Sunday, February 05, 2017

Fighters Spring Training 2017 in Arizona, aka Two-Shot Saturday

I'm back in Peoria for Fighters Spring Training.  They're here from Feb 1 to Feb 10, but I'm only here from Feb 4 to 8, because you know, work and real life and all.  (I went negative on vacation days after taking a 3-week honeymoon to Australia, although I got to watch a Melbourne Aces vs Sydney Blue Sox baseball game while there and meet the Japanese players from Seibu and Honda, and I also watched an Adelaide Strikers vs Brisbane Heat Twenty20 Big Bash cricket match, which was super exciting in other ways.  But anyway.)

I'm writing this while ignoring the Super Bowl on TV, but yesterday was Saturday Feb 4, my first day in camp this year.  I ordered a bunch of championship gear in the offseason and got it in time to wear to camp, so I decided to wear it on the first day and get as many damn two-shot photos with Fighters as humanly possible.  (I did bring some things to get signed, but in all honesty, I've always preferred photos to signatures -- more on that a bit later.)

Actually, driving in, I saw Hichori Morimoto walking across the parking lot!  I parked and tried to catch up with him but you know he's got super long legs and is much faster than I am.  But, that was good, since I was really hoping to meet him; last year he left before I arrived.

I got to camp around 10am.  This was the day's training menu:

As you can see, Ohtani had his own "special" training menu.

But in all honesty I barely watched practice in the morning because I had to find Dani and I wanted to go say hi to a bazillion people.  Friends from all over Fighters circumstances; people I met at camp last year, people I met in Sapporo, people I know from my Tokyo ouen groups, and even people who I follow on Twitter but had only met on the train going home from the Seibu clinching game last year.

Well, and of course I also said hi to a lot of the random Fighters staff, since at this point I think I know most of them.

I got Masao Kida to sign my championship towel, and I talked to him for a little while; he says the team should be coming back to Arizona for the next few years since their renovations in Okinawa will take a while.  I then started my two-shot brigade by getting Ippei Mizuhara (one of the translators, who was like "You want a photo with ME?" "Yeah, I'm a big fan.  I saw you on TV with Brandon all the time."), and Yuto Takahama, inbetween the fields.

A reporter guy from HTB wanted to interview me and Dani, and since she's smarter than I am, she declined.  I'm sure the footage they use of me will be embarrassing as usual.  He asked things like "Where are you from?  How did you become a Fighters fan?  What player do you like?  How did you get the championship shirt?" and such.  Of course I answered honestly to everything, like how I went to the Tokyo Dome 14 years ago for my first game and lucked out that it was Fighters.  And my favorite player is Kagiya (he was like "who else besides Kagiya?" and I was like... "I dunno?  Umm... I like a lot of players?  I'm hoping for this year's rookie Moriyama to do well since I watched him in college a lot?").  As for the championship shirt, I said that I ordered it to my old roomate's address in Tokyo, and please don't kick me out of the fan club for that.  He also filmed the collection of Fighters gear I had with me.

In the meantime I saw all of the foreign players coming out but obviously I couldn't get out of the interview, so I missed a chance to see the new guy Edwin Escobar.  Oh well, there'll be more time later.

After that, I saw Hichori hanging out by the broadcast tower.  He didn't actually seem to be that busy, so I was like "I'm going to go ask him to sign my shirt!"  So I did.  I asked very politely in Japanese, like "Hichori-san, are you busy right now?  Would you sign my shirt?" and he was like, sure... and then a whole line of people formed behind me because everyone was like "OMG HICHORI IS SIGNING SOMETHING!" so, oops, I didn't mean to make that happen, BUT he was really nice and signed for everyone in line -- and I went in line as well to get a photo with him as well since I'd wanted to do that anyway.  One of the TV guys also tried to get me on camera, like "Whoa, why do you have this old shirt?  Were you a big Hichori fan?" and I was like "Yeah, I used to teach junior high school in Arakawa, where Hichori is from, so I always cheer for players who are from Arakawa..."

Upshot: Hichori is super-nice if you catch him when he's not busy, though :)

Caught up with Dani out by field 4, where she was talking to a bunch of Japanese women who turned out to live in the US and speak perfect English, who all had guest badges.  They were like, "Your interview was hilarious!"  I was just like "..."  But then it turned out they were guests of Toru Murata.  The Fighters signed Murata in the off-season, he spent the last 6 years playing in the Cleveland Indians system, though he only got into one game at the MLB level.  Anyway, his friends got him to come over after practice, so I got to meet him too, and he turns out to be a super-friendly guy and I'm really looking forward to seeing him play for the Fighters this year.

