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Monday, Feb. 19, 2007

SPORTS SCOPE

Goals remain the same, but Hammies have changed


Success hasn't changed Trey Hillman, or his Japan Series championship team.

Stephen Ellsesser

The offseason took care of the latter well enough.

Hillman and the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters won the Japan Series last season, but doing the same this year could be a little more difficult.

Center fielder Tsuyoshi Shinjo retired, and infielder Michihiro Ogawsawara signed with the Yomiuri Giants as a free agent in the offseason, leaving holes in the batting order and in the clubhouse leadership structure.

Ogasawara led the Pacific League in home runs and co-led in RBIs last season, and Shinjo's guidance and visibility were as valuable as any offensive numbers or defensive gems the star center fielder produced.

"There was a certain amount of permeating comfort, permeating ability, knowing you get to play next to Elvis Presley," Hillman said. "It does affect some guys. (They say,) 'I was on the team with Elvis! I was on the team with Shinjo!' "

Attention magnet and heartthrob Shinjo has entered retirement quite smoothly, becoming an increasingly visible fixture in advertisements on trains and on TV.

Trey Hillman
Trey Hillman, manager of the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters, was named FSAJ Foreign Sportsman of the Year for leading his team to the Japan Series championship in 2006. YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTO

Shinjo's exodus leaves not only a hole in center field, but one in headlines as well.

The popular outfielder drew attention by wearing collared shirts, making entrances from Sapporo Dome's ceiling and just about anything else, but his successor in center is enough Ham and enough Fighter to become the new face of the franchise.

And what a different face it is, in this case.

"A guy who I have told for three years that he is a star waiting to happen is Hichori (Morimoto)," Hillman said. "He's not the combination of Fonzie and Elvis Presley that Shinjo is. He's got the chrome dome and looks more like a Conehead, but he is an absolutely wonderful human being with a tremendous sense of humor."

Not to mention that he can play. Shinjo and Morimoto have shared a bond, not only in skill but in vivacity on and off the diamond. Never one to be upstaged, Morimoto once showed up to a game with his head painted green with antennae -- giving him a Martian look.

"He will be at the forefront of player production plus marketability," Hillman said.

Morimoto was Nippon Ham's leadoff hitter last season, when he played left field.

Ogasawara's numbers (32 homers, 100 RBIs) will be much more difficult to replace, especially with the Fighters' ownership electing to take 456 million yen compensation (120 percent of Ogasawara's 2006 salary) from the Giants instead of a player and 80 percent of the clutch hitter's salary.

"We're going to be younger, and we're going to be a lot less expensive," Hillman said. "You knock out 'Guts' and Shinjo, and that's $7 million right there. But I like a lot of our youth."

And although the Hammy sandwich may look like it lost a lot of meat this offseason, Hillman likes the Fighters' chance to surprise anyone who may be counting them out early in spring training.

In fact, it is an expectation.

"We've established our franchise, at this point, on the island of Hokkaido," he said. "Now, when we go to camp every year, if things go right with no injuries and the players continue proper development, we should be in the hunt every year."

Nippon Ham will be looking to avoid a letdown similar to the one it experienced in 2005, when it finished a disappointing fifth just one season after making the playoffs, not to mention the franchise's drought between Japan Series titles.

"Our objective is to make sure it doesn't take another 44," Hillman said, referring to the number of years the franchise had to wait.

The progression of pitcher-turned-outfielder Yoshio Itoi, Toshimasa Konta and Shinji Takahashi will have something to do with that, as well as Kensuke Tanaka's continued excellence and Kuniyuki Kimoto's resurgence.

Most every team in the Pacific League has something to smile about heading into the new season, so Nippon Ham will need all of its parts primed to have a shot at repeating as the class of Japan.

"We have to continue to develop and hope the fan base is as excited about these new guys as they were about Shinjo and the 43,000-fan project," he said. "We've got to keep that going.

"I don't think anyone in the great game of baseball can go into a season saying, 'Hey, we've got a sure thing.' "



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