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John E. Gibson

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Iguchi, Marines jump to join forces

by John E. Gibson (Apr 2, 2009)

In the image of their hop-happy fans, the Chiba Lotte Marines jumped at the chance to pick up Tadahito Iguchi. The team in January joined forces with the veteran infielder, locking him up with a three-year deal that brings a popular player back to Japan after four seasons in Major League Baseball.

Iguchi wasn't looking to make the jump back to Japan, but the opportunity popped up.

"In the end, I always thought I'd finish my playing career in Japan," the 34-year-old Iguchi told The Daily Yomiuri earlier this spring. "It has happened earlier than I expected it to, that's all. I wanted to play in the States for two more years and then two years here before retiring."

Now that he's back on home turf, the Marines can proudly march out a player with championship experience here and abroad.

The second baseman won three Pacific League titles and two Japan Series championships with the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks before helping the Chicago White Sox win the 2005 World Series in his rookie big league season. But he has had to transition a lot in recent years.

He was shipped to the Philadelphia Phillies in 2007 and from there went to the San Diego Padres. When San Diego released him, Iguchi rejoined Philly.

Once his name was again out on the market, the Marines hopped to the front of the line, inking him to a reported 180 million yen deal that features a potential 20 million yen extra in bonuses. Iguchi said the money wasn't the biggest attraction. It was Lotte's approach.

"I had interest from a number of clubs--four or five--but in the end, issues such as allowing me to play for a long time, the money in the deal and how much I was needed were most important.

"In those respects, the Marines were the most eager to sign me," said Iguchi, who reportedly has an interest in someday being a manager and might get that chance down the road in Chiba.

But the Marines also had a wild card that played a role in Iguchi's decision. Former Hawks front-office executive Ryuzo Setoyama and scout Akira Ishikawa are now working for Lotte, and that went a long way toward snagging the free agent.

In addition, "He went to the same college as [acting owner Akio Shigemitsu] and that's always a good connect to start with," said skipper Bobby Valentine, who enters his final season with the Marines.

"When I heard that he was going to be available last winter, everything that I had read was that he liked MLB and that his family liked America, and that he had an offer in the States that would keep him there. But I guess we were able to talk him into coming."

Now, the skipper plans to take full advantage of the new addition, a player he said brings a lot to the table.

"He's a student of the game and he's a very good teammate who seems to have fit in well already," said Valentine, who plugged Iguchi into the cleanup spot a number of times in the spring.

"I plan to play him as often as he's healthy enough to play, and hopefully put him in some situations where he can drive in some runs--he's a good clutch hitter.

"I think fourth would be a good place with the other guys around him--if everybody else is doing their job--he would fit in good with the guys we have."

Iguchi, who stole a career-high 44 bases in 2001, also figures to be an asset with the glove.

"He just has an ability to be in the right place at the right time," Marines infield coach Frank Ramppen said of the three-time PL Golden Glove winner and Best IX selection. "I know it's only preseason, but he has made every tough play--all the easy plays, too.

"He's got great body control and goes both ways, and gets his feet right to put himself in position to make a good throw."

As for range, Ramppen admitted "he's not young anymore, but he's got quick steps, he moves well and he covers a lot of ground.

"His arm strength is good enough to go up the middle and make off-balanced throws. He's got plenty. He's very efficient; he's going to really help us," the coach said.

It's obvious the Marines are counting on Iguchi to be a difference-maker, but the Nishi-Tokyo native said he doesn't necessarily see himself as a leader.

"In talks, I really got the sense they wanted me to help get the team a championship," Iguchi said about the negotiations.

"This team hasn't won the championship in a while, and it has a lot of great players who I think can produce above what their current numbers are. If we can perform at a higher level, I think this is a team that can win a number of championships, not just one and done.

"As far as 'leading' the team, the word itself sounds fancy, but it's not something I would use. Putting that aside, I just happen to have more experience and I'm in a position where I can talk to some of the other players because I'm older than they are.

"On any team, there are always one or two players going in a different direction and I want to help get us all going the same way."

Facing a wave of unfamiliar arms, Iguchi will be thinking a different way in the batter's box. The four-year gap forces him to pore over reams of data.

"Since I played here, about half the pitchers have changed," said Iguchi, a career .271 batter in Japan who hit .333 in his last season with Fukuoka in 2004.

"There's definitely a blank with some of the players after having been in the States for four years. During camp, I've been watching a lot of film, particularly of pitchers. I've been trying to studying their pitches.

"But half of the pitchers are still here, so I'm just looking to see how those guys have developed. To be honest, though, the baseball itself isn't all that different.

"The thing that has changed the most is the stadiums--they've become more Americanized."

Iguchi said his new home at Chiba Marine Stadium is a place he looks forward to performing in, despite the notorious strong winds.

"Line drives seem to carry better here," he explained. "Fly balls get blown backward, but if you can drive the ball, it carries well. I've always liked this stadium, and I'm looking forward to playing in it. Besides, Chicago is pretty windy, too."

The Marines are looking forward to seeing him blow away the competition, and push up attendance. The club wasted little time plastering posters of him all around the stadium.

And if the injuries that plagued the Marines last season diminish and the pitching staff that struggled in 2008 gets on top of things, the Marines have a great shot to reach the postseason after missing out last year.

"I expect the race to be close. Even the Hawks, who finished last, that's not the kind of team it is and I expect them to be tough," Iguchi said.

"This is a good chance for the Marines to be part of the playoffs. Also, this is Bobby's last year--well, we don't know if it's the end or not--but if it is, we'd love to wrap it up in a wonderful way for him.

"The organization, the players and coaches all have the same goal; we all want to cap the season with the best result possible."


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