Spring Draining

The magic that is spring training has been held up a bit due to the playing of the World Baseball Classic, an event which brings mayhem to the major league training sites every four years. During this time it is called Spring Draining.

The other day in Maryvale, the Arizona Diamondbacks took on the Milwaukee Brewers. While the crowd was in a good mood before the game started, the murmur of ‘who’s that’ was fully in the air. For the Milwaukee nine, the only familiar starter from last year in the lineup was Carlos ‘Go Go’ Gomez in center field. The rest of the team was unrecognizable from last season. For the D’Backs, there was very little familiarity with last season’s team.

In both cases, it was not because there was a roster turnover but it was the return of the WBC. Most of the starters for both teams were now playing for one national team or another. For the Brewers, 8 players were with various national teams. John Axford, Jim Henderson and Taylor Green were playing with the Canadian team. Ryan Braun and Jonathon Lucroy were playing for USA. Yovani Gallardo was the leading pitcher and Marco Estrada played for Mexico, while Martin Maldonado was with the Puerto Rican national team.

Add to this unusual circumstance that Aramis Ramirez was out with an injury and Jean Segura along with Ricky Weeks were nowhere to be found, the infield was filled with complete strangers, one had no name on his back. He was merely number 94.

In the outfield, ‘Go Go’ was paired with some that were unfamiliar. Norichika Aoki was missing with a rare day off.

So, for the price of admission you saw the lineup filled with players like Josh Prince (always good to have a Prince back in the Brew Crew’s line up), Caleb Grindl and Khristopher Davis. In the infield there was Scooter Gennett and #94 along with Alex Gonzalez at first and back with the Brewers after a year away. Behind the plate was Blake Lalli. That’s right. Blake Lalli.

Oh well. Everyone needs a Lalli in the spring.

After the 19th of March, after the last ball has been thrown in San Francisco in the WBC final, order will be restored. Spring will once again be sprung. And the normality of the game will be restored. The rhythm of the season will come back again. Braun will be in left. Lucroy will be behind the plate. Axford and Henderson will be in the bullpen. And the days of Lalli will become a faint memory. You can see the smiles from here.

Play Ball!

Declining Offer Unselfish Act

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.

Play Ball!