NICHINAN, Miyazaki Prefecture--After finishing fifth in the Central League the past two seasons and having lost both their best pitcher and their best hitter in the offseason, you might think there would be glum faces all around as the Hiroshima Carp prepare for the 2008 NPB season.
You would be wrong, however.
Third-year manager Marty Brown is running an upbeat, player-friendly camp and--with the notable exception of terminally dour veteran Tomonori Maeda--the players and coaching staff all seem to be in high spirits.
After putting his players through some fundamentals training, a simulated game and then a little batting practice on Thursday, Brown took a couple of sportswriters with him to the club's indoor facility.
"Now we're gonna have a little fun," said Brown, who also spent three seasons with the Carp as a player in the 1990s.
When we enter the barn-like structure, four of the Carp's top hitters are waiting for their skipper. Infielders Eishin Soyogi and Kenta Kurihara and outfielders Naoki Nakahigashi and Ryuhei Matsuyama are wearing big grins and swinging big bats.
On the way up the hill to the barn, Brown explained that he would be throwing BP to a few of his guys and he would be keeping track of what he perceived as hits, outs, etc. If they scored three simulated runs on Brown through three simulated innings, he would owe each of them a bottle of Coca-Cola. If he held them to fewer than three runs, they would owe him.
As Brown delivers an array of 70-mph (112 kph) fastballs, looping curves and even the odd knuckleball, the players pound away at their manager's stuff. Soyogi pulls a grounder to left and Brown barks out, "Five-three groundball out--sit down Yogi, you're done!"
When Kurihara steps in, Brown belts out, "Guys, I gotta warn ya, I'm real thirsty today."
And so it goes for the next 40 minutes or so. Brown delivering pitches and one-liners, the players cranking balls left, right and center, and everyone having a good old time.
By the end of the session, Brown has credited the players with a pair of runs, one courtesy of a Kurihara simulated homer.
As the players scoop up the practice balls, Brown is all over them.
"You guys remember where that Coke machine is, right?"
Later, as Brown stands back behind the batting cage watching a few prospects take their cuts, Kurihara and Nakahigashi walk up to their manager and deliver his prize: a couple of cold bottles of Coca-Cola. As the players walk away, they sneak a look back at their coach, picking up their pace as he prepares to open a bottle.
"Flea, you son of a ...," Brown yells at Nakahigashi as foamy soda sprays all over him.
After losing ace right-hander Hiroki Kuroda to the Los Angeles Dodgers and cleanup hitter Takahiro Arai to the Hanshin Tigers through free agency, one could forgive Brown if he chose to mope through spring training in what will in all likelihood be his final year at the helm if the club doesn't improve in a hurry.
However, with the money the club saved on those two huge salaries, the Carp were able to bring in three Triple-A caliber pitchers (Colby Lewis, Ben Kozlowski and Mike Schultz) and a slugging infielder (Scott Seabol) from the United States to complement returning outfielder Alex Ochoa.
Brown also likes some of the Japanese players the club acquired, such as infielder Go Kida who came over in a trade with Hanshin last year and speedy outfielder Masato Akamatsu, who was part of the compensation package in the Arai deal.
He says this version of the club will rely on speed over power and he estimates that four of his players could end up stealing 20-plus bases in 2008. He also likes the development of a couple of his young pitchers, particularly 19-year-old righty Kenta Maeda and lefty Junpei Shinoda, who is fresh out of college ball. With Lewis looking good so far and veteran Kan Otake healthy and dealing, Brown says what's not to like? After all, spring training is a time of hope, where every club is still right in the hunt.
After Thursday's practice, the Japanese media have a few questions for Brown. "Why are you carrying around three bottles of Coke?" asks one scribe. "Do you like Coke that much?"
"Nope," says Brown with a wink, "I just like winning. Which reminds me, Soyogi still owes me one."
(IHT/Asahi: February 23,2008)