, for example, greeted fans at a public event in March, held out a jar to collect donations and asked for their support in raising funds. Emperor Akihito has also appeared on television and at refugee shelters to speak about the situation and give comfort to those who have been affected the most.

So it’s only natural for sports teams to lend a hand, too. Tracy and his Carp teammates use some of their off time before the regular season’s delayed opener to do their part. At Mazda Zoom Zoom Stadium Hiroshima, which is often referred to as Mazda Stadium by the English mass media, Tracy participated in fundraising events, greeting fans and asking them to donate money to aid the earthquake and tsunami victims. (Many of Japans’s sports teams, leagues and individual athletes have pledged financial support for the Japanese Red Cross.)

Similar team-organized events took place at Hiroshima train stations, while other players have set aside funds for those in need affected by the March 11 disasters.

Tracy is eager to help in any way he can.

“It’s one of those things if you have something to give and they need it, they probably need a lot more than we can give, and hopefully anything they get will help,” he said, without needing to cite the heartbreaking statistics that tell only a small part of the story — thousands have died and several thousand remain missing.

Given the enormity of the suffering that Japan has experienced since mid-March, Tracy believes this baseball-crazed nation can find some semblance of normalcy in its daily routine by staging a baseball season now.

“At this point, given the delay, it was the right thing to do and people are now to the point where they are ready to watch baseball,” he said. “I think the delay was necessary just so the country could kind of get its bearing, but definitely baseball can help be a little bit of comfort to people who are looking for normalcy in their lives.

“It’s going to be a little bit of a mix-and-match this season, but as long as the players are willing to kind of go through a little bit of sacrifice to get some games in, it should be normal and give fans out here something to watch everyday and hopefully take their minds off some of the things that are going on in Japan right now.”

***

Showing up to work at Mazda Stadium, which opened in 2009, is exciting, Tracy said, noting the park has an “American-style” feel to it, with a grass infield, unlike other Japanese parks that have dirt infields. He already knows that the team’s fans are loud and described the atmosphere as “exciting.”

When he steps into the batter’s box in Hiroshima, the fans roar with delight, voicing support for the slugger they affectionately call “Chad-o.”

“It’s really fun listening to the fans and the drum beating and the horns going on, chanting your name when you go out on defense,” Tracy said.

“…It keeps you pumped up in the game and the adrenaline going. It’s nice to have fans like that. With the fans the way they are, it helps get you through the night.”

Preparing for a new season and life in a new country, Tracy has had a busy past few months, including long training camp stints in Okinawa and Kyushu, islands south of Japan’s biggest island, Honshu, which includes the Western port city of Hiroshima.

He hasn’t had a great deal of free time to explore many of Hiroshima’s well-known sites, based on the city’s cultural and historic significance. He did visit Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park and famous Shukkei-en Garden (originally constructed in the 1620s) during the Edo Period and rebuilt in the 1950s after the city was destroyed by the atomic bomb by the U.S. military in 1945 near the end of World War II) with his parents, Thelma and Roger Wilson, who reside in Charlotte, during their recent trip to Japan.

As the months progress, Tracy plans to pick his spots to soak up the city’s culture and explore the region.

But, he admitted, that “after a long day at the park you are not feeling like going to a sightseeing event.”

That doesn’t mean, however, that he hasn’t already found time to enjoy life in Japan as a new Carp player.

“Everybody has been polite and nice, but at the same time (the language barrier) is a challenge,” Tracy said, but he realizes it’s easy to be embraced by the locals.

“I spend most of my time at the ballpark, but as soon as they know you play for the Carp, they roll out the red carpet,” he added.

“The fans are very passionate. You can tell just by looking around the city and seeing the billboards … you can tell the Carp mean a lot to them.”

Tracy’s wife, Katie, and two children are staying with him in Hiroshima this season. His daughters are enrolled at a YMCA school and will have opportunities to study Japanese.

Tracy, meanwhile, can point to useful lessons he learned growing up in North Carolina, recalling Mother Nature’s genuine danger as something to help keep things in perspective while he’s in Japan.

“I’ve been through similar situations like that,” he said, speaking of hurricanes on the East Coast but far different than what took place on March 11 in Japan’s Tohoku region.

“I’ve seen the devastation firsthand, nothing to the extend of the tsunami,but knowing how dangerous water can be and how much damage it can have on people and lives, I would definitely say that being in that region in the United States it helped a little.

“Being through hurricane season every year, you learn to cope with tragedy.”

As a pro ballplayer for a decade, including his time in the minors, Tracy has seen his fair share of wins and losses. Now he hopes to help the Carp make a dramatic turnaround, and as part of Japan’s national pastime, play a small part in the nation’s recovery as well.

***

TRACY HIGHLIGHTS (related sidebar)

*Asked to reflect on his top career highlights to date, Chad Tracy responded by saying, “There’s a lot of memories. A few big home runs I hit, there’s the perfect game from Randy Johnson my rookie year (May 18,2004). But there’s none that really stand out really more than the others. Winning is the most important thing, and going to the playoffs is really cool, even though I was hurt and had surgery when we went to the playoffs (in 2007, a four-game sweep against the Rockies in the NLCS) it was pretty cool. … But winning games that season to be able to help the team get to the playoffs (was memorable).”

Though he’s seen action in 773 major-league games — a dream for millions of young boys — Tracy is humble enough to not put his own success before the team’s ultimate goal.

Or as he put it: “There are individual moments that stand out, too. But those are all in basically losing seasons. They are not as important to you.”

*In the majors, Tracy hit 79 home runs — including a career-high 27 in 2005. He racked up 690 hits, 333 RBIs and 161 doubles.

*Japanese baseball teams each come up with a new slogan each season. The Carp’s 2011 slogan is “Strikin’ Back!”

*Tracy did say without hesitation that the Hiroshima ballclub has longer meetings, more frequent strategy sessions, than he experienced in the big leagues, noting team preparation meetings here can exceed one hour, whereas the same meeting might only last 15 minutes in the major leagues. But, to him, it’s all about rolling with the punches.

“When it Rome, do what the Romans do,” he said with a laugh. “You get used to it, though it’s not one of your favorite things to do.”

Perhaps there’s a silver lining, though, by having a seemingly never-ending commitment to meetings in Japan.

“You can never say you are not prepared,” Tracy said.