With little fanfare, Norichika Aoki decided not to participate as a member of Japan’s team for the 2013 World Baseball Classic. It was no minor decision as he had been instrumental in bringing Japan the championship in 2009 and was named to the WBC All-Tournament Team along with the likes of Ivan Rodriguez, Jimmy Rollins, Yoenis Cespedes and Daisuke Matsuzaka. He was THE All-WBC center fielder.
He opted to skip this year’s tournament so that he could prepare for the upcoming season with the Milwaukee Brewers. In his first season last year, Aoki hit .288 (20th in the NL) with 10 home runs and 30 stolen bases (9th in the NL). He also finished 11th in doubles and 20th in OBP with .355. Those stats placed him 5th for the National League’s Rookie of the Year voting this past season.
Last November, few if any had heard of Aoki. He was a star in Japan but to most baseball fans his exploits in the Central League of Japanese baseball for the Yakult Swallows went unnoticed. Then fate stepped in and brought a new kaze suzushi, fresh wind, in Milwaukee’s direction.
With Ryan Braun’s immediate future wrapped up in the silence of major league baseball’s deliberation process, the possible need for an outfielder became apparent to the Cream City brass. They took a look toward Japan to find a probable answer. Without a solid offer, Aoki came over to Maryvale, AZ, spring training facilities in early Winter to ‘work out’ for the Brewers management. His signing may have been one of the most fortuitous of the year for the team. When Braun’s suspense was lifted and the Brewers found their outfield crowded with the likes of Braun, Hart, Morgan and Gomez, a 5th outfielder could be considered a luxury. As fate would have it, a series of injuries that hit Milwaukee in May placed Aoki in right field and the rest was history.
Before leaving Milwaukee after the season, he gave tribute to his teammates and coaches for welcoming him as the only Japanese player on the team. His turning down the invitation to play for his native team in the WBC, gives us all a clue to this man’s dedication to his present team located in the heart of the Midwest where beer and brats are as plentiful as Sake and rice cakes in Tokyo.
When he came up to the ichigun level (Japanese equivalent of ‘major leagues’) in his rookie season in 2004, he saw little action. But he did win the MVP in the Fresh All-Star Game (the Japanese version of the All-Star Futures Game). That gave him momentum for the next season and when injury hit his team’s center fielder, he stepped in hitting .344 and was voted the league’s Most Valuable rookie. From that point on, he was a force.
If his decision to dedicate himself to training for the Brewers 2013 campaign by turning down that WBC invitation, the indication is clear that this coming season could be a breakout year for Milwaukee’s favorite Japanese import.