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Sunday, July 1, 2012

BASEBALL BULLET-IN

Rakuten's Kamata latest to shine straight out of high school


One of the main differences between Nippon Pro Baseball and Major League Baseball is the fact the Central and Pacific League teams each have only one farm team, while the American and National League clubs have farm systems.

In Japan, it is ichi-gun and ni-gun (varsity and second teams). In the U.S., you have Triple-A, Double-A, Single-A and Rookie leagues.

For that reason and others, it is unusual these days to see a teenager playing big league ball. Most of the American kids leaving high school start at the lowest level and move up the ladder, hoping to make it to "The Show" in four or five years at the age of 22 or 23.

Guys coming out of college, already in their 20s, may reach the MLB level sooner.

In Japan, however, it is not that unusual to see a boy come straight out of high school and play for a top team just days after his graduation in March.

Masumi Kuwata, Kazuhiro Kiyohara, Hideki Matsui, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Masahiro "Ma-kun" Tanaka and Yu Darvish are among those who made their debuts at the highest professional level in Japan practically before the ink on their high school diplomas had dried.

They were ready, though, having practiced or played baseball just about every single day during their high school years; their skills polished and level of fundamental play well above many of their American counterparts who only play and practice for a few months each year.

While the above-mentioned players were well-known, highly touted No. 1 draft choices, there is one youngster who has developed quickly into a pleasant surprise for the Rakuten Eagles this season. Right-handed pitcher Yoshinao Kamata will not see his 19th birthday until Oct. 26 but is already one of the most exciting hurlers in Japanese baseball.

The native of Ishikawa Prefecture was Rakuten's No. 2 draft pick last November, but the Eagles must have thought of him as something special when they issued Kamata the uniform No. 21 left behind by former ace Hisashi Iwakuma when he went to the Seattle Mariners during the winter.

Through games of Thursday, Kamata had compiled a record of 3-0 in six appearances, posting a 1.64 ERA. Manager Senichi Hoshino is smiling, and Kamata's contribution has helped the Eagles remain in contention for the Pacific League Climax Series.

Will Kamata be able to sustain his performance for the remainder of the season?

That remains to be seen, but he's got the poise and the ability to be real good at such a young age. Keep your eye on this kid.

Diamond Dust: Yomiuri Giants infielder Edgar Gonzalez is a friend of the new Hiroshima Carp foreign player, first baseman Brad Eldred, and Gonzalez says to watch out. "He's got awesome power, and he has been trying to get to Japan for six years," said Gonzalez.

At 198 cm and listed between 116 and 122 kg, Eldred is actually bigger than the guy he's replacing, first baseman-outfielder Nick Stavinoha, out apparently for the season with an injury.

Eldred comes from the Toledo Mud Hens, the AAA affiliate of the Detroit Tigers, and was having a banner season. In 63 games this year, he had hit 24 home runs, knocked in 65 runs and was batting .305. Hiroshima manager Kenjiro Nomura must be thrilled.

We'll see how quickly the Carp can get Eldred (No. 55) into the lineup. He should be there when Hiroshima will be playing Gonzalez and the Giants in a traveling series July 10-12 — and we do mean traveling. That three-game set opens on Tuesday at Kyocera Osaka Dome, then shifts to Nagaragawa Stadium in Gifu on Wednesday, and the finale takes place at Tokyo Dome on Thursday.

Ever heard of the oiribukuro?

It is a small but decorative envelope which several years ago was given to members of the media covering a Japanese baseball game or other sports event whenever the game was a sellout. It contained a ¥100 coin and was considered a "bonus" of appreciation to newspaper, radio and TV people for their coverage.

In recent times, though, the oiribukuro has become as rare in Japanese baseball as bullpen cart drivers and Breathe-Right nasal strips, but the Yomiuri Giants distributed one at Tokyo Dome on June 23 to commemorate the team's first interleague championship.

Not only did the media members get them, but also every fan attending the game got the surprise. The enclosed amount, however, was not ¥100 but rather a ¥5 coin. Still, a nice souvenir and a reminder of how it used to be when there were a lot more sellouts at Japanese games and the economy was much better.

Finally this week, the Baseball Bullet-In would like to remember the late Kazuo "Pancho" Ito, a colorful figure in international baseball who died 10 years ago this week. The diminutive Ito was a long-time public relations director of Japan's Pacific League who later became somewhat of a media star working with Fuji TV and its group of affiliates as an on-air personality.

He covered, among many other notable Major League and Japanese baseball events, the debut of Hideo Nomo during his first season with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1995, and Nomo's start for the National League in the MLB All-Star Game in Arlington, Texas, in July of that year.

The beloved Pancho died in Tokyo on July 4, 2002, following a long illness, and the music played at his wake was "Take Me Out to the Ball Game." It is difficult to believe he has been gone for a decade already.



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