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Okinawa takes baseball spring training spotlight

Date Posted: 2006-02-10

Eight professional baseball teams are in Okinawa this month, working the kinks out of muscles and skills dulled by the off-season.

Okinawa’s temperate climate has brought Japan’s pro teams for spring training, for much the same reasons as U.S. ball clubs migrate south to Florida and Arizona each Spring. Six of the teams are calling the main island home, while one is training in Miyako-Jima City and another on Kume Island.

The Yakult Swallows are at Urasoe City this year, and the team’s coach is also the catcher. Some are saying it will be difficult for the coach to “play catcher and coach at the same time,” but coach Furuta says “No, it’s not hard at all.” He says he knows “everybody and how they play, and how their habits and character are.”

Okinawa City’s Athletic Park is home to the Hiroshima Carp for spring training. Hometown hero Toshimitsu Higa, an Okinawa City high school champion pitcher, is soaking up the praise from Okinawa City’s mayor, who encouraged him and the Carp to “do your best to become the champion.” Yokohama’s Bay Stars have moved into Ginowan Convention Center fields for this year’s month-long training.

Ginowan City took extra steps this year to improve the diamonds, trucking in new black soil for the infields. Pitcher Masahiro Sakumoto is putting the new fields to the test, coming to the Bay Stars after an off-season trade.

The Chunichi Dragons are in training at Chatan Town, setting up housekeeping at the Athletic Ground near the JUSCO department store. Another Okinawan, Denny Tomori, is in training as a pitcher with the Dragons. A second training site for the Dragons is at Yomitan Village, in an area called the Peace Forest.

To the far north, Ginoza Village is again hosting the Hanshin Tigers. As the defending league champion last year, the Tigers drew a big round of applause when they checked in to the village.

For the 28th straight year, Nago City is hosting is hosting Nippon Ham Fighter Team. The training facility is idyllic, with the Nago Castle ruins visible, and with Nago’s famous cherry blossoms everywhere. There are nearly 500 steps at the castle ruins, running from the base of the mountain to the summit. Players are required to run the steps to the top and back, ten times.

Orix is again camped in Miyako-Jima City for spring training. The team snagged Hirokatsu Kiyohara after he was bounced from rival Yomiuri Giants, and is now in the hands of the Orix coach. The Orix squad also boasts being the home squad for now-American baseball star Ichiro Suzuki. Miyako-Jima’s mayor welcomed the team last week, offering the island’s special beef, fish and vegetables to help them through training.

A new ball club, the Rakuten Eagles, is going through its paces on Kume Island. The team was brought to reality this past year by IT company Rakuten.

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