The minor leagues are where you'll find baseball's young soldiers honing their skills for future battle and some of the older warriors working the kinks out or getting back into game shape as they come off injuries or slumps.
In Japan, the minor-league facilities are typically hives of activity. You'll see pitchers warming up their arms on one field, position players stretching on another and players doing wind sprints on an adjacent track.
The Asahi Shimbun spent a day last week tagging along with Yakult Swallows veteran outfielder Aaron Guiel as he gets back into shape after undergoing surgery for a herniated disk in his lower back. Guiel, 38, is in his fifth season with the Swallows, and he has been one of the team's most productive power hitters since coming to Japan after a stint with the New York Yankees in 2006. After an injury-plagued 2010 campaign, however, Guiel had back surgery in October in Los Angeles.
The Swallows are currently the hottest team in the Central League, and first-year right fielder Wladimir Balentien is off to a superb start with nine home runs and a .377 batting average through May 4. Korean Lim Chang-yong is the best closer in the league and U.S. right-hander Tony Barnette has been lights out since being moved to the bullpen this year, having allowed his first and only run of the season on May 3. Slugging infielder Josh Whitesell is also starting to hit the ball.
Guiel has recently been taking part in some minor-league games, and he is finally able to swing a bat pain-free. He's eager to get back up with the big club soon, but with only four foreign players allowed on the top-team roster at a time, Guiel may be the odd man out for a while.
We met up with him at 7:20 a.m. at the subway station near his apartment in Gaienmae, central Tokyo. Unlike some players, Guiel doesn't have a car, and the taxi fare to the team's minor-league facility at Toda in Saitama Prefecture would run about 15,000 yen each way, so Guiel hops on the train like the rest of us.
We change trains at Shibuya and get to Musashi-Urawa Station at about 8:30 a.m., and take a short cab ride to the team's minor-league complex, which houses a dormitory, locker room, weight room, medical treatment room, an indoor practice facility and a cafeteria.
"Sometimes on day games in the (Japanese) major leagues, we might have a 10 a.m. stretch, but I can just walk 15 minutes to (Jingu Stadium)," Guiel says. "Here, I have to get up at 7 a.m. every day. It changes your lifestyle. If I want to go out for dinner with the guys or just enjoy myself, I pay for it the next day because I'm exhausted. So I end up going to bed early, waking up early (while in the minor leagues)."
At the Toda complex, Guiel gets into uniform and, along with translator Akira Oguni, walks the 10 minutes or so to the ballpark, which is nestled in an area surrounded by parks and a large grassy bank that doubles as the "cheap seats" once the game starts. In truth, however, all the seats are cheap as there is no admission charged to watch the minor-league games.
One thing you notice in the minors is that some of the younger guys have three-digit numbers on their jerseys. These are what they call developmental players, guys who can practice and play in minor-league games, but who are not part of the club's official 65-man roster. These players are typically lowly paid and many of them live in the team dormitory, which has an 11 p.m. curfew--midnight if the next day is an off day.
Brazilian pitcher Rafael Fernandes is among the six developmental players with the Swallows. He was picked up by Yakult after playing for a Japanese university and wears uniform No. 115.
Once we arrive at the field, the coaches and players hold a brief team meeting at 9:20 a.m. before splitting up for stretching exercises and light running at 9:30. For position players like Guiel, this is followed by some soft-toss and then a batting practice session--first off a pitching machine, then off live pitching.
Guiel hits about 150 pitches in his BP session, during which he smacks some 20 balls over the fence. Afterward, he announces that his back is feeling good.
He then plays a little catch before spending some time in the outfield shagging flies and chatting with teammates. Guiel is a veteran and a former major-leaguer, but unlike some ex-big leaguers, he doesn't carry an attitude or have any complaints about life in the minors. As such, he is popular with his coaches and some of his younger teammates who often quiz him about "baseball American-style."
"It's fun to be around the young players again, to be around young kids and see that enthusiasm," Guiel says. "With the big club, everything tends to be so professional. When you spend time with the young kids, it reminds you why you're playing, how much fun it is.
"In the States you have a lot of older guys in the minor leagues. They're really negative, you have to listen to everybody complain about why they're not in the major leagues. Here, it's more young kids having fun, a more relaxed and loose atmosphere. Instead of me getting there and players being scared to talk to me, some of the young kids, it takes them a while to get to know me, but once they do they start talking and goofing around. They call me 'senpai' and we play jokes on each other, tease each other, have some fun--they're just more relaxed (than the guys on the top team). They don't have a senior figure watching over them all day long so they can be themselves."
At about 11:30 a.m., Guiel heads back to the dorm for some lunch. The Swallows "ni-gun" team hosts the Yomiuri Giants' minor-league squad in a game that starts at 1 p.m. Normally Guiel would play, but the team's manager, former Swallows outfielder Mitsuru Manaka, tells him they want to try out some young guys today.
The game draws a few locals, with the grandstand--yes, it's singular--nearly filled to capacity, which is about 80-90 people. As mentioned earlier, another 40-50 people are sprawled out on the grassy bank next to the stadium taking in the action.
While the game goes on, Guiel does some cardio training then spends time in the weight room before getting his back worked on by the team trainers, who later apply ice and cap off the day with a lower-back massage.
After a shower, it's a short cab ride back to the train station and then Guiel rides the rails again, getting home at about 4 p.m.
When he plays in the minor-league games, he gets home a few hours later as he still does his cardio/weight training and icing after the games.
"Game days, I'm doing a lot more team stuff," Guiel says. "Practice days I'm doing more stuff tailored for me--more cardio, a lot more weights and a lot more rehab on my back."
The next day, he does it all over again.
Guiel says that unlike in MLB, where the difference between the clubhouses and facilities is night and day from the big leagues to the minors, that's not the case here. In Japan, even the top players on the top teams will travel by public transportation and find themselves in cramped little locker rooms in countryside stadiums. Often, players will board buses in full uniform after games here.
"When you come to the minor leagues, the things you have to most get used to are riding the trains for an hour each way every day," Guiel says. "It also takes a little getting used to being out there and having no fanfare. It feels like you're kind of scrimmaging every single day. It's hard to get used to that lack of intensity."