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THE HOT CORNER: Fujii gets turned on in Dominican

by Jim Allen (May 14, 2009)

Sometimes it takes bold action to bridge the chasm between promise and observable results. Fighters manager Masataka Nashida says every player good enough to be drafted has the potential for success at the pro level.

Yet, most players fail to make an impact as pros, and Atsushi Fujii of the Chunichi Dragons appeared bound to join that majority until last autumn.

With his career going nowhere, Fujii resumed switch-hitting after two years of left-handed abstention and was inspired from his experience playing winter ball in the Dominican Republic.

Two years after Dragons manager Hiromitsu Ochiai instructed Fujii to focus on hitting from the right side, both skipper and player admitted defeat last season.

"I learned a lot, but never really got settled. It never seemed natural," Fujii told The Hot Corner on Sunday. "Still, by just batting just right-handed, I had a lot of time to think about hitting and that was a plus.

[Last season] the manager came to me and asked if I wanted to go back."

When veteran infielder Kazuyoshi Tatsunami suggested the youngster take Ochiai up on the offer, Fujii switched back.

Going back required some time. It was much harder than I thought it would be," Fujii said. "At first the pitches all looked way too fast. It was a little intimidating. But I got back in the groove."

Then he left for the Domincan, where teammate and native Dominican Thomas de la Rosa said Fujii and two other teammates brought back more than just new stamps in their passports.

They learned a lot," said de la Rosa, who saw Fujii play for the legendary Licey Tigers. "Fujii? It's unbelievable.

In the Dominican, you always try to challenge, challenge, challenge, and over here, he feels more experienced, he's more relaxed.

Fujii last year he was up and down, up and down. This year since camp, he's always strong."

Fujii himself said the trip helped him adjust to the challenge ahead.

I went there as a switch-hitter and being with the players in the Dominican helped me achieve my mission."

Fujii had no idea what he was getting himself in for before he joined Licey.

I did not know what to expect, but it was just great," he said. "The atmosphere was tremendous."

Coming back to Japan, he burned it up in camp and hasn't stopped, making his skipper look like a genius.

One of six Dragons to play in all of the team's first 33 games, Fujii was batting .303 with six homers as of Tuesday--this after hitting .254 in 362 Western League at-bats spread over three seasons. While it was clear he could run and drive the ball, that lame average--even in the pitcher-friendly WL--showed no hint of quality.

His success this season points out the paradox of the Dragons under Ochiai. While the organization still suffers from chronic minor league myopia--the inability to recognize its minor leaguers' obvious successes--Ochiai has a real eye for talent in front of him.

Masahiko Morino had done next to nothing in the Central League or on the farm when Ochiai took an interest in 2004. Since then, Morino has developed into a solid No. 3 hitter and one of Chunichi's finest.

Fujii is the latest beneficiary in an organization that ignores mountains of homegrown talent while the skipper looks for diamonds in the rough.

Fortunately, Fujii was in the right place at the right time, caught his skipper's eye at a crucial time and seized his opportunities.

In addition to winter workouts with a pair of big-name, left-handed hitters--Tatsunami and former Dragon Kosuke Fukudome--Fujii found a new way of looking at his game in the Dominican Republic.

The Dominican players express themselves as individuals through the game," he said. gI never before asked, 'What kind of player am I?' In Japan everyone tells you, you are this kind of player or that kind.

"But there you create, you put yourself out there. If you make a mistake, OK move on. For the first time, I think, 'this is me, this is what I'm trying to achieve, what I'm trying to say.' I'm more positive."


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