Other funny thing that happened: Kagiya and Yuki Saitoh were in the same training group, so when we were standing there looking in on Field 4, they jogged by us.  I waved hi at Kagiya and called out おはようございます!and he smiled and waved back!  And then Saitoh looked at us funny so I was like おはようございます! at him too and he smiled but in this very WTF way.  Dani and I totally cracked up.

And after that, around noon, we decided to break for lunch; I said I'd meet Dani back at the field around 1.  I got a sandwich on the way back to my hotel and dropped off my Hichori shirt lest anything happen to it in the afternoon.  Also reapplied sunscreen and drank a ton of water.

I got back a little after 1 and afternoon fielder's practice was going on; by then all of the pitchers were gone indoors to do weight training and such.  One of the fields had people doing knock fielding with Shirai-coach, one of the fields seemed to be straight batting practice with some guys shagging flies in the outfield, and another field was special Ohtani practice, and then the tee area was various people either practicing swinging or bunting.

Dani wasn't there, but I went up to one of the fields where I saw Matt Winters hanging out talking to Brandon Laird and Al Hargesheimer, so I went up and talked to them all for a while.  It's always good to catch up with Matt and hear some stories (even if he still makes fun of me for the whole Jason Botts debacle).

I spent a while taking photos of the batting practice guys, watching some of the fielding practice, etc.  There was a big group of students from a local Japanese Saturday school called Arizona Gakuen, so things were kind of chaotic because of that as well.  And Dani never did come back.  So around 2:30pm I decided to wander out to the clubhouse exit area to see if maybe she was over there.

Dani wasn't there, but there was SERIOUSLY a line of at least FIFTY people already out there waiting for autographs.  Some had brought folding chairs.  Most were non-Japanese people who clearly didn't give a shit about the Fighters at all and were only there to try to get Ohtani's autograph.

(Seriously, the entire city of Peoria is here trying to get Ohtani's autograph)

I found one or two of my friends there and was like "WTF?"

Mei explained to me, "Oh, this is just the Ohtani line."

"So if I don't really care about an Ohtani autograph and just want to give Sugiya a birthday card and get two-shots with all of the other players?"

"Then you can wait wherever and approach people as they come out, yeah."

So I put my bag down off to the side of the pavement and hung out talking to (Japanese) people for a while.  I did make good on my idea to get two-shots with people.  I got Takahiro Nomo, and Yuki Saitoh (! he even smiled!) and Uwasawa, and Tatsuta, and Kishisato, and Uehara.  Some guys did come straight out of the clubhouse and made a beeline for the hotel across the street without going anywhere near the fan line.  A few players, I debated asking, then saw someone else approach them for a signature and get rebuffed.  And in Arihara's case, since he had blown me off in the morning, I asked again like "Hey, how about now, can we get a photo?" and he was yet again like "Nah, I'm busy."  I'm beginning to think he just hates me and/or hates fans or whatever since this is the 4th or 5th time he's turned me down.

But anyway, in the meantime, the funny part was, the huge throng of dudes waiting for Ohtani's autograph, every time any player came out of the clubhouse they'd all get excited and get their pens and bats and stuff out.  It became pretty clear pretty quickly that they had no idea who anyone was, and in most cases, they didn't even know what Ohtani himself looked like.

My Japanese friends were wondering what the deal was with all of these guys, so I figured I'd just go up and ask.  Turns out most of them were college students in the area, although a few were people who were just going to be in the area for Spring Training and were getting ready to hit up all the camps for autographs.  One guy had gotten his ball signed by a bunch of people (infact, I think he must have been taking cues from who I got photos with, because he had a lot of the same players I just listed).  I was like "do you even know who they are?" "Nah, but they always write numbers, so I'll look it up later."  I started telling him about some of the players, and one of the other guys pipes up like "Hey, do you know how I could get So Taguchi's autograph?  I'm from Philly and I had collected almost everyone from the 2008 World Series but he's impossible for obvious reasons."

Normally I would just roll my eyes, but it was actually sort of the exact kind of question that nerdsnipes me because I'm also from Philly, even though I don't collect autographs, and the 2008 World Series is sentimental to me for family reasons.  So we went and looked it up that Taguchi is a ni-gun coach for the Buffaloes now and I was like "Your best bet is to write to the team.  You may not get a response, but I think your letter would get to him if you tried."

