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THE HOT CORNER: Wada joins team for grown ups

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THE HOT CORNER: Wada joins team for grown ups

by Jim Allen (May 15, 2008)

Perhaps nobody had higher expectations for free agent outfielder Kazuhiro Wada than Chunichi Dragons manager Hiromitsu Ochiai.

Coming off his worst season and with a history of leg injuries, Ochiai simply said he wanted to write Wada's name in the lineup everyday as his left fielder.

It may not sound like much, but it made an impression on Wada.

"That put pressure on me, because I wanted to live up to his expectations," Wada said Saturday at Tokyo Dome. "Frankly, there wasn't that much interest in me at 34, except from Chunichi."

Wada's last season with the Seibu Lions was an inexplicable bust. The only thing that looked good was his .315 batting average.

Wada's walks and power decreased drastically from the norms that had earned him five straight spots on the Pacific League's Best IX honor roll.

Had he been younger, an offseason might have deterred him from testing the market, but time was not on Wada's side.

"It was something I wanted to do, and I felt it might well have been either now or never," said the native of neighboring Gifu Prefecture, whose move brought him home but also to a new league.

"It [starting fresh in the CL] doesn't bother me. I needed a new start, and I got it. I am completely refreshed."

That was in May and a day after his first four-hit game in a long time. When asked about his initiation into Ochiai's world at the Dragons spring training camp, Wada's word of choice was "brutal."

In February, the Dragons work relatively long hours at a frantic pace. There is plenty of motion and little of it seems wasted. In itself, that is not unusual.

"Overall, our camp is not all that different from what I was used to," said head pitching coach Shigekazu Mori. "Both the manager and I came out of the Pacific League and in our first camp I didn't think any of the practices were all that unique."

If something sets the Dragons' camp apart, it is the speed and energy with which drills are done.

One hopes there is a connection between Ochiai's administrative style--he lets his players play and his coaches coach--that inspires the energy in the Dragons Okinawa lair.

"There may be something to that," Mori said. "He delegates. I have complete freedom with the pitchers. That was something of a surprise."

While Japanese coaches are too often expected to be enforcers of rote drills prescribed by orthodox micro managers, Dragons coaches are expected to use their heads.

"It is a source of motivation," Mori said. "He wants us do things our way, which is great but puts a lot of pressure on us to do a professional job. It's the same for the players. The manager said it's a professional's job to hone his talents through hard work."

It's not just doing what you're told to, but what you need to do.

The first thing Ochiai did as manager was give his established veterans freedom to plan their own spring training workouts. The second thing was to tell all his players to be prepared to play on Feb. 1, 2004, the first day of his first camp, when he held an intrasquad game.

"That was extreme," Mori said. "Nobody ever does that on the first day of camp. The players were ready, but more than that, it sent a message that he meant what he said."

Second baseman Masahiro Araki had been a regular for three seasons but was still put on the main training program along with the young players.

"[Shortstop Hirokazu] Ibata and I were put with the young guys," he said. "The hours were really long, really hard. But if you want to win, you have to pay a price."

As a player, Ochiai shunned cookie-cutter activities in favor of practices specifically designed to meet his needs--and was ridiculed for it. As a manager, he demands his own players figure out what they need to do to win more games and then apply themselves when the game starts.

For Wada, it was a pleasant--if more physically and mentally demanding--switch from being constantly told what to do and when.

Asked if it was nice to be treated as an adult for a change, Wada said: "Yes. It is a little different, a bit more positive."

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