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Top>Hakumon CHUO [2011 Spring Issue]>[Taking on the challenge of Major League Baseball!] (1) The Cleveland Indians'1A baseball team The struggle waged by Takafumi Nakamura (2010 graduate)

Hakumon CHUOIndex

[Taking on the challenge of Major League Baseball!] (1)

The Cleveland Indians'1A baseball team
The struggle waged by Takafumi Nakamura (2010 graduate)

An attempt to make it to Major League Baseball by coming up from the minor rookie league. The road to the top is steep and unforgiving. However, our hero is fueled by a burning competitive spirit and the desire to make the most of his chance. Many people have been filled with courage by the challenge undertaken by pitcher Takafumi Nakamura (2010 graduate of the Faculty of Law) from the Chuo University baseball team . Will Nakamura be the first person who played for the Chuo baseball team to make the major leagues since our team was founded in 1930? We followed Nakamura on his quest to make it to the big leagues. (Interview/writing/composition by Chief Editor Hiroshi Ito)

An unexpected offer

During a league game in the spring of 2009, I first found out that a scout from the major league baseball team the Cleveland Indians had come to watch me. It was my 4th year in university. Although I didn't know it before the game, the scout came when I was the starting pitcher in our third game against Rissho University. I learned that the scout had come when our manager told me after the game.

The day after the game, I was called to the coach's office by Coach Yoshimasa Takahashi. After showing me the scout's business card, he told me that although scouts might be coming from the major leagues to see me, I still had a lot to learn!

I felt thrilled at that moment. Of course, I had heard of the Indians and I remembered seeing Hideo Nomo (the second Japanese major leaguer) take the mound as the starting pitcher in the MLB All-Star Game on television when I was in the 3rd grade of elementary school. I was really impressed by Nomo's accomplishments, and I was so happy that a scout had come from a major league team to see me pitch.

Still, I didn't fully understand the meaning of the scout's visit. In the first place, I was focused on playing professional baseball in Japan, and it didn't seem realistic for me to think about the major leagues. After all, isn't it normal for a player to enter the major leagues after playing professional baseball and having success in Japan? I couldn't imagine going directly to America. So, I wondered if the scout had just come as a joke !

Deliberation and decision

I was called to the coach's office during summer vacation. He asked me if I was going to declare myself eligible for Japanese professional baseball or play on a company team. He told me that no professional team would draft me based on my current level of performance, and he advised me to play for a company team. He also told me that the Indians would withdraw their offer if I declared myself eligible for professional baseball in Japan. I thought that my only option was to play for a company team, and I asked him to help me find a spot on such a team.

A local newspaper introducing pitcher Nakamura

Still, becoming a professional baseball player had been a dream of mine since I was a small child. So, I began thinking about my future from that day onward. And I decided that, yes, I wanted to be a professional baseball player. Of course, there is nothing wrong with playing on a company team. However, I knew my own personality, and thought I would have become complacent if I entered a company, got a stable salary and was able to lead a normal life.

If I was the kind of person who would constantly try to improve even after joining a company team, then I think that would have been a good choice. However, in my case, I thought that I would probably stop improving if I joined a company team. Also, if I couldn't play in the Japanese professional baseball league, then how about tackling the even bigger dream of joining the major leagues? If I am going to pursue a career in baseball, then the major leagues is definitely the best place for me to play. If I am fired after 2 or 3 years, then I will quit baseball. With this mindset, I decided to try playing baseball in America.

Still, I had told my coach that I wanted to join a company team. So, the next day, I told him that I wanted to play professional baseball. I explained to him that if I stayed in Japan I would probably just mooch off my parents and wouldn't grow as a person.

Coach and family

My parents had told me to take on new challenges while I was young, even if it meant suffering a little. I always remembered that and thought that this was a great chance for me, and felt that it was time to act independently and pursue my dreams. I explained my thinking to my coach, and even though he had told me the previous day to join a company team, he now told me that it was fine if I wanted to go to America. But he also warned me that it wouldn't be easy. I told him that I understood the challenges that awaited me.

I had been scared to go to the coach's office that day, but I had decided that this is my life and I was definitely going to America even if my coach advised me against it. When I actually went to his office, he agreed nonchalantly, and the whole thing almost seemed too easy!

