NASHUA | Just when it looked like a certain major league dealership on Lansdowne Street had cornered the Japanese import market, another outfit an hour north has responded.
Welcome to the Canadian American Association of Professional Baseball, Messrs. Hideki Nagasaka and Akira Okamoto.
They're a pair of Japanese pitchers who the Nashua Pride are hoping will pay similar dividends already realized by the Red Sox. Boston's offseason Far East shopping spree netted a pair of stars in starter Daisuke Matsuzaka and surprising lefty reliever Hideki Okajima.
Back for his eighth season on the top step of the dugout at Holman Stadium, former Red Sox manager and third baseman Butch Hobson will hand the ball to Okamoto tonight when the Pride open their 10th season against the North Shore Spirit. Much like his front office, it's clear that Hobson is enjoying the buzz the Asian duo has brought to his team.
"It has been a lot of fun," said Hobson before sending Nagasaki out for an inning of work Tuesday in an exhibition game against a team of New Hampshire college all-stars.
"They've both fit in very well and I'm really enjoying it. They're just a lot of fun to be around, and they've been working hard."
With the continued globalization of baseball, Hobson is not surprised to see the trend trickle down to the Can Am League.
"I guess it's probably predictable," said Hobson. "That's the way the game is headed. It has happened here, and it you will probably see more of it in the future."
Shortly after Boston landed Matsuzaka last winter, the Pride's vice president of baseball operations, Chris Hall, hammered out a deal with Okamoto's New York-based agent, Ken Ito, to bring to Nashua the veteran pitcher, who spent eight seasons in the same Japan Pacific League where Dice-K flourished.
Never ones to let a good promotional opportunity go by the boards, the Pride even came up with a nominal posting fee to Okamoto's last team, SV ADO of the Netherlands major leagues, mimicking the exorbitant posting fee that Boston was willing to fork over for the rights to negotiate with Matsuzaka.
And thanks to an informal head-to-head bet between the Red Sox and Pride, the 33-year-old right-hander takes the mound tonight with the added pressure of trying to surpass his former foe from the Pacific League's win total or risk relegating his employers to broom duty at Fenway Park (see box).
Don't be surprised, however, to see Hall and his staff kicking up their feet in the lush EMC Club at Fenway next season. The other side of the wager dictates if Okamota does indeed surpass Dice-K in wins, then the Pride's front office staff is awarded seats in the exclusive section in the upper deck behind home plate.
Okamota racked up a 39-42 mark with a 3.71 ERA and 30 saves in eight seasons in Japan's premier league | which is a major step up from the Can Am League. Last year in the Dutch League, the side-winder posted a 1.11 ERA in 13 games with 100 strikeouts in 111 innings and has very good control, according to Hobson.
It's safe to say that in the no-frills Can Am League where base coaches, let alone interpreters, are not always a given, Hobson is grateful to have Nagasaka on board.
"Hideki speaks English and Spanish as well as Japanese, so he interprets for Okamoto," he said. "Luckily, I don't have to worry about any of that."
Asked what his impressions were of Dice-K's eventful start in Boston, Okamota said the best is yet to come for Sox fans.
"Right now, he doesn't even look like the same pitcher to me," Okamota said through Nagasaka. "Right now, I think he's at 70 or 80 percent of what he can be."
For his part, the affable Nagasaka will serve a far more valuable role than just a translator for the Pride. Just 5-foot-7, the 28-year-old still sports a fastball that registers in the low 90s.
When you add Nagasaka and Okamoto to a rotation that already sports former portly Red Sox reliever and cult hero, Rich Garces, former North Reading and UMass Lowell ace Steve Palazzolo and one-time Sox and Pawtucket flame thrower Tim Bausher, the Pride should be in plenty of games.
Nagasaka, who goes by "Little Hideki," spent the last four years on the other coast playing minor league ball for the Chico Outlaws of the Golden Baseball League, racking up a 22-19 mark with a 4.15 ERA. While the culture shock of going from California to New Hampshire may feel almost as daunting as moving from his homeland to the states, the pitcher says he's liked what he has seen so far of the Granite State and is clearly enjoying playing for his new manager.
"I really like (New Hampshire) a lot. Everything is so green here where as in California everything was brown," said Nagaska, who shares a dorm room with Okamoto at nearby Rivier College.
"Just getting a chance to play for a former major league player and manager like Butch Hobson has been a great honor."
Both Okamoto and Nagasaka can only smile at the predictable questions that their fellow countryman, Matsuzaka, has seemingly brought across the Pacific with him. Yes, they ice down after each start (and so too does Matsuzaka, for that matter, they point out). No, they don't do an inordinate amount of throwing in between starts like Matsuzaka.
"Like everything, it depends on the situation," said Nagasaka. "We do most of the same things that the pitchers here do."
Hobson reports that they even haven't had to tinker with the menu in the clubhouse at Holman.
"Not one bit," he said with a laugh. "It's still hamburgers and hot dogs, and they seem to love both."