Alex Ochoa is well-versed in Japanese baseball, having spent the 2003-2006 seasons with the Chunichi Dragons of Japan’s Central League. Currently with the Triple-A Pawtucket Red Sox, the 35-year-old Ochoa hit .283 with 75 home runs in his four years in Japan. Originally drafted by the Orioles in 1991, Ochoa broke into the big leagues with the Mets in 1995 and has also played with the Twins, Brewers, Reds, Rockies and Angels. His best season came in 2000 when he hit .316/.378/.586 in 244 at bats with the Reds.
David talked to Ochoa about acclimating to a new baseball culture, Japanese managers, and the gyroball.
David Laurila: Why did you go to Japan in 2003?
Alex Ochoa: Money was part of it, but I was a fourth outfielder in the big leagues and a chance to play every day was just as big of a reason. I didn’t actually have any plans to go to Japan, but my agent called to tell me that the Chunichi Dragons were interested in me. It was something that kind of popped up after Kevin Millar decided he didn’t want to play there. I had just signed a minor league deal with the Cardinals, but they were cool with letting me go to Japan. It was sort of a bang-bang thing.
DL: How did Japan differ from what you expected?
AO: That’s kind of hard to say, because I didn’t know exactly what to expect. I knew that it would be difficult to go to another country to play, but one thing that helped was that my parents had come to the United States from Cuba, so I learned from them about adjusting to a new culture. And the culture over there is definitely different. You just have to adjust to it. They’re not going to adjust to you.
DL: What were your first days like in Japan?
AO: Kind of shocking, really. You see signs and they have characters instead of words. The architecture is totally different. When I got to our training camp in Okinawa, I guess there was a little bit of “Where am I?” and “Did I do the right thing?” But you go with the flow, and I think I got acclimated pretty quickly. By the second half of the season I felt pretty good about being there.
DL: Were you surprised when Japan won the World Baseball Classic last year?
AO: I wasn’t. I knew how fundamentally sound they play the game, and the quality of the baseball is better than a lot of people think. The biggest difference is that over there it’s almost all Japanese players, while here it’s players from all over the world. There are a lot of talented players in Japan. I mean, there are some guys who are Double-A-quality, but there are also a number of big league-quality guys.
DL: How would you describe Japanese baseball?
AO: They really study the game, and they do a lot of repetitions. That goes for hitting drills, fielding drills — anything to do with baseball. They’re really big on quantity. Another aspect that’s different is that they’re more conservative in certain areas. Over here, pitchers are aggressive in certain situations, while over there they’ll throw forkballs on 3-1 counts with the bases loaded. Because of that you have to make big adjustments as a hitter. You have to tone down your aggressiveness, because what you were taught here isn’t happening over there.
DL: How much are video and charts used?
AO: A lot. We’d have a meeting every day and go over everything. There would be three or four scouts who would give us reports on the opposing team. They’d talk about whether the pitchers tipped their pitches, what their pickoff moves were like, how often they threw certain pitches in certain counts. They’re very thorough and particular about details.
DL: Did your batting practice routine differ at all in Japan?
AO: They expected me to drive the ball and hit bombs in batting practice. They didn’t want me to hit the ball up the middle or work on taking it the other way. They wanted me to put on a show for the crowd because the foreign players on the team are expected to be stars. They also look at what you do in batting practice as a barometer of how you’re going to do in the game. If I wasn’t hitting the ball well, they’d ask me if I was okay. That went for my throwing, too. I have a strong arm, so they expected me to show it off when we took infield and outfield before the game.
DL: How much value is placed on defensive play?
AO: It’s definitely valued. Less so for foreign players, though. They’re there to hit. But defense is important in Japan, as being fundamentally sound is highly-valued. They have Gold Gloves over there.
DL: What is the biggest difference between American and Japanese managers?
AO: There are a thousand differences. For one thing, there’s no asking “Why?” in Japan. What the manager says is done. It’s all about respect, and you don’t question him on anything. And he not only controls who plays, but also who is on the team. If he doesn’t like a player, he’s either going to be on the bench or gone. You also have to go through a chain of command to talk to the manager. For me, I’d go to my interpreter who would go to the outfield coach who would go to the bench coach, and he’d relay the message. Then the answer would come back through the same chain. You also don’t talk to the manager during games. If anything needs to be said, he comes to you.
DL: There are Americans, including Bobby Valentine, managing over there. What are the differences between American and Japanese managers in Japan?