After meeting with my coach, I returned to the dormitory and telephoned my parents. Until then, my parents had no idea that I had received an offer from the Indians. My father (Kiyoshi Nakamura) laughed when I said that I was going to America. But, he also said that he was fine with my decision and that he wanted me to work hard to fulfill my dream. He wasn't opposed at all; instead, he gave me another push forward. My mother (Harue) congratulated me and expressed her happiness that I was acting independently to take on a new challenge.

It's my life

The events described above occurred in the summer of 2009. I was actually contacted by the Indians on October 29th, about 30 minutes after the Japanese professional baseball draft had ended. My coach was called by a scout and I met with the scout the following day.

I greeted the scout and was immediately told that the Indians wanted me to come to America. Of course, I replied that I was ready to go! The scout informed me of the contract money. After that, we had a meal together, and my coach asked the scout about practice facilities and other things like that. I actually entered into the contract in November with something like an oral agreement. During that meeting, documents from the Indians were spread out on a table and "Welcome to the Indians, Takafumi Nakamura" was written. That was in the evening of the day after the draft.

Official game at Mahoning Valley (team name)

I didn't really have any knowledge of the major leagues, just a vague image. I imagined that we would play a rough style of baseball and that the facilities would be old and worn out. But, I also imagined that everyone would play their hardest in order to receive a call-up to the major leagues. During the period before I concluded my contract, I went out to eat with the scout and got lots of information on the Indians and the minor leagues.

It was really a turning point in my life when I summoned the courage to tell Coach Takahashi that I would join the Indians. I had thought for about 1 or 2 hours before making my decision. When I die 30 or 50 years later, I thought, I didn't want to regret not going to America and wondering what kind of life I could have led. I wanted to live a life free of regret. I decided to take a chance, go to America and see what happens.

I don't really feel any pressure to succeed. Still, if I am able to make the major leagues, I feel that it will be a great accomplishment for me and my university. After graduating, I was really happy that I studied at Chuo University. I feel the same way when I watch the Hakone Ekiden Road Relay Race. I feel conscious of upholding the tradition of Chuo University.

Setting off alone

I departed for America on March 6th, 2010. My university coach left in February for the Chuo baseball team camp. Since we wouldn't meet again before my departure, he left me with simple words of encouragement. At the time I entered into my contract, he told me to try my hardest for 3 years. He said that if I couldn't succeed in America, I should return to Japan and study further.

When I departed from Narita, I was sent off by my family, my classmates from junior and senior high school, and Chuo University officials. I was really thankful for everyone's presence. Even so, I felt very lonely after passing through the gate and waiting for my plane to depart. I realized that I was truly by myself. I really felt lonely at that time.

My father cried a little. I think that I would have also cried if I had just been with my family, but since I was surrounded by friends I kept my composure and said goodbye to everyone. My flight was bound for Arizona via San Francisco. After I had boarded the plane, I reaffirmed my conviction to succeed.

I had been told that Indians personnel would be waiting for me at the airport in America with a sign that said "Nakamura Takafumi." However, there was nobody to greet me when I arrived at Phoenix Airport in Arizona. It turns out that no one was waiting for me because my plane had arrived an hour late. But, since I didn't know what to do, I simply waited at the airport for about 2 hours.

On the verge of tears

However, nobody came. I wanted to return to Japan and felt like crying. I didn't know how to proceed, but returning Japan wasn't an option. So, on the verge of tears, I boarded a taxi. I had gotten the address of the place where the Indians conduct spring training, so I showed it to the taxi driver. The taxi driver told me that he knew the address, but after an hour of driving around he admitted that he didn't know where to go!!

The driver dropped me off in the middle of nowhere and I had to pay 65 dollars. I had to walk while carrying two big suitcases. I met someone while I was walking and asked where the training area was. The person told me that it was really far, but I thought that I could get there by walking and set off on foot. However, that person had come by car and offered to give me a ride. Thanks to that person, I finally arrived at the training facilities. At that time, I truly thought that I would be reported missing!

