Friday, August 29, 2008

Interview with Fernando Seguignol

One of the good things about the Marines-Eagles game raining out on August 17th in Chiba was that I got a chance to sit down and talk to Fernando Seguignol for a while in the Rakuten dugout during batting practice.

Seggy's career has taken him all over the place, making his MLB debut in 1998 with a team that no longer exists (the Montreal Expos) and his NPB debut in 2002 with a team that no longer exists (the Orix Blue Wave). His most successful run with any team was his four seasons spent with the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters from 2004 to 2007. In that time he hit 122 home runs and drove in 339 runs, batting cleanup in the Fighters lineup almost every game. He was an integral part of the Hichori-Kensuke-Guts-Seggy order which carried the Fighters to their Japan Series championship in 2006, for the first time since 1962.

After being released by the Fighters after the 2007 season, he played in Mexico and in the MLB minor leagues for a while this year before the Rakuten Golden Eagles signed him and brought him back across the Pacific. He was written into the lineup so soon after arrival in Japan that he was still jet-lagged in his first few games, but he hit the ground rolling and is batting .333 in his first month back here (12-for-36 with two home runs as of this writing).

Fernando was amazingly candid with me about many topics, about his career and about his time with the Fighters, and of course, about the bananas. It was refreshing to hear him talk about playing in Japan; he really loves it, and is genuinely happy to be here.

Thanks to the Chiba Lotte Marines for allowing me to stay dry from the rain by hiding out in their visitor's dugout to do this interview, and of course, a thousand thanks to Seguignol himself for being so friendly and talkative, and for letting me grill him with questions for almost half an hour. I wish him all the good luck in the world... except when he's playing against the Fighters, of course :)

So to start, how does it feel to be back in Japan?

Exciting! It feels good to be back at a competitive level. I had good times here, and leaving that behind was kind of tough to do. So coming back is definitely a really exciting thing for me, I really like it here in Japan. It's a different team now, so things are a little bit different, but hopefully I can do the same [with Rakuten] as I did with the Fighters.

What was your best moment here?

The best would be... well, there's nothing that compares with winning the championship with the Fighters. I was with them for four years.

Okay, so... where have you been this year?

Wow. [long pause] Let's start out with Arizona. I did Spring Training with the Rockies. Then I went to Mexico for two months, played with Olmecas de Tabasco... and after that I went to Toledo, Ohio, played there for a month or so for the Tigers AAA team, and then ended up here.

How did you end up back here again?

Well, the process... there were on and off conversations for a while. I got hurt in Toledo, my heel wasn't so good, and they said I would probably be out for anywhere from 6-8 weeks with a heel support. They told me to get some rest, that I wouldn't even get to play the rest of the season at AAA. But in the meantime I was feeling better, so when the Rakuten Eagles contacted my agent, we went back and forth in conversation. They wanted me, and I wanted to be back. We figured they'd give me a week or so of rehab and then I'd come here and once I felt ready to play I would, but the process was a lot quicker than that. It turned out for the better, so I don't take it as a setback, doing that, it was a good transition.

Wait, is your heel okay now?

There's still a little pain sometimes, and once I'm on it for a while it starts getting tight. But it's one of those things you gotta rest and eventually you'll feel better, so... I'm resting, I'm playing. It's one of those things you gotta flip a coin to see how it'll be tomorrow, but so far it's been good and it's getting better with time.

Did your agent contact the Fighters at all about coming back?

There were a few talks here and there, but it was one of those things where early in the season we didn't really know what happened there. It wasn't like, "what will we need to offer you?" or what I need, or what they need. It was more like "Thank you for what you did, let's move on." You know, separate careers, separate lives, one of those things. It wasn't like a bad divorce or anything, you've just got to move on, and I'm definitely moving on, even though I wanted to stay there. I think the fans know I wanted to be back. The team put it out there that my knee was hurt, and I'm still hearing that, I don't know why they keep saying that.

So the knee thing wasn't true, was it?

No, it was not true. As you recall, if you go back to a few weeks before the playoffs, game against the Hawks, I got hit in the knee by a fastball, like 97 miles an hour, hit right in the knee. So the whole week I was bruised and I still played all the playoffs with a hurt knee because I was hit. I think what it really was is that I didn't have such a great season, my numbers were okay but they were down from past years, so the Fighters wanted to move on. But to say my knee was hurt, that wasn't it at all.

I contacted a Japanese newspaper and did an interview but I don't think it helped. I contacted them, my agent did, they asked how I was doing, I said everything was fine. I have proof of going to the doctors, I wanted to make sure everything was right, I didn't want to come back here hurt. We took MRIs, took every test possible, so the idea that I was hurt... I don't know. But, I wish them the best, I had good times there. I just want to throw it out the window, just gotta move on.

Are you looking forward to going back to Sapporo?

Oh, yes. I think we'll be back to the Dome first week of September. I'm definitely looking forward to it, I have good friends there, hearing the fans and all that will be nice, to see that again. As a visitor I don't know what kind of reception I will get but I'm definitely looking forward to going back there to play.

