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Top>Hakumon CHUO [2011 Summer Issue]>[Taking on the challenge of Major League Baseball!] (2) Moving to a new team, Shinano Grandserows (BCL), after suddenly being cut in his second year in the minor leagues The struggle waged by Takafumi Nakamura (2010 graduate)

Hakumon CHUOIndex

[Taking on the challenge of Major League Baseball!] (2)

Moving to a new team, Shinano Grandserows (BCL), after suddenly being cut in his second year in the minor leagues
The struggle waged by Takafumi Nakamura (2010 graduate)

Heading into his second minor league season, pitcher Takafumi Nakamura headed to camp in Arizona only to be cruelly told that he was to be cut from the team. Although it was the Indians policy, a distressed Nakamura headed back to Japan, momentarily lost his objectives and gave up on baseball. But he couldn't completely throw away his dream of becoming a professional baseball player and looked for a new home in an independent league. His big dream of playing in the major leagues is a long way off, but Nakamura continues to pursue that goal. (Interview/writing/composition by Chief Editor Hiroshi Ito)

Heading to second year camp

After coming back to Japan on September 27th last year and spending close to a half year off-season, I headed to the Cleveland Indians minor league camp in Arizona for spring training on March 6th.

Having put in solid training during the off-season in Japan, I wanted to get back into pitching straight away. In my first year, in the short minor league season, I had moved up to Low A and had set my sights on going to the next level of High A and 2A. Because I thought I could do it this year, I was really looking forward to training.

After arriving in Arizona and joining camp, players are split into teams. I thought I would start in Low A but I had been assigned to High A. I had made one step up from where I finished the previous season so I thought last year's performance had been highly rated.

After pitching in three High A practice games, I received good feedback when I was told and praised by the coach to "keep it up." I was then called up to the next level of 2A for a practice game and pitched a scoreless inning. So I felt on a high and couldn't help but enjoy every day and wanted the season to start quickly.

Notification of being dropped

It happened on March 26th. 27th Japan time. At about six in the morning I went to the ground to do training. I had been training by myself and was thinking about getting changed for breakfast so I headed back to my own locker room when a team official told me to "come here" and took me into a room.

In that room there were three high ranking officials from the farm team who told me, "You are going back to Japan tomorrow." "We have booked a 5am flight for you, so go back to Japan." That was it. It was unexpected. When I asked why, the reply was "International players cost money," and "we want to nurture young players." I was 23 years old and there were players from the Dominican Republic who were 16 years old. And they were throwing at 150kph. That's the reason why, I thought.

With a Mahoning Valley teammate (in Brooklyn, New York)

How did I feel at that moment? My mind went blank. White. There was nothing. I didn't feel sorrow, and of course I didn't feel happy, my mind just went blank, really. It felt like something had been taken from my body. I felt like I was floating.

When I went back to the locker and saw the faces of my close teammates, I became sad. When good teammate and roommate Denny, who I had played baseball with, asked "What's up?" and I replied, "I've been released," Denny burst into tears. That was a saddening sight.

When I told other friends I had been released, they just laughed and said, "You're joking, aren't you?" Even when I told them it wasn't a joke, they just brushed it off lightly. It wasn't until they noticed me packing to go home they asked, "Is it true?" When I told them, "I told you before. It's true," they replied, "Oh, sorry. But your record is good. Why?" I replied, "I don't know. They told me it's because of my age and because I'm an international player." Then they responded, "What a load of crap."

"Unthinkable," the Scout said

Did I tell my parents? Yes, I called them immediately. It was two in the morning in Japan. My mother answered and said, "Is that right?" She was quite calm and said, "Oh, well. Come back home," but on my return to Japan she told me, "It was hardest for you so I thought I had to be strong. But I really wanted to cry." That was tough.

