Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Day 2: Your all-time favorite NPB player

This is a pretty much near-impossible subject for me as I've had way too many players that I've been totally in love with over the years.

I thought about it and figured that if I really had to only pick one player, I would probably choose Shunsuke Watanabe -- the longterm submarine pitcher for the Chiba Lotte Marines.  He has always been so much fun to watch when pitching because he's so different from everyone else, and his prolonged success while being so different.  Even among other submarine pitchers he's the lowest -- I have several pictures I've taken where his hand is almost scraping the ground while he's releasing the ball.  Terms like "fastball" or "curve ball" or whatnot don't really mean anything when they're coming out of his hand.

But in addition to being a super-interesting and different pitcher, Shunsuke is also super-interesting as a person.  I used to often talk about how bizarre his hero interviews were on here occasionally.  And when I'd read his blog back in the day he always had a lot of insightful things or just random thoughts on his hobbies, as opposed to a lot of other baseball players' blogs.  He's also apparently very good at skipping stones.

Anyway, despite that I had media access to the Chiba Lotte Marines stadium for 2 years back in the day thanks to Bobby Valentine, I never ever ever got up the courage to talk to Shunsuke.  Though pretty much every English-speaking staff member or player on the team knew he was my favorite player (to the point that Bobby, Larry, and Paul Pupo would mention how "your boyfriend's pitching again today!"), I just wasn't sure what I'd say, plus my Japanese wasn't good enough yet at that point to do a real interview with a Japanese player.  So what was I going to say, besides OMG YOU ARE AWESOME?

After the 2013 season, Shunsuke became a free agent, and signed a minor-league contract with the Red Sox, but that didn't work out, so he signed with the Lancaster Barnstormers independent team in the Atlantic League for the 2014 season.  Yusuke Kajimoto and Tomochika Tsuboi were also on that team, so when I got invited to a friend's wedding back in Philly in September, I took that opportunity to drive out to Lancaster and catch a game.  I unfortunately missed Shunsuke pitching by one day (he threw a complete game win against the Sugarland Skeeters the night before), but I DID get to meet him before the game.  (And Kajimoto, though Tsuboi had already retired by then.)  I basically told most of the pitchers hanging out that I was looking for Shunsuke and they eventually pointed him my way.

The funny thing is we mostly chatted in English!  I explained to him in Japanese that I'd been a huge fan of his like forever, I even had my old Watanabe #31 t-shirt with me from the old days.  I got him to sign a shikishi and we got a photo together and talked for about 5 minutes before he had to go because the game was starting.  He told me how he was enjoying being in the US, living with a local family, learning English from his teammates (though they were teaching him a lot of bad words), and so on.  Also we talked about Satozaki, who had announced his retirement only an hour or two before that.  Very crazy.  I was super-happy I got to meet him!

Shunsuke did recently announce on his blog that he expects this year will be his last playing baseball, as he wasn't able to get a contract with an MLB organization at all.  So I kind of hope I can get out to see him again, but it seems pretty unlikely.  Who knows, though.

(and yes, there were many many runners-up for this.  The funny thing is that I felt bad picking any one Fighters player over another -- between Ogasawara, Hichori, Imanari, Ejiri, Sweeney, Kaneko, Kagiya, Kisanuki, there have just been way too many of these guys over the years, so it was easier to just pick someone from another team.)