In the aftermath of the devastation from the earthquakes and tsunami that struck Japan, ex-Mariner Randy Messenger has stayed to pursue his baseball career.
GINOZA, Okinawa — Amid heated debate over baseball’s place in Japan’s recovery from natural disasters that struck the Tohoku region last month, the country’s Central and Pacific leagues will begin play Tuesday, nearly three weeks later than planned.
The Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles will relocate until they’re able to return to their home ballpark in the ravaged city of Sendai. Both leagues adopted policies to conserve an electricity supply severely strained by damage to an important nuclear power plant. No inning can begin 3 ½ hours after the first pitch of a game. Tokyo-based teams will not play night games in April.
While several foreign players have left Japan temporarily in the unsettling aftermath of the devastation, many have remained with their teams.
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One of those is former Mariners pitcher Randy Messenger. He’s still the imposing 6-foot-6, 240-pound right-hander that Seattle fans once hoped could dominate for them, even if his image momentarily lost its machismo due to a misunderstanding of his nickname.
Messenger, who pitched for the Mariners in 2008 and 2009, is back for his second season with the Hanshin Tigers, a Central League team. Messenger hopes he’ll have earned a spot in their starting rotation after mostly filling a bullpen role last year.
Just as the cook in the team cafeteria at Hanshin’s spring-training complex could easily mistake his nickname, referring to the pitcher as “Big Mouse” instead of his more familiar “Big Mess,” Messenger has found his experience here to be full of confusion and surprises.
“It’s a little bit more intense here, I can tell you that,” Messenger said, laughing. “Just with the stretch, our normal stretch routine lasts easily 45 minutes (compared to about 15 in America) with form running and stretching. After we’re done in our indoor facility we go outside and do a little more running.”
Indoor facility? That’s right, an airline hangar-like gymnasium complete with a turf field and drop-down netting for batting practice is a standard structure at all Japanese spring camps, so rain never completely washes away a workout.
At Hanshin’s camp, nestled in a little dip in the land just beyond a highway interchange in a sparsely populated part of northern Okinawa’s main island, the morning stretch usually begins under the gleaming silver-domed roof of the indoor facility before moving across the pathway to the open-air stadium for more.
Japan might demand more drills and longer practices, but it also offers American pitchers a welcome relief from one of their most dreaded exercises: shagging fly balls in the outfield during batting practice. Instead of idle players gathering stray balls, Japanese camps employ teams of dedicated shaggers who stand throughout the outfield collecting batting practice’s daily output.
“No shagging. That’s probably my most favorite thing about being here,” Messenger said, laughing harder. “It’s awesome. We get our work in, and they feel we don’t need to be standing around wasting energy out there.”
When Messenger moves to the bullpen back by the silver dome, there are more surprises. Each set of pitcher and catcher gets an extra mate for the throwing session: a professional umpire. With four of them crouched in a row across the bullpen bellowing out “ball” or “strike” with the conviction of a theatrical audition, bullpen sessions here are a cacophony of primal sounds.
“That was definitely a change, too,” Messenger said. “But I mean it’s their spring training, too, so it makes sense.”
One difference he hasn’t come around to is the Japanese propensity for staggeringly high pitch counts even in bullpen sessions.
“I’ve seen guys throw 180-, 190-pitch bullpens,” he said. “That was a shock to me. At home, that wouldn’t be allowed. Over here, their philosophy is more is better, and that’s what they’ve come up doing as kids ever since Little League and through high school and college, so once they get to the pro level, it’s the same thing.”
The idea is to create muscle memory as well as show off a battle-ready mentality. Messenger and other Western pitchers are given the leeway to manage their own pitch counts, which are in the neighborhood of 35 to 50 in a bullpen session.
Another difference is simply the basic setup. Unlike Peoria, Ariz., where most Mariners players live on their own with their families in homes or rental properties and drive to and from practice every day, Japanese spring training is conducted more like a football camp with the entire team in one hotel.
Camp clubhouses here are typically so sparse they don’t even include showers. Players get on and off the team bus in their uniform because they change and shower in their rooms back at the hotel. Messenger totes a plastic bag with him at the workouts into which he deposits the shirts and other items of his uniform he’s changed out of during the day. He’ll drop it off at a laundry area back at the hotel. He then picks up freshly washed and folded uniforms that he had dropped off a previous day and hauls them up to his room for the next morning.
