If you read this past Sunday’s notes column, you know that Lars Anderson is playing for an independent league team in Japan. The adventure-seeking former big-leaguer — and his Kochi Fighting Dogs teammate Manny Ramirez —were featured prominently. I concluded the segment by saying that we’d hear more from Anderson about his experiences playing baseball on the other side of the world in the near future.
As promised, here is the first installment of Lars Anderson Discovers Japan.
Lars Anderson: “The umpires here are decidedly the most athletic, in-shape game officials I’ve shared the field with. This might have to do with the fact that they run outfield poles during batting practice — or maybe it’s that they follow up said running routine with practicing their calls during our infield/outfield practice. I’m not kidding. While we take our daily “knock” (infield/outfield) they find their positions on the field and make safe or out calls — along with arm/hand gestures! — while we throw the ball around the infield. The fact that there are no runners to call out or safe is apparently not a hindrance.
“I often wonder, ‘Do they think this is as ridiculous as I think it is?’ I imagine the answer would be no. One of the greatest and most recurring gifts this experience has given me is the illuminating fact that ‘normal’ is entirely relative.
“The umpires are young — I believe one of them is 19 — and I don’t like them, as is my nature. That’s the one thing that hasn’t changed between here and back home. But I will say this: they don’t possess the same arrogance that the bloated umpires in the U.S. display. All in all, they seem to be humble, nice dudes. There is much less animosity between players and umpires here. Sometimes I miss the blatant disdain displayed between umpires, players, and coaches.
“What is lacking in profanity between umpires and players is made up for by the music that is played during batting practice and the game. Apparently, all of the music with English lyrics is unedited.
“The other day, they played Eminem’s seminal hit, ‘My Name Is.’ This track was pre-sobriety Eminem, when his work delighted the kids while horrifying the parents. The song touches on a variety of topics that you can explore more if you’re feeling froggy, but suffice to say, it probably should be edited while played in public.
“I was standing in left field in mild shock, listening to Em introduce us to his crazy-ass self, and I had an interesting question pop up regarding his drug use and sobriety. With his sobriety came a seriousness in his tone and lyrics. To my ear, his music just isn’t as fun or interesting anymore. His new records don’t interest or excite me like his first couple of albums. So as the song played, I wondered, ‘What’s ruined more artists’ careers: drug abuse or sobriety?’ Not totally serious, but not totally joking, either.
“We are our own roadies. What I mean by that is we set up, play, and break down every game. The Fighting Dogs rent the stadium(s) where we play, so our footprint there is temporary in nature. Each game, the players tie sponsors’ banners to the outfield fence, set up the field for batting practice, fix the infield during the smoke break, and clean up the clubhouse after the game.
“The Fighting Dogs hierarchy, including the president and the general manager, can be seen carrying out humble duties on game day such as erecting food and beer tents, arranging merchandise, and handling in-game announcements. I enjoy this part of the experience. It’s cool to see the cooperation of everyone to make sure The Show gets off the ground. I appreciate being around, and working with, the Fighting Dogs front office. They are fun people.
“The DIY vibe touches the absurd as well. During our last home game, one of the players — he’s dubbed ‘Chuckie’ by Manny (Ramirez) because he reminds him of the killer doll in the horror films of the same name — acted as the mascot. He even threw out the first pitch. Chuckie is one of the practice players, so he is not active for the game. During home games, practice players’ duties include being bat/ball boys and apparently wearing fuzzy outfits with garish, oversized smiles.
“The other day, I had interesting realization while tying the Coke banner to the fence (the outfield in Kochi seems to be a good place to get some thinking done). Coke really leaves no stone unturned. As if Lady Gaga holding their product in Times Square isn’t enough, they have to own the outfield fence of the Shikoku Island League. And I be hanging the damn things.
“One day, I observed the opposing team’s pitcher warming up in the outfield grass. He didn’t look familiar, so I asked (teammate) Zak (Colby), ‘Have we faced him before?’ ‘Dude, that’s their manager,’ he replied. ‘Well, Zak, why is their manager playing long toss before the game with the catcher?’ ‘He’s going to throw out the first pitch. Komada-san (our manager) is going to hit against him.’ Okay then…..
“After our infinitely tedious pregame ceremony finished and the opposing team took the field, I witnessed our manager take a ‘real’ at-bat against their manager. Both played in NPB, acquiring fame and notoriety in Japan. Our manager is even in the 2,000 hit club here — rarefied air to be sure. Their manager pitched in the states, and although he didn’t make it to the big leagues, he did throw two no-hitters in Triple-A. He even played for the Charlotte Knights, a team that I was on in my disastrous 2013 season.
“The at bat did not disappoint. Komada-san strode to the dish with a white and yellow practice bat and a right-hander’s batting helmet (no earflap on the right side) despite his being left-handed. With a brief tip of the cap from both pitcher and hitter, the tilt began.
“The first pitch was a fastball, outside for ball one. The next pitch was another fastball and Komada-san offered at it, fouling it off to the right side. The 1-1 pitch was a hanging curveball, and he sat on it and hit a crisp one-hopper through the left side of the infield. It was 1985 all over again. He ran to first base, both arms raised over his head, triumphant.
“This little snippet adds to the growing list of ‘shit I’ve never seen before.’ It’s one of the reasons I came here — I witness jaw-dropping, head-scratching performances that leave me wondering, ‘Why?’ As I said before, I’m understanding how relative normal is. I’m becoming accustomed to the reality that even though it might not make sense to me, it makes sense to someone else.
“I’m becoming conscious of how quickly we as humans get used to things. We have this amazing capacity to turn what used to be foreign into the familiar. All dirt infields, marathon practices, hanging sponsors’ banners, and bowing to everyone you come across are no longer novelties. It just feels like part of the daily routine.
“I ate a meal the other day with a fork and was palpably shocked at how strange that felt. It was the first time eating with a fork since I’ve been here and it was weird. Just tacitly weird. I didn’t like it. I found the fork to be cumbersome and unrewarding. There is something more precise about chopsticks. While using them, I feel like a frog with a long tongue, snagging a fly out of the air. With a fork, I feel like a cow chomping off a clump of grass.”
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.