By Ed Odeven
TOKYO – While pro baseball is under way in Japan after the catastrophic natural disasters on March 11, forcefully and unexpectedly, created a number of unique challenges for an entire nation, former East Carolina baseball standout Chad Tracy is eager to make an impact for the Hiroshima Carp this season.
The red-and-white clad Carp hope to improve on their 58-84-2 record and climb into playoff contention in Japan’s Central League. On the other hand, Tracy won’t set targets for home runs, RBIs, batting average, etc. To him, that’s not the proper approach.
“I usually don’t set number goals,” Tracy said by phone from Hiroshima as he geared up for the Carp’s season-opening series against the Hanshin Tigers. “For me it’s about trying to help the team win baseball games. If I drive in runs and I’m out there getting on base and scoring runs, it gives us a better chance to win every night. It’s about getting hits with runners in scoring positions and being out there scoring runs.”
The Carp had expected to begin their regular season on March 25 against the CL rival Chunichi Dragons in Nagoya, but plans changed after the events of March 11. Players had spent months preparing for the coming season and then everything came to a crashing halt.
“I think we’ll quickly fall back in a routine,” said Tracy, whose team lost two of three games against the Tigers at Koshien Stadium, Japan’s most beloved ballpark, in Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture.
As for the team’s offense, the West Mecklenberg High graduate believes the Carp will need to utilize their speed (119 steals in 2010) to put runs on the board. The numbers support that perspective; the Carp hit the fewest home runs (104) in the six-team CL last season
“We don’t have big power guys,” said Tracy, a career .278 hitter in the majors, “so we’ll need to manufacture runs and (utilize) small ball. We do have some pretty good players.”
At the plate, the left-handed-batting Tracy, who broke into the big leagues with the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2004 and played for the club until becoming a free agent after the 2009 season, expects to be served a healthy dose of curveballs, perhaps more than he’d usually see in the major leagues. But he considers preparation will be the key to hitting successfully in Japan.
“They tend to throw more breaking balls in fastball counts, kind of keep you guessing,” Tracy observed, speaking about the prototypical Japanese pitcher.
“I’m just trying to be patient and get something to hit,” he added.
“I had a good springing training, swung the bat very well, so as long as I can stay healthy it should be a good season.”
Meanwhile, Tracy is still adjusting to Japanese cuisine and blending his own workouts and on-field conditioning to keep a comfortable playing weight. He noted that large helpings of noodles and rice have made it “tougher to keep (weight) off than on around here.”
But after a season of uncertainty, when he bounced around the Cubs, Yankees and Marlins organizations, including 69 combined games in the bigs for Chicago and Florida, Tracy is keeping an open mind about his new team and playing baseball in the Far East.
“I’ll have to wait and see,” he said. “I’m not going to commit to anything longer than this year. I’ll see how the season goes. You don’t know where you’re mind will be at end of year.”
He added: “I could end up playing five years here or one, you just never know.”
A pleasant relationship with second-year Carp manager Kenjiro Nomura can help make Tracy’s adjustment to Japanese baseball a smooth transition. Since arriving in Japan on Jan. 25, the Charlotte native has felt comfortable with the team’s management.
“He’s made it easy on all the foreigners here,” Tracy said of Nomura. “He’s very personable, easy to talk to and he understands where we are coming from and some of the things we are not accustomed to doing.
“He’s made himself very available.”
Asked to give an example, Tracy mentioned this: “He’s taken us out to dinner; we went to Outback. We’ve done that a couple times. He’s tried to make us feel comfortable here.”
“For him to do that, it says a lot for him,” Tracy continued. “We all respect him, as a person, a manager and as a former player. He likes to work hard, which is always fun. We are all used to working hard and he made sure we are all on the same page and understands what’s going on.”
To avoid having words and expressions, simple or complex, lost in translation, Tracy and the team’s fellow foreigners will rely on interpreters through the season.
That two-way communication won’t simply be “yes” or “no,” questions and answers. Instead, Nomura has clearly made a point of requesting feedback from Tracy and other ballplayers.
“When the tsunami hit, he made sure our families were OK,” Tracy recalled. “We had meetings and he asked us our opinions.”
This included the uncertainty over the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant crisis, as there were – and still are — natural fears in the immediate aftermath of the environmental disaster.
“With the nuclear reactor and stuff, he wanted to know our concerns about how we felt about going to Tokyo,” Tracy said of Nomura. “We all agree we felt safe, but didn’t go up there for spring games.”
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Every sector of Japanese society is pitching in to help Japan’s recovery from last month’s catastrophic events. All-time home run king Sadaharu Oh, for example, greeted fans at a public event in March, held out a jar to collect donations and asked for their support in raising funds. Emperor Akihito has also appeared on television and at refugee shelters to speak about the situation and give comfort to those who have been affected the most.
