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Saturday, Oct. 21, 2006

SPORTS SCOPE

Future is now for feel-good Fighters


NAGOYA -- In hindsight, bringing baseball to Hokkaido seems as much a no-brainer as bringing Trey Hillman in to manage the Nippon Ham Fighters.

Stephen Ellsesser

Hillman has the Fighters just four games from Japan Series glory, and the fans in Sapporo have club officials patting themselves on their backs.

Beating the Chunichi Dragons to win a championship is the only missing piece of the success story.

Last week at Sapporo Dome, there wasn't room for another fan in the jam-packed venue, especially if it was one of the few wayward wanderers there to cheer for the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks.

Three seasons in the new location have turned Nippon Ham from the lesser of two tenants at Tokyo Dome into the alpha-male of Japan's largest prefecture, a wilderness of winter wonder, stars and, apparently, baseball fans.

The fans are one reason why the Fighters' amazing run feels like a team of destiny on the move. The sheer love pouring out of the team is enough to make anyone feel good.

"Anyone who is a baseball fan, we love you," Hillman said after Nippon Ham clinched the Pacific League championship. "But we love you even more if you're a Fighters fan."

The Fighters' northern fans are more loyal and numerous than the crowds of (much) less than 10,000 that used to come and cheer on the Hammies at the Big Egg.

Next week, Hokkaido will host its first Japan Series game, and depending on how the first two games go this weekend at Nagoya Dome, the Fighters could be in a position to wrap up the championship on their home field.

Winning with that rowdy a crowd in the background wouldn't be the most difficult thing the team has done this year.

Hillman has been there for four seasons now, and although he has taken his team to the playoffs before, he has never been this close to a championship.

And after finishing in fifth place last season, the Fighters have had a long way to go in getting to the top.

Even with all the turns in the road, Hillman said, it has been a distance that was well worth traveling.

But the Fighters aren't ready to get comfortable just yet.

"We set a vision, and in the third year, we got a piece of it," Hillman said. "We want everyone to keep dreaming with us."

For now, everyone in Nippon Ham's locker room knows what that dream is: winning the Japan Series. But once this season is in the books, that could change in a big way.

With Hillman getting looks from the Texas Rangers, center fielder Tsuyoshi Shinjo retiring and clutch-hitting infielder Michihiro Ogasawara becoming eligible for free agency, plans could change quickly in the offseason.

And with that many changes, it adds a bit of urgency to Nippon Ham's postseason push.

If it cannot win with Ogasawara leading the league in RBIs and home runs, with Shinjo piping up fans and making excellent plays in center, and a comfortable Hillman calling shots from the dugout, how would it be able to get over the top if all three were gone next season?

What's left for the Fighters is to win a Japan Series championship, which would be the franchise's second and the first since Nippon Ham bought the team in 1974.

The Fighters have weaved an interesting tale in going from Tokyo obscurity to Sapporo celebrity, and winning this year will be what determines if that is more of a short story or winds up becoming a lengthy tome.



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