First friend in America and the one who taught Nakamura English

I also called Coach Yoshimasa Takahashi. The coach was also surprised and asked why, and when given the reason, he responded, "Eh? That's the way things are." I also called the scout who found me for the Indians, and he was also bewildered. That scout received my spring training report every day and said, "They were all good. They were good reports so it (being released) is unthinkable."

I caught an early flight the next day, but on the plane my mind was blank. I was depressed. It was a really sad flight from Arizona to Los Angeles.

Spending days pondering about giving up baseball

I came back to Japan on March 28 and met the Indians scout on that day. The scout said, "I'm sorry. The Indians policy is a little strange. But I definitely think you should continue playing baseball. I'll look for a team for you, too."

I also called Daisuke Yamashita (former pro baseball player and coach), who had seen my pitching last year, and he was also surprised and said, "If you pitch like that, you can get by in Japanese pro baseball. So I think it will be a waste if you quit now. You should think it over. There are many choices, but if you want to play pro ball, there are independent leagues." Then he gave me a lot of information.

But I couldn't think things over at that time. I was really weak. I thought that I couldn't play baseball anymore after coming back to Japan, it was painful. It hurt at the time to have people around me saying "Play baseball", it was awful. It was hard having my father and mother say, "Do your best at baseball." I told them that I didn't want to talk about baseball if possible.

Warmheartedness from Chuo University Coach Takahashi

I paid Chuo University coach Yoshimasa Takahashi a visit immediately on my return to Japan. Then, Coach Takahashi told me, "Go to a corporate team." He added, "There's a team in Hiroshima."

I had dreamed of becoming a professional baseball player since I was little and had played baseball up until now. It would be pointless if I didn't become a pro, so I told the coach, "I really want to become a pro player. At my age, I have to take up the challenge quickly." In saying so, the coach became quite angry. I had gone against the coach's advice, so it was understandable.

I went back home and had a think about many things, but in the end, I wanted to focus on baseball. This year I only wanted to do baseball. To do so, I considered the independent leagues. Until making that decision I was dejected, but once decided my motivation returned.

Then, I made up my mind to tell the coach of my decision and went to the Chuo University baseball dormitory.

When I told the coach, "I want to play in an independent league," the reply was, "I see. Well, if that's your decision, that's the way it is." But the coach's anger came across firmly in his tone of voice. I had never seen him like this before, it was really quite frightening.

However, I had made up my mind and when I asked the coach if I could come to practice (at the Chuo ground) the following day, Coach Takahashi simply replied, "OK." Then, when I went to the ground the next day, the coach had organized a trial for the Nagano team in the independent leagues.

That was a surprise. Although he had been so angry the day before, I thought, "What is going here?" (laughs) when I went to training and was greeted with, "Hey, good morning," by the coach who showed no hard feelings. "After you condition yourself at training, go and take a trial at the Shinano Grandserows," and I replied, "Yes."

I was grateful that the coach had accepted my wish and was truly happy. Actually, I thought the coach was, "amazing." More than thinking he was generous, I really thought the coach had a deep heart.

Signing with the Shinano Grandserows

I then went to Nagano and took a tryout on May 1st. I was immediately offered a contract by the Shinano Grandserows (owned by Nagano Prefecture and formed in 2006), and was registered as a player on the 2nd. Manager (Yoshiyuki) Sano told me, "I'm relying on you." I thought that I was needed by the team and I became even more determined.

The professional baseball independent league, BC League, consists of six teams from Gunma, Niigata and Nagano (Joshinetsu region), and Toyama, Ishikawa and Fukui (Hokuriku region) who compete in a league series (split into two stages over the season.) The overall winners from the regional groups take part in a playoff to decide the overall champion.

All the players aspire to play in NPB (Nippon Professional Baseball) or the Major Leagues. The level is high and Shinano Grandserows Manager Sano had managed and coached the second team of the Chiba Lotte Marines, and Coach (Hiroshige) Saruwatari had coached the Yakult Swallows second team.