The hotel experience also allows him to bond with his teammates.
“Usually the young Japanese guys will come by our rooms where we’re (foreigners) playing video games and stick their heads in,” he said. “We’re like, ‘Come on in, come in,’ they’ll see us playing games and they’re like, ‘Oh, it’s a good one.’ We try to keep them in there to play with us, but they’re so busy all the time. They take dry swings at the hotel. They’re constantly doing something. They work the young guys very, very, very hard. They’ll take a meeting room and put mirrors up so they can see their swings. I’ve wandered in there before and it’s definitely different. These guys are dead tired at the end of the day, yet they’re still working back at the hotel.”
But in an odd and ironic way, despite all the curiosities Messenger has had to adjust to in Japan, he’s been able to rely on one old home comfort from his Mariners days: his catcher at Hanshin is Kenji Johjima.
The physically imposing Messenger posted a less-than-dominating record of 5-6 last year, with a 4.93 ERA and 48 strikeouts in 80-1/3 innings. However, he credits Johjima for helping him overcome one of his biggest misunderstandings about pitching in Japan and setting him on track for a more prosperous 2011.
“I came over here cocky instead of confident, and that’s what hurt me,” Messenger said, describing the attitude most people his size with a 97 mph fastball would have facing smaller opponents. “With a good fastball, I thought I would just be able to blow guys away. Joh got me back in the mindset of pitching instead of throwing, but he let me learn the hard way a couple of times.”
The hard way was calling for just what he knew Messenger wanted to throw when he needed a strike, a fastball. Messenger’s adrenaline would peak at the thought of blowing the batter away with his heat. But instead, the advantage went to the batters. They knew so plainly what was coming that they simply waited for it and belted it for a game-changing hit. Johjima’s message was that Messenger, who has four pitches, needed to effectively mix a few others with his fastball in key situations just to get the batter thinking about multiple possibilities.
Beating himself by his own cockiness as a reliever early on, Messenger was sent to the minor leagues, where he was eventually converted to a starter and brought back up in the season’s second half. It was then that he began to heed Johjima’s advice.
“I remember a game at the Tokyo Dome,” he said. “It was the seventh inning, runners at second and third, a 1-2 count, and a big lefty power hitter up. Joh said, ‘Slider in on his hands.’ I throw a slider in on his hands and boom, he yanks it foul and that opened up the outside corner for my fastball. That was an example right there, use that off-speed because, then, fastball away, he swung right over the top of it.”
While Johjima was instrumental in Messenger’s transition to his first year in Japan, another former Japanese teammate also helped make life abroad comfier. Thanks to Ichiro, countless Mariners games are broadcast live in Japan. Messenger thoroughly enjoyed watching his old teammates often and then, late in the season, he found himself in reliving a familiar situation.
He watched Ichiro’s 200th hits in 2008 and 2009 from the Mariners’ bullpen. When Ichiro stepped to the plate trying for a record 10th straight season of 200 hits last year, Messenger was watching once again.
“I actually saw it on TV here when he was in Toronto,” Messenger said. “That was a day game in Toronto, so it was like 2 in the morning in Japan. You get home from your game late after eating a good dinner and turn on the TV and there he is. It was great.”
Strangely, Messenger was in front of the TV for another hits milestone. Teams in Japan commonly send starting pitchers home who aren’t in the game after pregame workouts to rest between starts instead of having them on the bench supporting their teammates.
Fellow first-year foreigner and teammate Matt Murton (Cubs, A’s, Rockies) enthralled Japan by breaking Ichiro’s season hits record of 210 with 214. There were many milestone moments as he closed in on Ichiro, such as Hanshin’s team record and the Central League record. Messenger recalls watching from afar.
“I was at an Irish pub watching on TV,” he said. “When you’re on the road, they send starters back to the hotel, but I like to always watch the games, so me and my interpreter walked over to the Irish pub and we were having fish and chips watching it on TV. I wasn’t even there, but I congratulated him back at the hotel.”
The improbability of a pitcher eating fish and chips at an Irish pub while his teammates are battling for the pennant is precisely what makes a Big Mouse’s baseball life in Japan so compelling.
Brad Lefton is a bilingual St. Louis-based journalist who covers baseball in Japan and America. He often follows the Mariners for Japanese media.