But then the rest of the guys were all like "So do you know when he's coming out, anyway??"


(Actually, a Japanese staff member had told us he'd be out around 4pm, but I wasn't about to mention that.  The Fighters players were going to the Phoenix Suns basketball game that evening and had to be back in their hotel lobby to leave at 5:30, so they had ended practice a little earlier than usual.)

Anyway, Ohtani did come out a few minutes before 4pm.  I wasn't going to be part of the whole thing, but I had been waiting with everyone for an hour and a half by that point.  And one of my friends was just like "oh come on, get in line with us", so I did, and I got out my championship towel to be signed, figuring that would be more meaningful.  Honestly, I'd prefer a photo with him, but as far as I can tell, that's just something that doesn't happen except under extreme circumstances.  As I've said many times, an autograph on something can be sold, or traded, or lost, or whatever, but a photo is a nice little moment of "Hey, I met this baseball player" that has no value to anyone else so it can't really be sold and in the digital age can't really be lost, either.

Ohtani had a security brigade with him (well, one Japanese team staff member, and one of the Peoria security guards -- the same guard he had last year, even) and the media crew was also following along taking photos.  He basically just kind of went through the crowd with a determined look on his face the whole time and signed for everyone.

(When it was my turn, I put out my towel and pen and said, "お願いします!" and when he was finished, "ありがとうございます!".  I didn't think about it until later, but a lot of people didn't even thank him.  Sheesh!)

Also funny: one of the other guys out there, not part of the big hound crowd, although clearly not there for any reason other than getting an autograph, had an Ohtani jersey.  And he wanted it signed on the number, not on the uniform itself.  ("American style, not Japanese style," he said.)  Some of our group tried to help him get it ready by pinning it to a shikishi, but I was like "You know he's going to sign between the numbers, right?"

Sure enough, Ohtani not only signed next to the number, not on the number, but he also signed it at a right angle to the numbers!  I should have taken a photo, but I kinda felt bad for the guy.

I watched Ohtani make his way down the line for a while.  Toshi Shimada, director of operations for the team, came out to watch as well.  Toshi speaks perfect English (he used to be Matt Winters's interpreter) so I was like "Dude, this is crazy!  Don't you guys have him on a signing limit?" and he said "Well... he couldn't really do anything at camp today, so he felt like this was at least something he could do."  "Oh, I see.  That's really nice of him and the team, then."

Anyway, the nice thing about Ohtani coming out was that ALL THE AUTOGRAPH HOUNDS LEFT!!!1!!1 and then it was nice and peaceful.  The remaining 20-25 of us there all gathered around the normal waiting place and it got much easier to ask players for signatures or photos because there wasn't this ridiculous intimidating line of 150 people out there anymore.  Whew.

Though, somebody left their folding chair there.  We have no idea who.  It was still there when we went home.  For all I know it might still be there.

So after that I got photos with Yagi, Urano (!), Kagiya, Taniguchi, Hakumura, Shirai-coach (!), Yokoo, Iguchi, Yoshida, Kuriyama-kantoku, and Ishiryo.  Yeah, quite a collection.

Urano was funny because I was like "I've been watching you since you were at Aichi Gakuin but never managed to meet you," and he was like "Really?" and I said "Yeah, I first saw you at the Jingu Taikai 6 years ago?" and he was like "Wow, thanks."

Kagiya, I had given him some lip balm I brought for him (as usual, hehe) but then since he was still around after I got Urano, I went up like "Kagi-san, can I get a photo with you today anyway?  I'm wearing my championship shirt?" and he looked like "Oh yeah, of course".  Unfortunately the person who took it stood in the sun so we're both squinting but whatever.  :)

I didn't get a photo with Tatsuya Morimoto, but I started walking with him across the parking lot like "Hi Tatsuya!!  Do you remember me??" in English, and he was like "...??" and then I asked in Japanese, like "We spoke at Kamagaya last year." And then he was like "Oh yeah!  At the festival."  Then he was like (in English) "Do you speak Japanese?  Why??"  And I told him how I used to live in Tokyo, etc, and then he asked a really good question: "'Can you speak English?'と'Do you speak English?'って、どう違いますか?" And I was trying to think of a difference, but it's true, they basically do kind of mean the same thing when you ask.  So I did mention that "do you" and "can you" are usually different but not in this case.  Anyway, we were walking and talking almost all the way across the parking lot, which was fun, but I didn't want to get too far away from everything, so I was like "じゃあ、また", and he was like "SEE YOU!!"

