Japan needs to recognize own strength


Japanese baseball needs to recognize its own strength if it is going to cope with the departures of top players like Daisuke Matsuzaka to the U.S., one of the game’s four American managers said Tuesday.

Trey Hillman, set to begin his fifth season at the helm of the Nippon Ham Fighters, said Japan’s victory in last year’s World Baseball Classic shows that the game is played at a level here equal to anywhere in the world.

“If that didn’t wake up the world to the strength of Japanese baseball, then shame on the world.” Hillman told reporters at a luncheon in Tokyo. “If that didn’t wake up the Japanese media and the Japanese players to the strength of Japanese players, then shame all of (them), too.”

“Japan won the first WBC, period,” he added. When it comes to money, Japanese baseball can’t compete with its Major League counterpart, said Hillman, who led the Fighters to their first Japan Series title in 44 years last season.

But the game can compete when it comes to the quality of its players, and the teams need to recognize and emphasize this if they want players to stay here and keep the fans coming to the ballpark, he said.

“The problem needs to be solved at the grass roots level — stop telling the kids that baseball is better in the United States,” said Hillman.

The Fighters will be facing some challenges of their own this season. Star batter Michihiro Ogasawara left for Tokyo’s Yomiuri Giants, while reliever Hideki Okajima will be joining Matsuzaka on the Boston Red Sox pitching staff.

The team also lost a big fan draw when colorful center fielder and one-time Major Leaguer Tsuyoshi Shinjo retired last fall.

But the Fighters also have an up-and-coming star in 20-year-old right-handed pitcher Yu Darvish.

Darvish, who is Japanese born but has an Iranian father, is a leading candidate to be the opening-day pitcher when the Fighters open the regular season on March 24 against the Chiba Lotte Marines at Chiba Marine Stadium. He went 12-5 in 2006 with a 2.89 ERA and 115 strikeouts, and his fastball last season reached a maximum speed of 153 kph (95 mph).

“How good do I think he can be? I think he can be the best in the world,” said Hillman. “He’s not there yet … but I think he can potentially pass a guy like Matsuzaka.”