When I arrived at the facilities, the staff was surprised that I had come by taxi. When I told them that no one had come to meet me at the airport, they started to say that such a mistake was impossible. However, when they realized that the plane had arrived an hour late, they told me that it couldn't be helped. Still, I wish that they had waited for me. After all, I had waited for 2 hours at the airport but the Indians' staff didn't even wait for an hour! With all that happened, you can believe that I slept really soundly that night!

A big place

We didn't start working out immediately at the start of spring training. The first day I underwent a physical examination, having x-rays taken and my body fat measured, and things like that. The next day we had a check to measure our physical strength. Practice started on the 3rd day after I arrived.

There are 7 levels in the minor leagues. At the top is 3A and 2A. Next is 1A, which is further divided in High A, Low A and a short season league. Below that are the rookie and Dominican leagues. The Dominican leagues are like an academy with the participation of South American players and sometimes even Japanese players. I started in the rookie league. Spring training was different from what I had imagined. The camp facilities were awesome, really awesome. Japan doesn't even compare. I was so thrilled when I saw the practice grounds.

There were 6 baseball fields with carefully-trimmed natural grass. It was so beautiful. There were also 2 fields consisting of the infield only, 2 large indoor practice facilities and a big building for weight training. There was also a spacious cafeteria. It was unbelievable.

Mahoning Valley's home stadium

The major league teams also hold spring training camp at the same facilities. There is only a small separation between the locker rooms for the major leagues and minor leagues. Both the major and minor leagues use the same gym. I was in close proximity with major league players such as the famous Grady Sizemore (the Indians' leading batter) and Korea's Shin-Soo Choo, a player who had batted 3rd for Korea during the WBC and now bats 5th for the Indians.

I couldn't speak any English at first. However, there was one time when Shin-Soo Choo greeted me in Japanese and introduced me to Sizemore. Perhaps it is the culture in America, but I was thrilled at how major league players would speak with me as equals, joking and laughing. After all, aren't major league players the top athletes in America? Even so, everyone was so friendly.


Training was easy. It was a breeze compared to training in university. In the minor leagues, we sometimes spend 3 straight hours practicing defensive plays involving pitchers and infielders. However, once those 3 hours are finished, practice is done for the day. Practice starts at 9 AM and is finished at 12 PM. Even long practices are over by 1 PM. After practice, the team has a game until 3 or 4 PM. Players who are not scheduled to play in the game can go home. So training is really easy.

However, I wondered if such a limited amount of practice was enough compared to what I had done in university. Since players aren't allowed to practice independently after team practice is over, I decided that I had to train on my own before the start of team practice. I would arrive at the field at around 5 AM. After eating breakfast, I trained by myself for 3 hours beginning at 6 AM. After training independently, I finished up by participating in team practice. I followed this schedule all throughout spring training.

I didn't throw a baseball while training independently. Instead, I concentrated on physical training such as running and strengthening abdominal muscles using a heavy ball. A trainer came to the facilities at 4 AM and would give me advice to help me with how I wanted to train.

Coaches in America don't give any advice unless players ask for it. The coaches might tell pitchers that they should throw more fastballs than curveballs, but that's about it. Players have to ask for more detailed advice. Once a player takes the initiative to ask for advice, the coaches gradually speak up more on their own.

Every day, I took notes about what had gone well in practice and what I needed to improve. I couldn't speak much English at first, so I spent my nights using a computer to translate my notes into English to show my coach. When I took the initiative to communicate my ideas to my coach, the coach offered very thorough help. So, I didn't feel afraid to ask questions. Although I couldn't speak English very well, I thought that we could communicate somehow since we were talking about baseball.

Fierce competition

There are players who are cut during spring training. I had heard of this, but I was so surprised when I saw it with my own eyes. One day, about 10 days after the start of spring training, I went to have my social security card made after I had finished training by myself. When I returned to the training facilities at about 9:30 AM, I saw 5 players that I knew holding large suitcases and getting into a van. When I asked them what happened, they just wished me luck and shook my hand. I didn't understand what was happening, so I just replied that I would practice my hardest. After finishing practice that day, I asked what had happened to those 5 players. I was told that they had been cut.