Among the players are former professional baseball players. Famous players such as (Satoru) Kanemura (former pitcher for the Nippon Ham Fighters and Hanshin Tigers) and Ryutaro (former outfielder for the Orix Blue Wave and Tohoku Rakuten Eagles) are on the team, and on another team is former Yakult star reliever, Shingo Takatsu, who also played in the majors, so I thought the level was of a high standard.

Takatsu is really a top pitcher. I learn a lot by watching him. Watching Kanemura, whose pitches aren't that fast, hold batters is a great way to learn too, it's interesting. Watching is the best way and I can definitely learn from it.

After being registered on May 2nd, I made my first appearance the next day on the 3rd. Manager Sano asked if I could pitch and I replied, "Yes, I can pitch." My condition wasn't so good, but I threw two scoreless innings. I hadn't played in a real game for a while so I gave up two walks and only pitched at around 140kph. But the result was good so I didn't worry too much about it.

Differences between Japan and America

I clearly understood my pitching style after spending a year in the minors with the Indians.

Pitching styles in Japan and America are different. Pitchers who continually push through straight balls at 160kph are ideal for Americans. There are a number of pitchers in America who throw at around 155kph.

The control of curveballs is placed much value in Japan and we had practiced it in university. So that is quite useful against American batters. It can be said that a blind spot in American baseball is the lack of pitchers with good control. That kind of pitching comes across as uncool in America. It is cool to stand up to something with strength. So-called finesse pitchers with slow balls and good control have an image of being uncool.

But isn't it alright if the pitcher can hold down the batters without being cool? I had been brought up with that kind of baseball, or at least been taught it by Coach Yoshimasa Takahashi, so I sensed something when I went to America. With this I could win, maybe I could make it. If I played baseball in that way I thought I would be okay.

Pitching style

Last year, through one season in the Indians minor league system, I could see the direction of my own pitching. I thought there would be no mistake with pitching if I took the direction of holding down batters with control. In America, the general thought was that all pitchers were either speed or power pitchers, but I thought if I polished the control of my slower balls, even though such a viewpoint and direction was different from other American players, I could make it.

Last season I managed to get my fastest pitch up to 152kph. But in America, I was often made fun of by being told, "Your straight ball still looks like a change up." I got told that because I only threw curveballs, but I thought that was alright because I was containing the batters, so I didn't worry too much about it.

Spring training uniform

Conversely, I was pleased. This is because at Chuo University, Coach Takahashi had told me till my ears hurt, "You aren't a speed pitcher. If you don't work on the control of your curveballs, I won't use you in games." I tried the baseball I used at Chuo in America, and I realized that Coach Takahashi was telling me great things (laughs). I really did.

At that time, I was pleased I had been taught by Coach Takahashi. I thought that what the coach was saying was correct. "When I played at university, I didn't know that and thought, 'Damn'.(laughs). What Coach Takahashi said was always right. That hasn't changed. He truly is great. I knew that on graduating."

An aim to enter professional baseball

The challenge I face right now is to manage to hold a team scoreless even when my pitching condition is poor. To a pitcher, it is not good if your condition is bad and you are giving up walks, even if you get the win. So I don't worry about the numbers. It doesn't bother me very much how many strikeouts or victories I get.

There is a really pleasant atmosphere on the Shinano Grandserows team. I can focus on my baseball which is the main thing. That is the most enjoyable part.

What is my nickname? Everyone calls me "Jumbo." I am also called "Baba". That is because I am huge (Nakamura stands at 194cm). Kanemura gave me the name. I cook for myself, so I like it when Kanemura or other teammates invite me out to eat.

All my teammates are interesting. Because they all love baseball, training is fever-pitched. The aim for this season is to win the league championship. Because it is a community-based team everyone in Nagano gets behind the team, and it is for that reason I want to win. But, honestly, my main goal is to improve my technique and enter professional baseball. I have to do that now.