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Friday, March 29, 2002

Tanishige's major quest: close but no cigar

Staff writer

Motonobu Tanishige is considered the prototype catcher in Japanese baseball.

A key member of the 1998 Japan Series champion Yokohama BayStars, he has averaged 128 games behind the plate in the past six seasons -- quite an accomplishment considering the rigors of professional baseball in Japan.

Motonobu Tanishige gave a try at the major leagues his best shot, but settled for joining the Chunichi Dragons after 13 years with the Yokohama BayStars.

Late last year, after the season was over, Tanishige attempted to follow former teammate and star battery mate Kazuhiro Sasaki to the major leagues. Tanishige tried out for several teams in Arizona, the spring training site of many clubs, but came up short in his bid to become the first Japanese catcher to make the majors.

In a exclusive interview with The Japan Times recently, Tanishige reflected on his attempt to play in North America and his reasons for leaving the BayStars after 13 seasons to play for the Chunichi Dragons.

The 31-year-old Hiroshima native joined the BayStars (then known as the Yokohama Taiyo Whales) straight out of Enokawa High School back in 1988.

After being platooned at catcher his first four seasons, Tanishige became the team's primary backstop in 1993 (catching 114 games) and anchored the position until the day he decided to join the Dragons.

With his solid reputation as a signal-caller and steady bat, the 177-cm, 81-kg Tanishige had a legitimate shot at making the majors this season, after being encouraged to try the move by Sasaki. The pair have kept in touch since Sasaki left the BayStars following the 1999 season to join the Seattle Mariners.

But Tanishige, who hit .262 with career-highs in both home runs (20) and RBIs (70) last season, said Sasaki wasn't the only reason he tried out for the majors.

"My tryout in Arizona was a place, an environment, which made me remember the joy of playing baseball. This is something I had forgotten during my 13 years . . . 13 years, is that right? Thirteen years as a pro here.

"My attempt to join the major leagues wasn't for any reason like I wanted to catch for Sasaki again or anything like that. Well, if I had ended up on the same team with him then maybe that could have taken place, but I didn't really think deeply about his presence."

When asked why he was not able to accomplish his goal the first time out, Tanishige didn't mince any words with his self-evaluation.

"Well, my performance was not satisfactory. There were all sorts of things that I had to solve to try and make it to the majors and in some of the requirements I just wasn't able to clear the hurdles."

Despite coming up short, Tanishige, a lifetime .248 hitter, didn't hesitate when questioned about making another try for "The Show" in the future.

"If there is a chance, yes, I would like to go for the challenge again."

After returning from Arizona, Tanishige quickly made up his mind to leave the BayStars and sign with the Nagoya Nine. It was a move that caught many by surprise, with him having been firmly entrenched as one of the stars of the Yokohama team.

Tanishige, who batted a career-high .300 in 1996, spoke with refreshing candor when asked why he made the move.

"After spending 13 years with the same team, I had started forgetting how to enjoy the game and many other things. This is a very self-centered way of thinking, but I thought it was important to me, that if I were to go one level higher as a player, I needed a new environment in which to do it."

Having played last season under legendary manager Masaaki Mori, who was the starting catcher for the Yomiuri Giants when they won nine straight Japan Series (1965-73), and was in his first year managing the BayStars, there has been conjecture by many baseball observers that perhaps the two clashed.

Tanishige smiled sheepishly when questioned about the possible beef, but denied there was any friction between the pair.

"No, there wasn't any trouble between Mori and me. My decision to leave the team was me pushing forward my selfishness, if that's the word."

The BayStars, realizing that losing Tanishige would be a big blow to the team, tried without success to persuade him from leaving.

"They gave me a very good evaluation and I appreciated that," said Tanishige, who will make 140 million yen this season. "But I didn't want to take the easy way by staying, so this time I made the decision to leave."

Even at high levels of sport, the most veteran of players still sometimes doubt their own abilities. Most are too macho to admit it, but the forthcoming Tanishige -- when reminded that a couple of years ago one Central League manager said, "I want a catcher like Tanishige. Somebody who can catch every game of the season" -- is not.

"I was happy when I heard that. Inside me I still have doubts about if I really am as good as others feel about me, but obviously, I don't feel bad when people say things like that about me. I will continue to do my best and try to achieve more than what is expected of me."

Tanishige is still in good physical shape for a catcher who has played 13 years of professional baseball, and he shows no signs of letting up. When it was pointed out to him that over the years catchers have often made good managers after their playing days were over, he clearly hadn't pondered the concept.

"I haven't really thought that far ahead yet. My dream right now is when I finish playing baseball, I want to spend a whole year doing whatever I want freely and in a relaxed fashion," he says with a laugh.

Over the years, both in Japan and North America, fewer and fewer kids have chosen to play catcher for whatever reason. It is the most physically demanding position for an every-day player and one which doesn't provide much exposure what with all the gear and mask necessary to man the post.

Tanishige thinks playing catcher has to be made to look more attractive to ensure future generations will be interested in it.

"I think the catchers in pro baseball today should play like we are really enjoying it and try to look kakkoii (cool) for the kids."

He says he didn't have any role models as catchers, because he didn't take up the position until he was in his early teens.

"I didn't seriously take up catching until junior high school, so I wasn't really interested in catchers and didn't really follow them that closely."

When the name of Johnny Bench -- a prototype catcher in the majors and star of the Cincinnati Reds powerhouse teams in the 1970s -- is mentioned, Tanishige nods respectfully and says, "I know him well and read his book, but that was only after becoming a pro."

The Dragons are coming off a disappointing fifth-place finish in 2001, but entered spring training with high hopes behind the addition of Tanishige and a pitching staff that included the likes of Shigeki Noguchi, Kenshin Kawakami, Masahiro Yamamoto, Mel Bunch and Kenjiro Kawasaki.

However, the outlook has dampened with the injury last month to Noguchi, who injured his pitching arm and now may be sidelined until the All-Star break, and the continued inability of Kawasaki -- who joined the Dragons as a free agent from the Yakult Swallows prior to the start of last season but was unable to pitch at all due to a shoulder injury -- to play so far this spring.

Despite the dark clouds that have formed, Tanishige remains undaunted about the prospects of his new team this season.

"The situation with Noguchi is not as serious as everybody is saying. Kawasaki didn't even pitch last year, so him not being here this year won't really affect us. We have a lot of younger pitchers looking good this year, and I'm sure younger ones will follow, so until Noguchi gets back, we will hang in there."

Tanishige, a rock of consistency for the past several years, made it clear that he won't be looking for any days off once again in 2002.

"My goal is to play in all 140 games."

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