Locker room in Arizona during spring training

Contracts are usually terminated after about 3 years, 2 years at the shortest. Even if a player has a bad first year, their contract won't be terminated the following year. Those who can't achieve a satisfactory level of performance 2 years in a row are cut. By the time spring training is finished, about 40 or 50 players out of 200 will have been released. One morning, the player using the locker next to mine was informed that he had been cut when he came to practice. He left crying. Such incidents really strengthened my resolve.

About 60% to 70% of the players in Low A are cut. That number decreases to about 10% in High A. Once a player reaches 2A, he is getting close to the major leagues. However, it is difficult to ascend from High A to 2A. When I was in Japan, I had thought that 3A was equivalent to the farm league in Japanese professional baseball. However, the level in 3A is almost the same as the major leagues. In actuality, the level of play in 2A is almost equivalent to the farm league in Japan.

Lifestyle and diet

The monthly salary for players in 1A is 90 thousand yen. Salaries increase to about 270 thousand yen per month for players in 3A. My first monthly salary was 420 dollars. No salary is paid during camp. During camp, players are paid only 12 dollars per day for food. Extended spring training or rookie league practice starts from April, which is the first time that players are issued a salary.

Apartment rooms are shared with teammates

At the current exchange rate, 420 dollars is a little less than 35 thousand yen. This salary continued until the season started in June. Beginning in June, I received 800 dollars a month. After paying 200 dollars for apartment rent, that left me with 600 dollars. Near the end of last season, I was promoted to Low A, which is one rank higher within 1A. As a result, my salary rose a little. But it was only a small increase of about 10 or 20 dollars.

My lifestyle in America is basically just baseball. I don't go out or take any trips. I don't even watch television in my apartment. The only time I use money is when I buy beer with my teammates and we drink in the apartment. The rest of the time I am using the computer. I only spend money on food, so it's easy to make ends meet.

I have been careful to keep my food expenses within 10 dollars a day. Breakfast and lunch is provided by the team. At night, I eat by myself after the day's game is over. But, even if I go to a restaurant and order a 10 dollar meal, I have to give a 2 dollar tip. That means I end up paying 12 dollars. So I order the cheapest entr辿e and keep my bill to 9 dollars including tip. But even 9 dollars is a lot to pay for a meal.

Together with a teammate at a hotel during a road trip

If I want to keep expenses to a minimum, I can go to a fast food restaurant and eat a lot for only about 6 or 7 dollars. So I mainly go to fast food restaurants. For that reason, the rookie league has the nickname "hamburger league." But the food at the clubhouse contains lots of vegetables, so I eat tons of vegetables and fruits while I am with the team. The meals at the clubhouse almost always have chicken or turkey. Beef and pork have lots of fat and aren't a really good source of protein, so the team only serves chicken or turkey.

Players in Japan pay a lot of attention to their diet, but I don't have such luxuries. I once got food poisoning at a restaurant when our team was on a road trip. After eating chicken and shrimp, I started throwing up the following day. I couldn't move for two days because of the food poisoning.


I lost about 7 or 8 kilograms last season. Food in America is oily and I feel full really quickly. Even so, I ate more than any of the Americans around me. I went to an all-you-can-eat chicken wing restaurant and easily ate more than any of my friends. But I still lost weight. I don't know why. Maybe I lost weight from nervousness. I can't communicate in English, so I guess I must be feeling stress. I felt a lot of frustration during July and August, and I sometimes became angry over little things.

I also had my first taste of racial discrimination in America. It was a worse experience then I had expected. At first, I didn't really mind if I was discriminated against. However, I gradually began to feel more anger and frustration. I was able to channel this frustration into motivation to beat people at baseball. Even so, I was stressed by discrimination. I think that it was another reason that I lost weight.

Of course, we aren't conscious of being Japanese while we are in Japan. But a Japanese person in America is a foreigner. My team has players from 10 different countries, but I am the only Japanese. I really felt conscious of being Japanese. After seeing players from many different countries, I felt that Japanese players are really advanced and I was happy to be Japanese.

America is full of dreams and I like the country a lot. After playing last season, I was able to become conscious of myself as a Japanese person. I became capable of objectively considering the meaning of being Japanese. It was a really great experience.

(Continued in the Summer Issue)