Despite a frustrating 2008 debut season as a Saitama Seibu Lion, Hiram Bocachica's attitude has gone from complete bewilderment with unfamiliar ways to respect for Japan ball's obsession for repetition.
"I was looking around and thinking, 'What are they doing?' he told The Hot Corner on Saturday in Chiba. "Why have they got to do that?' To me, it was like they were trying to make the game more difficult than it is. Baseball is a pretty difficult sport. Last year, I was thinking, 'They're trying to make it worse.'
"But one day I realized what they were trying to do. They're trying to do everything the right way. In the States, it's more quality than quantity. And here, they can't do 50 good swings, they have to have 1,000 swings. And for them that's a good thing to do. That's a different way of thinking."
It's a method he can't duplicate but does appreciate.
"But I realize now, how good they are, how they play the game, how they won [the World Baseball Classic], how they don't strike out that much," he said. "Now I realize why they do that.
"I can't do that. I can't make a 1,000 swings a day. I can't make 200 throws from the outfield, and I respect that. I admire that."
When he was in Puerto Rico for the WBC, he came with a message: Japan is the real deal.
"Before the WBC started I told the press in Puerto Rico they're going to repeat, because I knew what they were doing here," Boca said.
"I was going, 'These guys are going to prepare, they want to win, they take this thing [seriously] like it's the end of the world.'"
Although he was not a regular in the tournament, Bocachica called it an awesome experience.
"You're playing at home," he said. "I've got a lot of friends on that team, guys I grew up with, guys that I admired coming up. And that was probably my last chance to be on the team because [the next one is] four years from now and I don't know where I'm going to be four years from now.
"I was playing in front of my family and my friends, all the people that knew me. "That's an extra.
"There's a lot of good players [from Puerto Rico]. For me to be chosen, it was unbelievable. It was a great honor."
Bocachica went 0-for-3 in a quarterfinal elimination loss that saw Puerto Rico blow a three-run, ninth-inning lead in a 6-5 loss to the United States.
"Things happen for a reason," he said. "It was a great run. Unfortunately we didn't win the game. Those were the first runs the bullpen allowed in the tournament. The U.S.A. had a great team. We tip our hats to them because they never quit, and that's the way this game is."
When Puerto Rico's run ended, Boca was bound back to Japan to begin his second season. And though no manager would prescribe a three-week absence to help a player improve, Lions manager Hisanobu Watanabe has to be happy with Bocachica's production this season.
"For me it [camp] was easier because I had the chance to go home for 2-1/2, three weeks," he said. "It [camp in Miyazaki] was freakin' cold, and we had to be out by 6:30 every day. To miss those 2-1/2 weeks and go home, I think it helped me a lot."
After a 2008 season in which he was limited to just 78 games despite hitting 20 homers and drawing more than his share of walks, Bocachica has turned that production up a notch. He's playing regularly, his 11 homers have him tied for second in the Pacific League, and his 24 walks are third in the circuit.
Japan's obsession for doing things as perfectly as possible is one possible explanation why Bocachica was in and out of the lineup a year ago.
Aggressive to a fault in the outfield, he seemed to charge every ball in sight, sometimes with results that would put Watanabe on the spot in postgame press conferences. Bocachica says he is picking his spots more carefully this season, and Watanabe has kept him in the lineup: The 33-year-old played in 38 of the Lions' first 40 games.
"I've been pretty lucky to have a manager like him, because even though last year it was pretty tough for me, I think I earned his respect," Bocachica said.
"And that's what matters to me right now."