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Kitsap BlueJackets speak international language of love: baseball
No foreign language course is complete until the students learn how to cuss.
Consider it the first week of class for Hiroto Ohmachi and Koji Hamaguchi, Japanese-speaking ballplayers who arrived about a week ago and were mesmerized by the size of Costco before sampling the hot dogs and falling in love with them.
They will spend the summer here participating in America’s pastime as members of the Kitsap BlueJackets baseball team, learning English along the way.
“I’m sure by the time we go on the road that will start,” coach Matt Acker joked of the profanity. “No doubt.”
For now Acker and the BlueJackets are focused on helping their Japanese teammates learn the language and hand signals of American baseball.
The team has help in Masaki Kitamura, a 29-year-old sports agent from Japan who will double as a translator and bullpen coach this season. Kitamura, who met Acker a few years ago while attending Green River Community College, will be the bridge between Ohmachi and Hamaguchi and their teammates as both sides learn to communicate.
He is in Kitsap because Acker e-mailed him during the offseason, asking if he would like to coach for the summer. It was an easy decision for Kitamura, a former player himself, who recruited Ohmachi and Hamaguchi to make the trip.
“Everybody on the team is trying to explain everything briefly and use very proper and easy English,” Ohmachi said before practice Tuesday, speaking through his translator, Kitamura. “It’s very helpful that they can communicate to players in that way.”
The biggest challenge for Ohmachi, a catcher, is communicating with the pitchers. But he also must learn certain commands so he can direct the infield and outfield when needed.
He said the way pitchers and catchers interact here is different than in Japan, the biggest difference being that during bullpen warmups, pitchers use hand signals to let the catcher know which pitch will be thrown. In Japan, however, those commands are verbal.
Ohmachi must learn on the job because he is the only catcher on the roster until at least June 11, when a catcher/outfielder from the University of Washington is expected to report. Acker said a third catcher, from the University of Oregon, will be available, too, but not until the Ducks finish the postseason.
That leaves the Osaka native as the lone man behind the plate, dealing with a pitching staff with whom he is unfamiliar. But Acker said that could work to Ohmachi’s advantage because he will learn quickly and receive significant playing time right away.
“It’s actually a real positive situation,” said Acker, entering his sixth season. “He has to make adjustments and so do we, and we have to do it quickly.”
Meanwhile, Hamaguchi, a 154-pound pitcher and the quieter of the two, is scheduled to start Sunday against the Corvallis Knights. Acker has yet to set a pitching rotation for the season, so Sunday’s game will be an opportunity for the left-handed off-speed pitcher to showcase his ability.
Hamaguchi, 19, is one of 17 pitchers listed on the roster.
“He’ll be successful as long as he’s working ahead and throwing strikes,” Acker said.
Ohmachi and Hamaguchi landed at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport May 26 and will live with a host family, Terri and John McKenzie, whose house is within walking distance of the BlueJackets’ home and practice field at the Kitsap County Fairgrounds.
This is the McKenzie’s fifth season hosting BlueJacket players, but they speak no Japanese and have never hosted a player from another country. The McKenzie’s have two children of their own, a 13-year-old daughter and a 15-year-old son, and they also will welcome a 16-year-old foreign-exchange student from France in July.
The McKenzie’s brought their two boarders to their daughter’s soccer tournament last weekend, and Terri McKenzie competes against them in the “Rock Band” video game on Xbox360. She said the Japanese duo was impressed when she competed on the “difficult” level the first time they played.
In addition to visits to Starbucks and Costco — Ohmachi said his first impression of the United States was that “everything is bigger” — the McKenzie’s hope to show the ballplayers the Experience Music Project and other attractions in Seattle.
The family eats dinner together when they can, but Ohmachi and Hamaguchi are so busy with baseball that some days there isn’t enough time. Terri McKenzie has begun ordering Japanese movies on NetFlix, she said, and the internet also has been indispensable for the college students.
Terri McKenzie called Ohmachi, 21, “quite curious and outgoing,” saying both he and Hamaguchi are polite, observant and helpful around the house.
“We really have had a lot of fun with them,” she said.
In a region where there already has been a strong Japanese influence on baseball — Ichiro Suzuki of the Seattle Mariners, namely — Ohmachi and Hamaguchi have to come to an appropriate place to experience a summer in America.
Right now they don’t have much penciled into their calendar other than practices and games, at least not yet, but they plan to attend at least one Mariners game at Safeco Field to watch their countryman Ichiro, who they say is a source of inspiration.
Ichiro has been Seattle’s most successful baseball player since arriving to the city in 2001, when in his first season with the team batted .350 and stole 56 bases. He was named the league’s Most Valuable Player and Rookie of the Year.
“Japanese baseball players can play at the Major League Level, and he’s proof,” Ohmachi said.” It’s a confidence builder.”
“Many of the big-time Japanese players are still dreaming to come here to play Major League Baseball. I’m lucky to come here because not many professional players or college kids get the experience to play here.”