I also didn't get a photo with Kenshi Sugiya, but since I was at the front of the line by the time he came out, I at least handed him the birthday card I'd brought for him like "HAPPY BIRTHDAY SUGIYA!!" and he was like "THANK YOU!!  I'M THE BIRTHDAY BOY!"  But he was in a hurry so he pretty much blew through the entire crowd of people to get back to the hotel.

(The card I got him had a pretty silly joke in it so I wrote a note in Japanese like "If you don't get it, ask Laird.")

Dani did finally come back around 4:30, though most people and players were gone by then.  We ended up talking to a Japanese boy who's in college in LA right now, who apparently remembered us from camp last year too although I totally forgot him.  He's a big Asama fan, although when Asama came out he pretty much ran past and ignored all of the fans too.  Oh well.

We finally left for real around 5:30, which I may have mentioned is the same time that the players were gathering in the lobby of their hotel to go to the basketball game.  Dani and I were going to stop by the hotel and drop off her stuff, but she's staying in the same hotel as the players and we saw their bus out front, so instead we diverted and went and got dinner and she caught me up on crazy stuff that had happened at camp the first few days.

It's funny, you'd think that staying in the same hotel as the players would be exciting, but it sounds quite stressful.  See, normal protocol with Japanese fans is that you don't bother players in their private time, which means in the hotel, or out shopping, or whatever.  One of the fans said how "Well, I got in the elevator at the hotel and Takanashi was also in the elevator so you know, I just said hi to him, but other than that, like in the lobby and on the patio and stuff, you just don't talk to them, it's not cool."

The thing is, today, Sunday, I went to the Arrowhead mall nearby, and when I got there I saw several FIGHTERS/ANA bikes parked outside, and I realized that like half the team was going to be in the mall because of the off day, and because that's what young Japanese guys usually do on weekends.  And I was totally right.  I counted at least 16 players in there, and a few other staff.  Most of the guys were just wandering around in groups of 2 or 3, but I saw them all over the place.  It was very strange, because part of me was like OMG THE FIGHTERS ARE ALL OVER THE MALL but part of me was like OMG THEY ALREADY THINK YOU'RE A WEIRD AMERICAN STALKER.

Anyway, if you managed to get through all of this, or even if you didn't, here's some more photos from Saturday at camp.

Takayuki Katoh on the mound.

Yushi Shimizu during catcher's practice.

Brandon Laird messes with Shirai.

Taishi Ohta pounds baseballs over the fence.

Brandon signs for people before being carted off.

Ryo Ishikawa said "Whoosh" after hitting each ball

Toru Murata meets with his friends

I got Ohtani's autograph but I kind of feel guilty about it

Ohtani's security detail and the photographers

And now for an onslaught of two-shots!  I did mention that I was doing my best to take photos yesterday rather than anything else, so I don't expect to get this many on any other day, but who knows.  I still have a few people I haven't gotten yet...

Yuto Takahama

Toru Murata (what a nice guy!)

Yuki Saitoh (and you can see the autograph dudebros in the background)

Shota Tatsuta, who also is injured right now :(

Takayuki Katoh

Taishi Ohta (he IS a pretty big guy)

Ryosuke Kishisato

Kenta Uehara

Shogo Yagi

Hiroshi Urano

Yohei Kagiya

Yuya Taniguchi

Akihiro Hakumura

Coach Kazuyuki Shirai, the funniest guy on the team

Toshitake Yokoo... he was trying to get the sun out of his eyes too

Three-shot with Kazutomo Iguchi and Yuki Yoshida

Manager Hideki Kuriyama!

Ryo Ishikawa


NPB Card Guy said...

Was Saitoh friendlier this year than last? He's smiling this time and you didn't need to wear your Tokyo Big Six shirt to get him to do the photo.

Between this and the stuff Dani and Joe have tweeted I'm really wishing I could have made it out there this year. Maybe next year.

Deanna said...

He is, not sure what's up with that. Like I said, he even smiled at us in the morning, even if suspiciously. Maybe he had just had a bad day when I asked him last year (he was in the bullpen and Yoshii had been getting on his case, right?)