The "Clown Prince" of Japanese baseball has brought his act to Yokohama this season.
Outfielder Hichori Morimoto, the former Nippon-Ham Fighters star with a penchant for wearing bizarre costumes, has gone from a perennial Pacific League contender to a Central League doormat. But, if Morimoto has any say in the matter, the fortunes of the woeful BayStars will soon change, and the club is certainly off to a promising start this year.
"In almost 12 years with the Fighters, I learned how to win in this game," said Morimoto, 30, a Tokyo native whose parents ran a Korean barbecue restaurant in the Nippori district. "After putting in my time, I had a chance to be a free agent so I decided I wanted to try and help another club play winning baseball. Fortunately, the BayStars made me an offer and I just felt this was the right team for me."
Through April 18, the BayStars were 3-2-1 and Morimoto was hitting .190 with four hits and a pair of runs driven in. A bit of a slow start but the speedy center fielder with the shaved head, a career .265 hitter, has set himself some lofty goals for this season.
"I want to hit over .300 with 30 stolen bases and win a Golden Glove (in 2011)," said Morimoto, who did just that in 2007.
Morimoto thrilled fans in Sapporo over the years with his stellar defensive play, earning three Golden Gloves with the Fighters, and he led the Pacific League in sacrifices for two seasons. But his popularity stems from more than just his baseball prowess.
Morimoto, who lost his hair to a rare disease while in elementary school and just kept shaving his dome after that, is one of the more fun-loving and playful characters in a league that has very few.
His antics over the years include dressing up as pop star Michael Jackson, complete with red leather "Thriller" jacket and his face blacked up, to collect his Golden Glove award in 2007. He has also taken the field wearing a Conehead, a Power Rangers mask, dressed as an alien, and he once donned a skin-tight speedskater outfit for a post-game beer celebration.
Earlier this year, Morimoto showed up in Yokohama's Chinatown for a news conference to introduce the club's new players. He was dressed as popular anime character Victory Ramenman.
"When I dressed up as Michael Jackson, that was at the Golden Glove awards," recalled Morimoto, who took over as the Fighters' resident "character" when Tsuyoshi Shinjo retired after the 2006 season. "That's a great award to win, but they always take it so seriously, it almost feels like a funeral. I wanted to make it a happier occasion so that's why I dressed up like that. Because I was having some fun, I hoped the fans would enjoy it more. It's all for the fans."
Morimoto says he doesn't put a lot of planning into his wacky antics, mentioning that usually they "suddenly pop into my head." When asked if he ever later regretted anything he'd done to entertain the fans, he admitted that happens more often than you might think.
"Oh yeah, about half the time I do those things," he said with a grin.
Still, as entertaining as he is, Morimoto was brought on board to help the BayStars win. With the departure of free-agent batting wizard Seiichi Uchikawa over the offseason to the Softbank Hawks, Morimoto will have some big shoes to fill in the BayStars batting order.
But even though it's just his first year with the team, Morimoto said he has already sensed a new spirit in Yokohama.
"Each individual player's thinking has changed," he said. "Now, they all want to win more, and everyone is giving 100 percent in practices and games, going as hard as possible."