So it’s only natural for sports teams to lend a hand, too. Tracy and his Carp teammates use some of their off time before the regular season’s delayed opener to do their part. At Mazda Zoom Zoom Stadium Hiroshima, which is often referred to as Mazda Stadium by the English mass media, Tracy participated in fundraising events, greeting fans and asking them to donate money to aid the earthquake and tsunami victims. (Many of Japan’s sports teams, leagues and individual athletes have pledged financial support for the Japanese Red Cross.)
Similar team-organized events took place at Hiroshima train stations, while other players have set aside funds for those in need affected by the March 11 disasters.
Tracy is eager to help in any way he can.
“It’s one of those things if you have something to give and they need it, they probably need a lot more than we can give, and hopefully anything they get will help,” he said, without needing to cite the heartbreaking statistics that tell only a small part of the story – thousands have died and several thousand remain missing.
Given the enormity of the suffering that Japan has experienced since mid-March, Tracy believes this baseball-crazed nation can find some semblance of normalcy in its daily routine by staging a baseball season now.
“At this point, given the delay, it was the right thing to do and people are now to the point where they are ready to watch baseball,” he said. “I think the delay was necessary just so the country could kind of get its bearing, but definitely baseball can help be a little bit of comfort to people who are kind of looking for normalcy in their lives.
“It’s going to be a little bit of a mix-and-match this season but as long as the players are willing to kind of go through a little bit of sacrifice to get some games in, it should be normal and give fans out here something to watch everyday and hopefully take their minds off some of the things that are going on in Japan right now.”
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Showing up to work at Mazda Stadium, which opened in 2009, is exciting, Tracy said, noting the park has an “American-style” feel to it, with a grass infield, unlike other Japanese parks that have dirt infields. He already knows that the team’s fans are loud and described the atmosphere as “exciting.”
When he steps into the batter’s box in Hiroshima, the fans roar with delight, voicing support for the slugger they affectionately call “Chad-o.”
“It’s really fun listening to the fans and the drum beating and the horns going on, chanting your name when you go out on defense,” Tracy said.
“It keeps you pumped up in the game and the adrenaline going. It’s nice to have fans like that. With the fans the way they are, it helps get you through the night.”
Preparing for a new season and life in a new country, Tracy has had a busy past few months, including long training camp stints in Okinawa and Kyushu, islands south of Japan’s biggest island, Honshu, which includes the Western port city of Hiroshima.
He hasn’t had a great deal of free time to explore many of Hiroshima’s well-known sites, based on the city’s cultural and historic significance. Though he did visit Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park and famous Shukkei-en Garden (originally constructed in the 1620s during the Edo Period and rebuilt in the 1950s after the city was destroyed by the atomic bomb by the U.S. military in 1945 near the end of World War II) with his parents, Thelma and Roger Wilson, who reside in Charlotte, during their recent trip to Japan.
As the months progress, Tracy plans to pick his spots to soak up the city’s culture and explore the region.
But, he admitted that “after a long day at the park you are not feeling like going to a sightseeing event.”
That doesn’t mean, however, that he hasn’t already found time to enjoy life in Japan as a new Carp player.
“Everybody been polite and nice, but at the same time (the language barrier) is a challenge,” Tracy said, but realizes it’s easy to be embraced by the locals.
“I spent most of my time at the ballpark, but as soon as they know you play for the Carp, they roll out the red carpet,” he added.
“The fans are very passionate. You can tell just by looking around the city and seeing the billboards . . . you can tell the Carp mean a lot to them.”
Tracy’s wife, Katie, and two children are staying with him in Hiroshima this season. His daughters are enrolled at a YMCA school and will have opportunities to study Japanese.
Tracy, meanwhile, can point to useful lessons learned growing up in North Carolina, recalling Mother Nature’s genuine danger as something to help keep things in perspective while he’s in Japan.
“I’ve been through similar situations like that,” he said, speaking of hurricanes on the East Coast but far different than what took place on March 11 in Japan’s Tohoku region.
“I’ve seen the devastation firsthand, nothing to the extend of the tsunami, but knowing how dangerous water can be and how much damage it can have on people and lives, I would definitely say that being in that region in the United States it helped a little.
“Being through hurricane season every year, you learn to cope with tragedy.”
As a pro ballplayer for a decade, including his time in the minors, Tracy has seen his fair share of wins and losses. Now he hopes to help the Carp make a dramatic turnaround this season, and as part of Japan’s national pastime, play a small part in the nation’s recovery as well.