The Rakuten Eagles are loving life on this remote island located about 100 kilometers west of Okinawa, a sleepy tropical paradise populated by about 9,000 humans and countless venomous habu snakes, many of which wind up pickled in bottles of awamori liquor, a local specialty.
After four years under the guidance of crotchety manager Katsuya Nomura, there's a new sheriff in town. Despite Nomura's popularity with fans and media--not to mention a second-place finish in the Pacific League last season--ownership brought in some new blood in the offseason to run things.
Former Hiroshima Carp manager Marty Brown and coach Jeff Livesey have lightened the mood in camp this year and the players really seem to be responding.
"We've got a good group of guys here," Brown said Saturday as his team went through its paces at scenic Kumejima Baseball Park nestled next to the East China Sea. "I try to keep camp loose and the guys are relaxed and enjoying the experience."
Brown, who managed the Carp the past four years and also played for the club back in the 1990s, said it's a nice change to work under a progressive owner like Internet shopping mogul Hiroshi Mikitani.
"It's refreshing being with this club," Brown said. "It's not an old, established team like Hiroshima. Here, I'm free to try new things at practice, get creative with the drills. We try to mix it up."
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Yasushi Tao, a former star player in Japan and the Eagles' first manager in the club's inaugural season in 2005, was at camp Saturday.
"What a difference between this team and the one I had," said Tao, as he surveyed the talent. "When I was the Eagles manager, we only had about three decent players."
It showed: The club won a meager 38 games that year.
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Among other observations by Brown was that there is no substance to the perception by some that ace Hisashi Iwakuma is a softy and not mentally tough.
"I haven't seen anything to indicate that," Brown said.
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Visitors to Kumejima are greeted at the airport by a godlike statue, known as a shisa, holding a baseball bat and bearing the Rakuten Eagles characters on its body. Usually described as lion-dogs, this orange-lipped shisa looks more like a cross between a demonic seagull and the Gill-man from the "Creature from the Black Lagoon." Kinda creepy.