Before the May 4th Fighters-Marines game in Chiba, I had an opportunity to chat with Terrmel Sledge for a few minutes. It was coming off of the crazy weekend where the Fighters had three extra-inning games in a row, two of which involved walkoff home runs.
I realize the timing of posting this isn't so great as Sledge is currently rehabbing from a hamstring muscle strain, but he should be back up on the top team soon. He really has been one of the key guys in the Fighters' lineup in the past two years, and he's also a really nice guy, very easy to talk to.
It's odd, the first time I think I saw Terrmel Sledge play baseball was in Tacoma, in the 2006 season, and he hit a home run out of Cheney Stadium. He had great numbers in the minor leagues in general, and his talent combined with his attitude and personality actually make him a perfect guy to play baseball over here -- where a lot of what makes a player successful is not only their skill, but also their "wa" or whatever you want to call it -- the ability to adjust to the group and to fit in with the Japanese way, which Sledge is doing a great job of so far.
So let's start with the amazing series this weekend, every game going longer than nine innings. How was that?
It was pretty crazy, playing three extra-inning games like that, two walkoff game-winning home runs.
Was that your second hero interview on Saturday? I saw the first one at the Tokyo Dome a few weeks back.
Yeah, it was the second one. It's great, the way they do things here.
What do you think of doing hero interviews?
It was a little different at first, but I love it now. On the other side of the world, people leave the game in the seventh inning, but here they stay until after the hero interview. It's awesome.
Now that it's your second year here -- what do you see as the biggest difference about the game here?
They live, die, and breathe it, you know? It's not just what they do on the field, but also what happens behind the scenes. These guys, they just play baseball, it's more than a livelihood. It's their life, it's the way their heart beats.
Are you doing that too?
I'm trying, but it's a different style. These guys have been doing it this way their whole life. I just try to get my work done, not really to be like them. They do what they do, we do what we do.
Do you think it'd be better if people did it this way in the US?
Not better, just different. Here they take infield every day, batting practice every day, it's just their routine. In the states, we'll sometimes take a break no matter what the game is, not take batting practice once in a while. I just think it's a different way of doing things.
How are you adjusting? Did you have to change anything to your approach when you came here?
You have to learn to be a better breaking ball hitter over here. It's very different, you don't see a lot of straight hard pitches going side to side, you see a lot more balls breaking up and down. You don't see forkballs too much in the States.
That's true -- and they throw a lot more pitches here, too.
Yeah, a lot more pitches. The game is longer, so your focus has to be up to par.
Do you find yourself thinking a lot about the breaking balls? Whether to lay off more, or just see if you can hit it?
Well, it's still "see ball hit ball", but it just takes time to figure it out, you're not going to get it right away. There are guys like Tuffy Rhodes over here who gave me a lot of advice, and the biggest thing he told me is, "You're not gonna get it right away. This is different, you just gotta work on it."
Tuffy's got to be a great help to new players here. What do you ask him about?
Well, there's only one Tuffy. He's not like a Barry Bonds or whatever, he's just a TUFFY RHODES over here! There's no better foreign player here -- he's almost to 500 home runs, for someone to do that as a foreigner is amazing. I pick his brain a bit, mostly about the field stuff, the pitchers, what he does.
How long do you think you'll be here in Japan?
I like it here. I wouldn't mind finishing my career here. I don't want to think about the future TOO much, but I like it here, my family loves it here, I could really see staying here a while.
How about defense? Have they gotten on you about that a lot?
No, I get my work done. As long as you get your work done, as long as you give 110%, this management is fine. I only know this team, I can't speak for others, but that's all they want to see -- you give your 110% and you get your work in, it helps your game and it helps the team, that's all that matters.
Your defense has been fantastic this year -- everyone's been really impressed with it.
Thank you. Yeah, that's one of my goals for this year. Last year was disappointing, I was injured, I had to DH a lot. I think that's not really me, I want to be the best player I can be, so I want to show them I CAN play defense.
Where would you rather be playing? Left field? First base?
It doesn't matter.
Yeah, it doesn't matter. I just try to be prepared. Though right now I'm probably more comfortable in left field since I've been playing there most of the time. I'm DHing today. [laughs]
How do you like standing in front of the fans?
I love it! You can't really explain it unless you're a player in that situation. You kind of feel like a rock star in a sense, you know? Like you're on the stage, it's amazing.
What's it like hitting? Is it tough to concentrate with all the noise?
When you've been playing this game for a long enough time, you try to zone out, you try to focus out. You don't really hear the crowd. If you DO, THEN you're in trouble.
So the crazy cheering doesn't help, does it?
Oh, no, it helps! I'm big into bringing energy to the field. We want to perform, we're entertainers after all. We want to perform in front of the fans, we're not here to bore them, so whatever keeps them going keeps us going.
Did you know your cheer song says "North Carolina Power?"
Yeah -- the lyrics to your song go "North Carolina Power, Homerun Sledge" and all of this stuff about "heating up the hammer" and such.
That's amazing! I didn't know that!
Nobody ever told you? That's crazy!
Nope -- that's the first time I heard it.
But -- why North Carolina?
I was born there.
I think that's a Japanese thing -- your hometown is where you're born no matter where you go after. I thought you were from California.
Yeah, I AM from California. I was born in North Carolina, but I don't even remember it, I'm a California boy. I moved there when I was three or four years old.
A related question: did YOU choose "Sledge Hammer" or did they choose it for you?
It goes with my name, in that sense. It always has since the first time I picked up a bat -- you know, my name is Sledge, the first thing anyone thinks about is "hammer".
So after a year in Japan, what's been your favorite place to play here?
Heh, of course. Your second favorite?
On the field or off?
Hard to say. On the field, the fans are diehard fans everywhere. Japan is a nice place to play. Probably, though, the place that was most different for me last year besides Sapporo, was Hanshin.
The fans? Or the stadium?
The fans. The stadium was just big. It seats like 50,000 people, right? It has a different feel, kind of an American-Japanese feel. The fans, they're rowdy, you can't understand them, but you just feel that energy. Like they're true diehards... and you look out there and ALL YOU SEE IS YELLOW. That place was just big, open, really amazing.
What's your best memory here so far?
Probably this year, that walkoff home run in the Tokyo Dome.
Is the Sapporo Dome the hardest to hit home runs in?
This park [Chiba Marine Stadium] isn't easy either, with the wind! Sapporo is a big park, but it IS a dome, with pretty high walls, so you never know if it's going to be a home run or not.
What's the easiest place here to hit a home run in?
Oh, the Tokyo Dome. Definitely.
Who's been the best to work with here, of your teammates?
Everyone's been great to work with, pretty unbelievable. As far as professional hitters, I enjoy watching Inaba. He's just... well, he's the face of the franchise. And watching him play, day in and day out -- you know he's not a 21-year-old, but he PLAYS like he's a 21-year-old!
Who's been the most fun person to work with?
Oh, that'd be Hichori, he's probably the most fun, totally crazy guy.
Does he make you put a glove on your head?
Yeah, he's done that a few times. It was funny.
Have you tried to learn Japanese at all?
少し！日本語が少し分かります。 I'm trying, but Japanese is tough. My vocabulary's probably about 50 words now.
At this point, the chat turned into talking about Japan and Japanese a little, I recommended he talk to Bobby for Japanese language tips, and then thanked him for his time, and asked if we could get a photo together:
I was really surprised when Sledge said he'd like to spend the rest of his career here, but I honestly hope he can make it work out, and I hope he can spend a long time playing for the Fighters!