So, you're not hoping for revenge? Extra special home runs against the Fighters?

Oh, no. I mean, Micheal [Nakamura] said he wants to break my back, and I told him I'm gonna get a hit off him, but that's just friends talking, that's what we've been doing. I call them real friends, all those guys. We all wish each other the best, we talk all the time, email each other, it's just a game, I definitely look at it that way. Sure, it's competitive, but it's a game. I want to win, they want to win, but it's really all about going out there and letting the best team win that day.

Who was your favorite guy to play with on the Fighters?

Every guy... had a unique thing about them. That's what separated us from other teams. Just by the chemistry we had, teams would already feel like they had already lost the game just by looking at our dugout, every guy had something to do. Once the game started we were on a roll, and that was huge, very important. Friends... well, definitely the other foreigners on the team, because of the language barrier and all that. But I mean, we had a good time no matter what, EVERY guy on that team had something special going on. It was a great four years I had there.

What was it like playing with Shinjo, or Hichori, the crazy people?

To be honest with you... I think Shinjo coming into the team, to spark something up, that was huge. We came at the same time, arrived the same year, and for him to bring what he brought, he made the younger Japanese players relax and play at their potential. He did that in so many ways. Everything he does is special. The biggest thing about him was that he would take younger guys, like Hichori, under his wing, and teach them the right way about going about things, defense-wise, or other things that would help the team. He did that, and he would bring a lot of good things out of a lot of the younger players, so they weren't shy about being themselves. That's what Shinjo was, being himself. A lot of people didn't like that, but at the same time it was great for us. He had this great energy that we'd feed off of.

There could never be another Shinjo in this league. Shinjo is one. Shinjo is unique. There's no other Shinjo. A lot of other guys might try to be Shinjo, but he's special in that way. He got along with foreign players, he got along with Japanese players, he respected younger players, that's something older guys here normally don't do, you know, "I'm older so whatever I say goes," but Shinjo was open to a lot of guys, to everyone, to the fans. The way he'd take over the Dome with the things he did, he helped us out a lot.

How did it feel to make such an impact on the city of Sapporo, coming there with the team?

You know, I remember the first day of practice in Sapporo Dome, in what, 2004? I said, "There's no way we're gonna get fans to fill this place." I looked around, said "No way. This place is HUGE. It's the biggest dome in all of Japan, we'll never get this place full." Trey [Hillman] looked at me, and said, "Seggy, you know what? This is a nice place. We just need to win some ballgames and build the right team," and sure enough, that's what we did, we won some ballgames and built a great team, and the next year, we were getting sellouts, 45,000 people in that place. It was amazing to see that, from the day we started to the day we ended, the fans came from everywhere.

Do you think the fan support is what made a big difference for the team in Sapporo then?

Oh, fan base, yeah, definitely. I mean, they're great. At times, we'd be going up against a tough pitcher or a really good team, and just to feed off the energy the fans would bring to the stadium was unbelievable. The guys would feel that and we'd go out there like "Hey, let's just go do this, the fans will support us no matter what happens," so we'd just try to relax and play a good game. The fan support made us relax and play the game the right way.

I gotta ask. How did the bananas thing start?

It kind of... I mean...

Well, that is, did you start it or did the fans?

Okay, so I was a guy that always had leg muscle problems. Hamstring problems, quads problems, you know, cramps in my legs. When I was younger I was the big guy with little legs, you know, and I used to dehydrate a lot. So they recommended me to always keep potassium in my body so I wouldn't break down so fast. Potassium, you know, so it's one banana here, two bananas there, while I was in the minor leagues. Next thing you know that's all I would eat before the games, bananas and a protein shake. I came here and started doing it, and of course my teammates started noticing, and the front office too, I think they put it out in the newspaper. "All he eats is bananas." And the fans listened, of course.

I've always liked bananas, I'm from a banana place, from Panama, we EXPORT bananas. The town I grew up in has a LOT of bananas too, everyone really loves bananas, sure. I like plantains, ground food, but you know, it's not like I eat bananas every day, not at home. I eat lots of other fruits too! [laughs] Watermelons! Mangoes! Pears, strawberries... no, I don't eat bananas every day. But when I play, that's the food I have here, and it's good for my body. So that's where it kind of started. The real story is that I don't want my muscles to break down.

So do you like the banana wave?

Oh, yeah. I enjoy it. The fans are having fun, and that's what matters. Most of the time, we're putting on a show for the fans.

I think what's great about Japan is how much the fans have a relationship with the team.

They really get into it. They appreciate the game, and we appreciate them doing it. I think sometimes it's good to give back. There's only so much you can do, but when you give back, an autograph here, a handshake there, just saying hi to someone... I think they like that, it makes a difference.

Hm, so then how is it in Sendai so far?

