Writer’s note: This blog might sometimes seem sequentially challenged – chalk it up to watching too many Tarantino flicks. With that in mind, the following tale details some of Gary’s trip in Japan before his time as Manny Ramirez’s hitting coach which we touched on in the last post. This article, now edited for our site, appeared in its original form on Fangraphs.com. Special thanks to David Laurila who originally helped get this piece edited and published.
- Lars Anderson, June 2020
Midway into the second month of the Kochi Fighting Dogs season, Birdman Bats’ fearless leader, Gary Malec, made the long trek to visit me in Japan. Having flown into Osaka from San Francisco, he took three trains in order to meet the team for our game in the northern part of Shikoku Island against the Kagawa Olive Guyners. As the Fighting Dogs arrived at the stadium on the team bus, I saw my dear friend standing there wearing a Birdman t-shirt and board shirts with his trademark chicken legs sticking out. By his side was a box of bats and a suitcase; on his face was an impossibly large smile.
The bats he was lugging around Shikoku Island were not promotional; they were orders being filled by my teammates. At the time, about ten players on the team were swinging Birdman Bats, and I imagine it was fulfilling for Gary to see his bats being used in professional games. The task of carrying 50 pounds of bats on his shoulders throughout the humid foreign land, however, was less desirable, and once he dropped the boxed bats on the ground and gave me a sweaty hug, he exhaled, ‘Never again…I am never flying with that many bats anywhere ever again!’
Since it was a night game, we played under the lights. Well, most of the lights. Before the contest started, my English-speaking teammate, Zak Colby, quipped, ‘You’re going to enjoy this. They don’t turn the lights on in right-center field here.’ ‘What now?’ I asked, equal parts dread and curiosity, knowing that the novelty in Japan was everlasting. ‘Well, since the ocean is so close and the commercial fishing boats here fish right off the coast at night, they keep lights in right field off so that the boats don’t cast a shadow in the water and scare away the fish.’
We played the entire game without 20% of the field’s lighting capacity so that the fishing would stay good. Fortunately, the other 80% was more than enough to see the ball, and I homered in my second at-bat. After I touched home, the obligatory promotional sign was forced into my hands for me to hold up, promoting God-knows-what. The signs, after all, do not even hint at anything in the English alphabet. I held the sign up for the crowd to see, only to be yelled at by the coaching staff that I was holding it upside down.
After the game, I asked Gary what his take on the game was. ‘I really liked the bat flips. It seems like they bat flip on everything.’
Two days later, we arrived at another away game where the Pacific Ocean glistened only a few hundred yards beyond the field’s left-field fence. Given that Gary was not part of the team and thus not allowed to ride the team’s bus, the Fighting Dogs graciously had one of their staff members drive us to the game.
It proved fortunate for Gary and me. The team’s bus driver overslept, making the rest of the guys late. As we waited for them to arrive, we walked down to the shore to have a look at the beach and ocean. It wouldn’t be the last time that day.
Once the team did arrive, we took batting practice. Once finished, Zak suggested that we go jump in the Pacific before the game. It was an easy answer, and we changed out of our ball threads, threw on some trunks, and took off for the water. The water was warmer than I’ve ever experienced in the Pacific Ocean, and we swam for about 15 minutes. It was my first (and now that I’m retired, the only) time preparing for a ballgame by bodysurfing.
The field itself was reminiscent of a high-school or small-college field. There was no seating for fans other than a set of bleachers and a grassy berm down the right-field line, but that didn’t detract from the many locals who came out to enjoy some udon, sake, and mediocre baseball. It felt like ‘small town Americana’ with welcomed Japanese twists along with a damn ocean as the backdrop.
Unfortunately, the ‘Dog Fighters,’ as Gary called us, lost in ugly fashion and I had a less-than-spectacular game – I went hitless and committed two errors at first base, one of which was throwing a bunted ball that I fielded halfway up the grassy berm where the sake and udon train was still rolling down the track. But sometimes there is victory in defeat, or at least a silver lining, and despite the unfavorable result, Gary and I had the last laugh by hopping in the ocean once more before the long drive home.
By the time we’d finally dried off, the team bus was long gone. On our drive back, however, we chanced upon the bus, which was stopped on the side of the road. I asked our driver what happened. ‘No gas,’ he responded.
We ascertained that since the driver was late picking the players up in the morning, he didn’t get a chance to fill up the tank. That part, while unfortunate, made sense. But it did not answer the question as to why he didn’t visit the gas station in the intervening nine hours while we were at the field and he was free.
As we passed the bus, I waved and smiled at my roommate and fellow American, Rich Ruff. Although we had invited him to ride with us, he had opted to forgo the swim, wanting to get home after the long day. He smiled and gave me the finger as we passed. Little did he know…
Gary and I arrived at my apartment in Sakawa a little under two hours later. We quickly showered and went across the street to the little restaurant which rested on the corner of two quiet streets. A single track of railroad lay beyond the restaurant’s backdoor. Gary and I enjoyed a dinner of grilled vegetables, yakitori, and rice before returning to my abode. Rich still wasn’t there…and he wouldn’t be for another five hours. By the time he did arrive, that smile he had flashed us as we passed him was long gone.
‘I’m so mad I could cry,” he said after crashing through the door with audible frustration. “We ran out of gas, but I thought it was no big deal – they immediately sent someone to get some more. But the gas stations are not open in that town on Sundays, so we sat there on the side of the road forever until someone was able to sort it out. I would’ve hopped in with you guys if I had known.’
In Japan, the unexpected reigned supreme: seeing the ball was not as important as seeing the fish, board shorts could supplant compression shorts, and there were gas shortages on the Lord’s Day in a country that is predominantly Shinto and Buddhist.