By ED M. ODEVEN
JUPITER, Fla. (March 27, 2000)– Two unheralded Japanese ballplayers are working their way up the Montreal Expos organization and hope to join established pro Hideki Irabu in the big leagues
Yuji Nerei, a 26-year-old infielder, and Kazuma Mori, a 24-year-old pitcher from Hiroshima are currently taking part in training camp.
Nerei graduated with a law degree from Tokyo’s University of Hosei last spring. But he wasn’t ready to begin a career as an attorney. Instead, Nerei’s athletic aspirations took over.
“American baseball is very different than (the style) in Japan,” he said. “The playing style is very different, but I like it here. Yeah, it’s difficult for me, but I’m getting used to it.”
Nerei arrived at Florida’s Play Ball Baseball Academy on Jan. 30. He spent a month there and while doing so he gained the attention of the Expos and was signed to a free-agent contract.
Fred Ferreira, vice president and director of international operations for the Expos, said he’s impressed with Nerei’s batting ability.
“He hits a double every game,” Ferreira said with a smile.
Nerei, sporting No. 43 at spring training, has already been assured of a solid spot within the organization.
“He’s put on a good show and he went right to Triple-A (training group); but whether he stays there or not it’s too early to determine,” Ferreira said.
Nerei’s spring statistics were unavailable at press time. However, the left-handed hitting first baseman/outfielder is slated to be on the opening-day roster of the Ottawa Lynx on April 6.
“Yeah, I was surprised,” Nerei said of being placed on Ottawa’s roster
And he has a chance to make history. Veteran third baseman Hiromi Matsunaga was at the Oakland Athletics’ Cactus League training complex. Since the A’s didn’t have a roster spot for Matsunaga, he retired. Nowadays, he’s working as a sports commentator in Japan.
In short, Nerei said he’s excited about the opportunity to become the first Japanese-born infielder in the major leagues.
“I’ll try (to get to Montreal), and of course I’ll work hard. But I have to learn American baseball. I need more experience,” he said.
“I’m very close to the majors so I’m very excited. I just want to keep going.”
Legendary slugger Sadaharu Oh is one of Nerei’s heroes, but current superstar Ken Griffey Jr. also impresses him.
“I like Griffey’s batting style,” Nerei said. “It looks easy.”
After his playing days are over, Nerei said his goal is to manage his alma mater Hosei, which plays in the Tokyo University League.
“It’s very famous for baseball,” he said proudly.
REHAB FOR MORI
Meanwhile, Mori has spent the past several weeks rehabilitating his sore right-pitching arm.
Mori, a Hiroshima native, was signed as a non-drafted free agent by Ferreira last May. Mori appeared in three games for the Jupiter Hammerheads of the Class-A Florida State League and was 0-1 with a 7.36 ERA in 3.2 innings. He walked two and struck out two. His ailing right arm limited his availability last summer and kept him out of action from mid-July until the end of the season.
Mori is vigorously working to get his arm ready for the upcoming season, according to Don Reynolds, Montreal’s director of player development.
“His work ethic is outstanding,” Reynolds said. “His commitment to the game is something that seems to be above and beyond (what’s expected.”
Because Mori hasn’t pitched yet this spring Reynolds said it’s too early to decide at what level Mori will play this season.
“I’m still at the point where I’m trying to take a look at him and see who he is,” Reynolds said. “I guess we (the Expos) are really conservative when it comes to arms and arm injuries.”
Although his American playing time has been quite limited, Reynolds said the organization likes what it sees in Mori.
“He’s a guy with good arm strength. He has very good command of his pitches and he seems to be a very knowledgable pitcher.”
THE INSIDE SCOOP
Pitcher Eiji Miyamoto will sign with the Expos in a few days, according to Ferreira. Then, he’s expected to begin the season at the Class-A level.