To be honest, the couple days I've been there has felt like a road trip. I'm just staying in a hotel, so it was just like going back and playing there before, like a visiting team member, only now I'm a local guy. I haven't had enough time to go around and know the stadium and city area yet, whatever I know about it is from prior years going there to play. The surroundings, the restaurants I visit, the places I was always going to then. But, I'm looking forward to knowing more about the area, hopefully I can enjoy it.

Do you like... cow tongue? They made me eat it when I visited Sendai.

I love it! It's really good! We had good times at those restaurants, one of those times you can sit down and enjoy a good conversation with your teammates. I don't know if you made restaurants like that in Latin countries if it would kick off, you know, people wouldn't see the reason for a place where you can cook your own food like that. It's kind of weird but I love the idea. It's really relaxing, and they have really good food, you get really full eating something like that.

On another Sendai note, the Eagles have a lot of, well, first basemen. Would you rather be a DH or a 1B? Where do you prefer?

I like to be on the field, definitely. I like to play first base if I can. When I'm on offense that day I can help out the team, sure, but I want to contribute to winning any way I can, either offensively or defensively, that's what I want to do. I know here they bring a lot of foreign guys and they want us to hit home runs. That's cool too. I tell them I'm here for that, I know my role, and that's what I'm gonna try to do, hit a lot of home runs, help them out. But I like being on the field defensively as well.

How does that change your approach here? Going for home runs all the time, is that different than how you try to hit in Mexico or the States?

Well, in the States... I'm a big guy, so they expect me to drive the ball, drive in runs, that's one of the things I'm there to do. But in the States being a good hitter, getting your hits here and there, and having a high on-base percentage is sometimes what's more important. It depends on who you play for, the team situation, the manager, see what he likes, go from there. But I guess wherever I go, with my frame... [laughs] They don't see me as a runner or bunter no matter what, you know? No matter where I go, I'm gonna have the same kind of approach.

What's it like playing for [Katsuya] Nomura?

So far? Well, what I used to see of him, when we'd have matches, Fighters vs. Eagles, I'd watch him talking to Trey Hillman. It was one of those times I could see they had something in common, they're really devoted and really enjoy the game and have a lot of knowledge. So as a player it's my job to pick his brain, try to get more information so I can be better, one of those things. You gotta listen sometimes and pick up stuff that can help you out. Nomura, he's a lot of fun to play for. He's managed a lot and seen a lot, so he's low-key, says what's on his mind. He says what he wants to say, doesn't beat around the bush. As a player that's good, we love getting the real thing, not just hearing something and still making the same mistake every day anyway. You hear it from him once and that's it, I gotta change. So far it's been good, and we've been winning a few games so that's good too.

I actually thought this team would make 3rd place this year.

There you go! We're gonna make the postseason. We've got what, 40 games left? That's a lot of games, we just gotta try to win some of them. We're what, 4-5 games out of third?

Yeah. The Pacific League has almost everyone at .500 or so except Seibu.

Exactly, it can be anyone's game. We'll see how it goes.

What's your plan for next year?

I've only got a deal for this year right now, so we'll see what happens. I guess [Rakuten] would have the rights to sign me back or release me. At the moment I'm just kind of focusing on these two months to do my best. I'm happy to get this opportunity to come back to Japan.

You *really* like it here in Japan!

I do, they really take baseball seriously here. Going to the games, at times it can be really tough because of the schedules and the travelling but whatever. You play, you really want to win and the fans are into it, and it's a completely different atmosphere.

Yeah, I know as a fan I would rather be here. It's a lot more fun.

Yeah! They enjoy the game. Always out there clapping, supporting us, talking, singing. You don't get that back home. In the US you might feel that kind of atmosphere in the playoffs, lots of noise and stuff, but here, from day one they get into it, it's amazing. Back home, it's almost kind of dull. You're out there doing your job, playing the game, but it feels like you don't hear anything.

What was it like the first time you heard the cheers here?

[Laughs] It was different! It's a process... when I first came here with Orix, getting used to the cheering, getting that out of the way, it helped me in the long run. I tell guys who come here for the first time that they have to get used to it, get it out of the way, try to understand what it's like here. Different place, different language, you need to learn so many things right away, try to understand the Japanese, it makes you a better player, a better citizen.

Are you studying Japanese?

I was before, but not anymore. Whatever I learned, nobody really understood me. What I was reading out of books, and studying off the internet, it was formal Japanese. The guys would tell me, "You're too proper!" I think I learn more by just listening here. I just try to talk with everyone.

[Editor's note: At this point we degenerated into a talk about language learning for a bit and shortly after that, batting practice ended anyway. The rain never stopped, and the game was cancelled after only one inning.]

For the record, Seguignol is TALL.

Unfortunately, in the ten days or so since the interview, the Eagles have had two more rainouts and gone 2-4 in the games they did manage to play, so I'm not sure how bright things are looking for them at the moment. Next weekend, September 5-7, they head up to Sapporo to play against the Fighters, so we'll see what the fan reaction is like when he gets there.

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