Yoshio Itoi will be playing in his third straight All-Star series this weekend, but his route to the top of the pro ranks has been a long and tortuous one.
Since becoming a regular in 2009, the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters center fielder has been a consistent .300 hitter with power, speed and walks. Voted to the last two Pacific League All-Star teams by his peers, Itoi entered Wednesday's game against the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles with a league-leading .325 average.
Yet, in his way of thinking, the 29-year-old outfielder's career actually ended before it began.
A dominant fastball pitcher for Kinki University, Itoi agreed to join the Fighters prior to the 2003 draft as a premium pre-draft signing. But after two-plus seasons of minor league mediocrity, he was told in May 2006 that his pitching career was over.
"I was in shock. Baseball was over for me," he told The Daily Yomiuri at Tokyo Dome on Wednesday. "For me, baseball was pitching.
"I had no control, but I could throw really hard. I could get college batters out, but as a pro it didn't work."
After a two-inning farm team stint in 2006 in which he allowed two runs and was the losing pitcher in relief, his mound career was over.
"I liked hitting, but I was completely lost as to what to do when they gave me instructions," Itoi said.
Normally teams make switches of position in fall camp and give a player months to make the mental transition. Itoi had no such luxury.
His choice was pick up a new position or try a new profession. "I wasn't quite ready to give up baseball, so I figured I'd give it my best shot," he said.
His shot was not heard around the world, but it has reverberated around the PL ever since.
In his first 51 minor league games as a batter in 2006, Itoi, whose father was a triathlete and his mother a volleyball player, batted .306 in the hitter-friendly Eastern League.
The left-handed hitter batted .319 the following year with 14 steals and 12 homers in half a season. In 2008, he split his season between the minors, where he hit .342 in 28 games and the PL (.239 in 63 games). That was enough for Fighters manager Masataka Nashida to offer Itoi an everyday job.
Since then, Itoi has been a model of consistency in the Fighters outfield. He made his first All-Star team as a manager's selection, won a PL Best IX Award and his first Golden Glove.
"I owe my success to practice and to the help I got in the minor leagues," Itoi said. "My minor league manager taught me so much about the mental and physical aspects."
The past year and a half have been simply more of the same--despite having to deal with a bigger strike zone and a more difficult ball this season. Although his doubles and walks totals have taken a hit, his overall production has only increased.
"Things are different this season," he said. "The new ball breaks more. It is harder to hit. I'm just going all out, but so far it's been working."