Sapporo story: Fighters’ first season in Hokkaido a big success


Stage 2 of the Pacific League playoffs begins Wednesday night in Fukuoka, with the regular season first-place finisher Daiei Hawks hosting the second-place Seibu Lions in a best-of-five series.

Although the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters will not be playing, that club narrowly missed advancing after dropping a most exciting three-game Stage 1 series last weekend at Tokorozawa and, in spite of the loss, the Fighters season must be termed a success.

Manager Trey Hillman and his players, though ending the regular schedule in third place only a game over .500 at 66-65, played 1.000 ball when it comes to heart and fighting spirit. That was evident as the F’s fought tooth-and-nail throughout the three-game Stage 1 that featured two one-run games following a 10-7 barnburner.

Hillman displayed a large amount of class following last Sunday’s heartbreaking loss to the Lions after Seibu slugger Kazuhiro Wada ended Nippon Ham’s season with a bottom-of-the-ninth “sayonara” home run to cap that seesaw series final game with a 6-5 win.

Hillman and his interpreter, Ken Iwamoto, ran out to home plate to congratulate Lions manager Tsutomu Ito and wish him well in Fukuoka.

Normally, the losing team would pack up right away and head for the hotel bus, leaving the home winning players and their fans to celebrate. But after shaking hands with Ito, Hillman led his coaches and players to the left field area to bow and thank the Nippon Ham cheering section, many of whose members had traveled from Hokkaido and had hoped to go on to Kyushu.

The loss was extremely disappointing, but you can bet the Fighters will be back as a contender in the 2005 six-team Pacific League pennant chase.

Fighters team president and now acting owner Takeshi Kojima is to be commended for making two decisions that have helped shape the Nippon Ham franchise into one of the strongest in Japan: moving to Sapporo and hiring Trey Hillman as manager.

Make that three. Getting Tsuyoshi Shinjo back from the majors turned out to be huge.

Obviously the most popular player on the Fighters, Shinjo has been worth every yen the team paid him. The presence of the former New York Mets and San Francisco Giants player was conspicuous all season, everywhere you looked, from his name displayed on scoreboards in roman letters, SHINJO, to his flashy red wristbands to his flamboyant post-game hero interviews.

His No. 1 Fighters jersey is a best seller among fans, and his performance that included 24 home runs, 79 runs batted in and a .298 batting average, was just what the Fighters had expected.

You can add a fourth decision that paid off handsomely: the acquisition of first baseman-designated hitter Fernando Seguignol whose 44 homers tied for the league lead with Triple Crown winner Nobuhiko Matsunaka of the Hawks.

“Seggy” also hit .305 and was runnerup to Matsunaka with 108 RBIs.

Let me also say for the record the idea to hold the Pacific League playoffs turned out to be a great one, providing loads of thrills when Hillman’s Fighters and Bobby Valentine’s Chiba Lotte Marines scrambled for the final playoff slot as the crisis season was winding down and there were doubts about whether two crucial games lost to the Sept. 18-19 players strike would be made up.

As one who criticized the Pa League playoff plan, I have to admit I was wrong in saying it was not a good concept when the format was introduced late last year.

The battle to make the playoffs and, so far, the playoff games themselves have provided the most excitement and turned what would have otherwise been a mostly ho-hum pennant stretch run into one of great interest.

Pacific League attendance figures this year have proven this.

The Fighters, in their first season in Sapporo, drew 1,616,000 fans, an increase of 22.5 percent from 2003, their final full year at Tokyo Dome.

Lotte registered the largest increase in the PL, admitting 1,596,000 spectators, for a boost of 30.3 percent over last year.

Daiei led the league with an attendance of 3,070,000. Overall, the Pacific League drew 5.3 percent more fans.

Diamond Dust: The Nikkan Sports paper has reported the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks may be looking to acquire outfielder Cliff Brumbaugh who won the batting and home-run titles this season in the Korea Baseball Organization.

The 30-year-old Brumbaugh has major league experience with the Texas Rangers and Colorado Rockies and this year led the KBO with a .343 average and 32 homers. His 100 RBIs was good for third best in the league.

Further speculation in the Nikkan indicates more Korean players may be coming here in 2005.

Doosan Bears right-handed pitcher Park Myung Hwan whose 2004 statistics include a 12-3 record and 2.50 ERA is rumored to be on the shopping list of the Lotte Marines.

The Yomiuri Giants, in desperate need of a closer, are said to be eyeing right-hander Lim Chang Yong of the Samsung Lions who led the KBO with 36 saves this season.

The Nikkan also said the Hawks will release pitchers Brandon Knight, Hector Mercado and Brad Voiles.

The team will, of course, keep designated hitter Julio Zuleta who slammed 37 home runs, drove in 100 and batted .284 during the regular season.

Outfielder Pedro Valdes and lefty pitcher Lindsay Gulin are designated “on the fence,” with their futures in Fukuoka to be decided later, but Valdes has been one of the best hitters on the team the past three years, and slow curveballer Gulin compiled a record of 8-3 before going out of action Aug. 14 with a broken finger, so it will be surprising if the Hawks cut these two players.