June 15, 2020 13 Comments

A note from the writer: The following is a newly edited version of an article that I had originally written for Fangraphs.com (big thanks to David Laurila, who was the catalyst in getting this and many other articles published through the site. He was also my original editor). In 2017, I played baseball in Japan for the Kochi Fighting Dogs of the Shikoku Island League. Needless to say, that season was novel in almost every sense, but this particular article details the week in which Birdman Bats CEO, Gary Malec, visited me, and found himself in an unexpected role as Manny Ramirez’s hitting coach. Yes, that Manny Ramirez, who at 45-years-young, was still hitting laser beams as my teammate with the Fighting Dogs. 

- Lars Anderson, June 2020

 

    We started north for our away game against the Tokushima Indigo Socks in the “The Manny Van,” a boat of a Mercedes that was Manny’s personal ride during his tenure as a member of the Kochi Fighting Dogs of the Shikoku Island League in Japan. Zak Colby, the Fighting Dogs third baseman, longed in the front of the Mercedes while Gary and Manny sat side-by-side in the middle row’s captain’s chairs. I was sprawled across the back reminiscing on being what it felt like to be the youngest of four siblings, where the ‘waaaay backseat’ was the second home of my childhood. 

     On this particular day, the drive was harrowing. It was raining for the first time in weeks, and our driver was flying. I said to Zak, who is half-Japanese and half-American and thus our full-time translator, despite knowing only half of the Japanese language, ‘Hey, can we get this guy to slow down a bit?’ Zak responded, ‘What do you mean slow down? He’s only going 150 KPH,’ to which I had to point out: ‘Yeah…that’s like 93 mph.’  

 

     To take our minds off our impending doom, we started watching batting highlights of some of our favorite major league hitters, which naturally turned into watching Manny highlights from yesteryear. Gary, never afraid to diagnose a swing, started in on what he liked about Manny’s mechanics. The ever-curious Manny started to nibble, probing Gary more and more for his opinion on hitting. Gary stepped right up to the plate (I’m funny) and delivered his pitch (I really am), and Manny took the bait. Gary set the hook (okay, this is getting obnoxious), and the two did their dance around the science of hitting for the remainder of the day. 

 

     ‘The remainder of the day’ is not hyperbole: Before the game, Manny had Gary analyze his setup and stance in the bullpen as well as flip him balls on the field.  During the game, Manny reported to Gary, who was sitting in the ground-level booth behind the plate after each at bat, searching for his new swing doctor’s insight. After the game, Gary told me through an impossibly large smile, ‘Dude, I’d hear his cleats come pattering down the hall and he’d come straight to the room, and we’d talk about his last at-bat. It was so funny!’ While it was the same day, after the final out was recorded and we loaded into the van to begin our precarious drive home, Gary’s world was different. 

     Unfortunately, the high-center-of-gravity van and the driver hell bent on high speeds was the same, so in order to make the drive bearable, Gary and I sipped from a bottle of sake in the back of the Manny Van as we ate up miles back toward Kochi. Manny abstained. In fact, in my time as his teammate, Manny did not drink nor curse. He did have one vice, which put him in rarified air as being the only person in Japan to chew tobacco. The scarcity of chew makes sense given that spitting in Japan is non-existent, even in the baseball realm. Instead, like much of the culture outside of the game, baseball players have replaced the dipping habit by burning more heaters than the Marlboro Man during the infamous 5th inning “smoke break.”

 

     Upon arriving back in Kochi, Manny and Gary’s relationship continued to grow like the rice fields surrounding Kochi. During the Fighting Dogs doubleheader the following day at our home field, Manny spent the entirety of batting practice not talking with the team’s hitting coaches, rather talking tohishitting coach, Gary. And sure enough, once the doubleheader started, Manny continued to meet with Gary for in-game analysis in our locker room. If Manny wasn’t seeing results, who knows if he’d continue to mine Gary for advice, but the fact was that his swing, which had been previously inconsistent, was starting to click. Gary was no longer just far from home; he was now the swing guru for one of the greatest right-handed hitters of all time. 

     Alas, the only thing threatening this burgeoning bromance was Gary’s own need to return home to California. But no plan is safe while Manny is being Manny. He demanded that Gary extend his trip an extra day so that Gary could be there for the final game of the first half of the season.  This game would be followed by a six week break due to the oncoming rainy season that spans most of June and July.  Manny also sweetened the deal, offering to share his penthouse suite with Gary until his departure. It wasn’t a difficult choice, considering Gary had been sleeping on a tatami mat in my cramped apartment for the past week. I received a text from Gary saying, “I’m sorry, man, but I’m going to ditch you for Manny. I kinda think I have to. Sleepover. LOL!”  I understood.

 

     The final game of the first half did not disappoint as Manny and the Fighting Dogs came to play. Manny homered in his third at-bat to left center, and during our fifth-inning smoke break, Gary relayed the moments following the Manny-bomb: ‘I came down the tunnel to talk to him about the at-bat, and he did a little shimmy and chest bumped me like I was David Ortiz!’

 

     The game ended in a victory for the Fighting Dogs, and Manny was selected as the MVP.  While he was doing his interview in front of all the fans and media after the game, Manny looked around and said, ‘Where’s the Birdman? Gary, get up here!’  In front of around 1,500 fans and 30 media personnel, Manny Ramirez – with mic in right hand, and left arm over one Gary Malec’s shoulders – proceeded to tell the crowd how much Gary had helped his offensive game. The moment was so surreal that I half-expected clocks to start melting off the scoreboard and long-legged elephants lumber around the outfield.

 

     The dreamlike quality of the night continued as the team moved to the stadium’s concourse to sign postgame autographs. The win, Manny’s big night (and possible farewell as he hadn’t agreed to play in the second half yet), and the fact that we had just wrapped up the first half added to the moment. We were immediately swarmed, and I think it was as close as I’ll ever feel to being in the Beatles. Fans went so far as to lay their babies in my arms for pictures – I was even tempted to sign a couple but resisted. 

 

     While I was holding squalling two-year-olds, Gary helped escort Manny into the Manny Van and took off without even saying goodbye to me. His excuse was that it was too crazy to get to me through the pandemonium, and he was going to miss his overnight bus departing at 10:30, but I think he just let the recent fame go to his head. Staying with the Beatles theme, I became Pete Best. Gary had left Japan and the Fighting Dogs, but took with him a new friendship that was only getting started.

Stay tuned for more weekly blog posts penned by Lars Anderson about Birdman Bats worldwide adventures.

 



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