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Lions skipper savors Taiwanese ties

by Jim Allen (Nov 12, 2008)

When Hisanobu Watanabe leads his Japan champion Saitama Seibu Lions into the Asia Series 2008 this week, nostalgia will be in the air.

When fourth edition of Asia's club championship starts Thursday at Tokyo Dome, Watanabe will be thinking about the old times.

"It's going to be fun," Watanabe told The Daily Yomiuri on Tuesday before meeting with the managers of Asia's other three champions: China's Tianjin Lions, Taiwan's Uni-President 7-Eleven Lions, and South Korea's SK Wyverns.

"I was in Taiwan for three years. I learned a lot about the history, about the culture. It's really fascinating."

Although he said the experience enriched his life, his only goal for going to Taiwan in 1999 was work.

"I was just going to coach, to teach. It was a job," said the first-year Seibu skipper, whose club wrapped up the Japan Series title on Sunday.

"I doubt if I'll know anyone. It was a different league a different setup. So much has changed."

Although the Lions manager often speaks with right-handed reliever Hsu Ming-chieh in Chinese, the skipper said his language skills are slipping.

"My Chinese is pretty bad now," he said. "In my lessons, I studied Mandarin.

"But when people in Taiwan heard me speak, they thought I sounded like a native Cantonese speaker with a heavy accent."

Although Watanabe's club is attempting to maintain Japan's perfect record in Asia Cup finals, the event has become more competitive each year.

"I think the level of baseball in Asia is gradually improving and I don't think winning is going to be that easy," Watanabe said.

The Chiba Lotte Marines dominated the inaugural tourney in 2005 and the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters won in 2006. Last autumn, the Wyverns became the first club to beat the Japan champ, downing Chunichi 6-3 in both clubs' opener--although the Chunichi Dragons bounced back to beat the South Korean club 6-5 in the final.

This time around, Tianjin becomes China's first champion. In the first three years the nation sent its national team to the Asia Cup in order to strengthen it ahead of the Beijing Olympics.

"The people in Taiwan must be happy the Chinese national team is not coming--after they beat Taiwan in the Olympics," Watanabe said. "You know they didn't take that well."

Watanabe will give it his best with a roster that will be without star shortstop Hiroyuki Nakajima and catcher Toru Hosokawa, pitchers Kazuhisa Ishii, Fumiya Nishiguchi and closer Alex Graman.

"Some of our guys played in the Olympics, others are out with injuries, but all of our players experienced a lot during the season and we'll do fine," Watanabe said.


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