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Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2006

SPORTS SCOPE

Unique team spirit of Hillman's Fighters brought about success


The Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters may not have been beautiful every waking moment on the way to winning the Pacific League, Japan Series and Asia Series championships, but they were oh so pretty in getting it done.

Stephen Ellsesser

All the little Hamlets scattered through the world will remember 2006 as the year of lovers -- or the year that lovers of the Fighters got what had been eluding them.

Being around the Fighters for the better part of a month and a half gives good perspective on Trey Hillman's troupe, and two important things stand out: These guys love to have fun, and even more than that, they love each other.

Check out Hichori Morimoto's batting practice kit for a great example of this. Center fielder Tsuyoshi Shinjo -- lover of life, women, baseball, everything? -- retired, bequeathing his No. 1 to the chucklicious Morimoto, and the heir apparent's skills have ensured he will succeed Shinjo in the middle of Nippon Ham's outfield.

But Morimoto took a little something extra for himself.

Carrying two bats over his shoulder each day into batting practice during the Asia Series, Morimoto had one of his own and a signature model of his departed mentor.

Shinjo did not play in the Asia Series -- and who can blame him after walking off the field the way he did last month in Sapporo? -- but a splinter of Japan's most enigmatic player made its way to the Big Egg for good luck.

Morimoto and Shinjo are like two sides of the same coin -- both of them ooze personality, especially compared with the typical Japanese baseballer's patrician facade -- the only difference being hairstyle. Shinjo's locks have earned him legions of female fans who'd climb Mount Fuji barefoot just to faint in his presence, while Morimoto's shiny bald head -- well -- makes him a prime candidate for Turtle Wax's Hinomaru spokesperson.

And with Morimoto patrolling the wide open spaces of center field in Shinjo's stead, it got a little emotional when it was time for the Hammies to change pitchers. Instead of Shinjo, Morimoto and Atsunori Inaba congregating on bended knee while wearing their gloves on their heads -- a season staple as the new pitcher warmed up -- it was Morimoto, Inaba and either Toshimasa Konta, Yoshio Itoi or Keizo Kawashima.

Shinjo wasn't in the powwow, but the bereaved carried on nonetheless.

Were the Asia Series recast with a Vietnam War backdrop, that's the kind of stuff that wins Oscars.

And while there's "wa" -- there's team chemistry, there's whatever in some form on every baseball team -- it's different with this Nippon Ham team, and that is why it's a special group.

That kind of concern for teammates and love of the game can come from many sources, but without a steady stream flowing from the top, it's not going to happen. Credit for that goes to Hillman, who took "turn the other cheek" to a whole other level this season.

When Hillman pulled Satoru Kanemura during that game against the Chiba Lotte Marines and Kanemura ran his mouth to the media, disrespecting his manager on different levels, Hillman went beyond professionalism in his handling of the situation -- rather than ship the right-hander to the farm team's Russian step-cousin-by-marriage in Siberia, he accepted Kanemura's apology.

And once Kanemura served his suspension from the team, he was able to come back and pick up wins in the Japan and Asia series.

Hillman could have taken his wounded pride and the backing he received from the team and turned the word "Kanemura" into a pejorative, but he didn't.

The pride and passion Hillman brings to work every day weren't wrecked because Hillman doesn't carry the ego along with him, something increasingly rare in the look-at-me world of professional sports.

Even Shinjo, whose denial of an ego would be tantamount to Junichiro Koizumi's denial of his Elvis Presley record collection, kept his big head from being a problem as the Fighters trudged on.

It's because he had the big heart to go with it.

Hillman said all year that having a megastar like Shinjo was helpful because it took the attention off guys who may be less likely to thrive in the spotlight.

Smart man. Both of them.

And when you consider all this, and that PL home run and RBI champ Michihiro Ogasawara lives in the lineup as one of the quietest standouts in Japan, you begin to understand how all the pieces were able to interlock.

Now that the offseason has begun, Nippon Ham has some burning questions to face, but to its core, the team has a lot going for it, regardless of physical talent.

And sometimes those intangibles are what makes all the difference down the stretch.



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