EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

December 1, 2006

Hey, Japan, Boston's back

On Baseball , Rob Bradford

BOSTON - It was one word used in a press conference full of noteworthy sentences, but it carried far more weight than any of the other ones uttered.


Craig Shipley, professional and international scouting director for the Red Sox, was the source of the word as well as key reason a collection of local and international media gathered in the Fenway Park interview room yesterday to welcome 30-year-old Japanese left-handed relief pitcher Hideki Okajima.

Shipley is also one of the people in the Red Sox organization admirably doing the "re-establishing."

Thanks in large part to two Australians, Shipley and Far East scouting coordinator Jon Deeble, not only had the Red Sox reeled in a potentially valued reliever for just $2.5 million over the next two seasons (and possibly a third, depending on a team option, which can be reached through performance incentives), but the acquisition signaled Boston was back in business when it comes to Japan.

"It has been tremendous," said Okajima's agent, Anthony Nakanishi, regarding the Red Sox's new presence in Japan. "Craig has spent a lot of time over there. He said he only made a couple of trips, but he was there for a long time. He's a great evaluator and a great communicator. They have rebuilt (the Red Sox's reputation)."

Sox general manager Theo Epstein stepping to the podium at the General Managers Meetings to claim the winning bid for the rights to negotiate with Japanese ace-in-waiting Daisuke Matsuzaka was the opening salvo of Boston's brand name being relaunched in the Far East. But seeing a successful Japanese League player don a blue Red Sox cap while holding up his white No. 40 jersey really brought the realization home.

Boston, which had lost its way - and respect - abroad thanks to some perceived unsavory maneuverings by the team's previous regime, has locked back into the flow of players that make up a increasingly influential Japanese pipeline to the major leagues.

"I don't want to get into what happened before, but I will say that the Red Sox have come in and really stepped it up," said Nakanishi, the Tokyo-born but United States-raised former independent league ballplayer. "Obviously, with the posting for Matsuzaka, they have become one of the most well-known teams in Japan. I know how they are now perceived, as one of the top clubs, which is well-financed and has a chance to win."

Okajima sat in between Epstein and Shipley with an interpreter at his side. The 12-year Japanese League veteran had played all but one year of his entire professional career with the Yomiuri Giants before joining the Nippon Ham Fighters last season. With the Ham Fighters, he played under American and former minor league manager Trey Hillman, notching a 2.14 ERA in 542/3 innings of relief, striking out 63 and walking 14.

It was a turnaround from the previous season in which Okajima's ERA ballooned up to 4.75. But, judging by the majority of his career, the '05 season may have been somewhat of an aberration, considering his career ERA is 3.36.

"Hideki has a very good overhand curveball, which is tough on all hitters, left-handed hitters especially," Epstein said. "He's had great success in Japan in a setup role. We'll see. I think he can help us in a setup capacity as well as in a left-handed specialty role.

"He's somebody who we think can compete immediately at the big league level."

Another potential payoff in acquiring Okajima is his likely influential partnership with Matsuzaka. Although the two only casually know each other from Japan, having another Japanese pitcher on the roster appeared to be a priority for the club in order to increase the newcomers' comfort level.

"Certainly, we made this move today on its merits. (Okajima) is going to be a valuable member of our bullpen," Epstein explained. "If we do end up with two Japanese pitchers, that would certainly help the assimilation process, not only on the field but off the field. It's going to be a process for Hideki coming over to learn the ins and outs of the baseball clubhouse. He has a wife and two children. Having somebody go through the same process at the same time is always helpful."

If the Red Sox continue luring Japanese players to Fenway Park, the days of dealing with a painful international perception might finally put to rest. Beating out five or six other teams for what could be a pretty big bullpen bargain (specialist Chad Bradford just got $10 million over three years) is a pretty good start.

"That's something we've been working on for the last few years," said Epstein of relationship with the Japanese baseball community. "It takes a while to establish a foundation and credibility, then execute and acquire some players. It's been a conscious effort."