Just one glance at the smile on the face of Saburo Omura shows exactly how happy he is to be back with the Chiba Lotte Marines this season.
The team traded Omura on June 29 last year to the Yomiuri Giants for outfielder Takahito Kudo and financial considerations. Omura had gotten regular playing time over much of his career with the Marines. He broke his right index finger early last May, but returned in a productive role before being traded.
Much of the action he saw with Yomiuri was as a pinch-hitter, coming up in high-pressure situations with even higher expectations from fans.
"With Lotte, I was mostly a starter for a long time," the 18-year veteran said at QVC Marine Field last week. "So that meant I had lots of games in which I would go to the plate four times with a chance to do something to contribute to the team.
"But going up as a pinch-hitter with just one shot was the most difficult thing for me to adjust to. I know it sounds like an excuse," said Omura, who turns 36 on June 1.
No matter what the reason, his 48 games and 103 at-bats with the Giants weren't particularly memorable--outside of hitting a home run for a gaudy debut at-bat with the club--but he said he wouldn't trade the experience.
"It's a team with a lot of tradition and there's a lot of pressure because everyone expects you to win," he said. "With that in mind, the way those guys prepare over there is amazing. They work so hard, the physical training and the overall preparation before games--we didn't work like that at Lotte.
"I really felt like they were true professionals in their approach to the game. Looking back on it now, it was a great learning experience," said Omura, who wasn't all that interested in talking about his return to the Marines.
Lotte approached Omura after cleaning house in the offseason, getting rid of two front-office personnel members--president Ryuzo Setoyama and baseball operations chief Akira Ishikawa, a move the outfielder said facilitated his return.
"It's a difficult topic to discuss, but certainly, if the people who decided I wasn't a necessary part of the team were still in the front office, in all likelihood I wouldn't be back here with the Marines," he admitted.
But he is back, playing in a cozy place with familiar faces on a daily basis, and for a team atop the Pacific League standings after struggling to last place a season ago. His role as cleanup man, though, might have him marching a tad out of step with the Marines.
Omura is not quite the big-bopper type to fill the No. 4 role, and his numbers reflect that. Just like many hitters struggling with the low-impact ball throughout Japan, his average isn't outstanding (.297 through Wednesday's games) and he has just one homer with nine RBIs. But he said he is only following instructions.
"I don't really picture myself as a cleanup batter, but that was something the skipper has asked me to do so I'm working hard to do my best in the role.
"And we're not the kind of team that can put up a bunch of runs and explode offensively, so we're going to do just what we've done so far, which is rely on our pitchers and play good defense. We're kind of like the Chunichi Dragons," Omura quipped with a seemingly ever-present smile.