AO: They’re similar, but the American managers aren’t Japanese. They’re not on the same tier. It’s a culture where you’re either Japanese or you’re not. That extends to the players, too. There’s a hierarchy of respect where if an older player tells a younger player to do something, he will. But while that applies to everyone, there was a certain boundary I couldn’t overstep as an American. I could joke around and ask a younger guy to get me a Coke, and he’d do it, but I knew there were limits.
DL: What is the attitude toward fraternization? Was it acceptable for you to talk to American players on opposing teams before games?
AO: It’s pretty much accepted for foreign players, because there are only 24 of us; two on each team. But it’s less so for everyone else. To a certain extent the older players can do it, but the younger ones generally won’t say more than, “Hi.” Something else you see with opposing players is that if two guys went to the same school, the younger one will always bow to the older one when they meet.
DL: Will players necessarily know if they went to the same school, especially if there is much of an age difference?
AO: I think they generally will. High school baseball is huge in Japan. There are important tournaments, one of which is held in Osaka where the Hanshin Tigers play. It’s a two-week tournament, and the Tigers play on the road while it’s going on. It’s similar to the NCAA basketball tournament in importance.
DL: Japan has big market and small market teams. How much of a “root for the underdog” attitude exists?
AO: That’s hard for me to say, but I’m sure it exists to some extent. Most fans root for the Hanshin Tigers and Yomiuri Giants, but the other teams obviously have fans, too. Another thing is that the Central League gets a lot more attention than the Pacific League. It’s thought to be better, but that’s not really true.
DL: In which ways do the Central and Pacific leagues differ?
AO: The Pacific League has a designated hitter, while the Central League doesn’t. The style of play is mostly conservative in both, but the Central is more of a pitcher’s league.
DL: How do the fans in Japan compare to those in other places you’ve played?
AO: They’re passionate, but in different ways. They admire the players, so in that respect they’re the same as anywhere else. One difference is that they’re more respectful. They don’t get on players very much or harass the opposing team. When the home team is hitting, the fans are cheering for them. Then, when the visiting team comes up, they sit down and are quiet. There are also bands in the outfield for each team. They have a song for each player, and the fans chant it when he comes up to bat.
DL: What was your song when you hit?
AO: I’d recognize it if I heard it, but I couldn’t tell you what it was called. My Japanese wasn’t good enough.
DL: How would you describe the Japanese media?
AO: They’re all over the place, especially in the bigger markets. A few of the teams are owned by newspapers, like the Chunichi Dragons and Yomiuri Giants. Overall, it’s pretty much the same as here, maybe a little more intense. There’s a lot of media and a lot of questions. I couldn’t read the papers over there, of course, because they’re in Japanese. My interpreter would tell me some of what was written about me, but he was hired by the team so he probably didn’t tell me everything. That didn’t bother me, though. I learned when I was playing in New York that I didn’t want to read the papers anyway.
DL: Kei Igawa has had mixed results since joining the Yankees, while Hideki Okajima has pitched very well for the Red Sox. How good are they, and how do they compare to other pitchers you faced in Japan?
AO: I faced both of them a bunch and they’re good pitchers. I wouldn’t say that they’re two of the best, though. Igawa won games over there, but he lost some games, too. I hit him pretty decently myself. Okajima is deceptive, a good bullpen guy, but there were guys with better stuff. Of course, better stuff doesn’t always translate to success. Both are having to make adjustments over here, and the hitters are having to adjust to them.
DL: You played with Kosuke Fukudome in Chunichi. Do you see him coming to play in the United States, and if so, what kind of player will we see?
AO: He’s one of the best players in Japan, and as far as I know he’s interested in playing over here. He’s won two batting titles, and he hit 31 home runs last year, so he’s good. I can see him starting for a major league team. I’ve also told him that he wants to have “Kosuke” on his uniform if he plays here. He doesn’t want to have “Fukudome.”
DL: You were known as “Alex” in Japan, rather than “Ochoa.” Why was that?
AO: The reason they gave me is that Ochoa is similar to the Japanese word Ochokochoi, which means ‘lazy, clumsy person’. Is that true? I don’t know. If you’re a smart person, I think you can tell the difference between the two words. They don’t mock people over there like they do here, either, so I think they probably just liked the sound of “Alex” better.
DL: One word question. Gyroball?
AO: If you mean a forkball/change combo, then I’ve seen it. But I never heard “gyroball” until I came back here.
DL: Why are you back in the United States?
AO: I enjoyed playing in Japan, but I wanted to be closer to home and had a desire to get back to the big leagues. It was great to learn a different style of baseball, and it was great to experience another culture, but four years was enough. It was time to come home.