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Thursday, June 23, 2005 | The Surf Dawgs’ second full week of the season had all the international flavor, conflict, triumph and trauma of a summer blockbuster movie. The Japan Samurai Bears were in town for three games, including a Tuesday double-header. This first meeting of the two teams was a chance for baseball fans at Tony Gwynn Stadium to become acquainted with Japanese baseball customs such as greeting home-run hitters at the plate with flowers and a stuffed bear.

Dawgs catcher Cody Clark was able to enjoy this new custom with his two-run homerun in the final game of the series, resulting in a 6-1 win over the Bears. The Dawgs would sweep the three-game series and extend their winning streak to seven games. The sweep also helped the team remain on top of the California League with an 11-2 record.

The Japan Samurai Bears are one of the Golden Baseball Leagues (GBL) more ambitious undertakings. The team is made up of 24 players from throughout Japan whose previous experience ranges from playing in major league affiliated teams to high school teams; this is 15 of the Bears first professional experience. This year the team will be a traveling team with no actual home base; this places the team at a definite disadvantage as they will play every game as the visitors, losing that home field advantage of a bottom of the 9th rally. While the rest of the GBL had a two-week spring training, the Bears landed at their training facility in Mesa, Ariz. only 10 days before the season began.

The team’s manager is Warren Cromartie, a former player with the Montreal Expos and Kansas City Royals, who got to know Japanese baseball through his six years on the Tokyo Giants, Japan’s most famous team. Cromartie is trying to get his players ready to compete on the field while they also deal with the cultural differences of American life on the road.

“We’re the first ones to play in the inaugural year of an independent league and making history for us as the first Japanese team since 1906 to play in an organized league,” says Cromartie. “I think they are enjoying the experience every day. Every game is a new experience for them and it gives them something to look forward to getting better at. It’s a challenge for us all.”

The Bears are also the only team to use a player/coach position with first baseman Yuji Nerei, who has played in several American independent leagues and the farm system for the Montreal Expos. His experience helps him to guide the team on the field and also helps the young players to learn professional habits. “Japanese baseball players have pretty good fundamental skills,” says Nerei. “Their pretty good baseball skills help them to adjust to play professional baseball, play everyday, how to make the body physically (last) through the season.”

Nerei’s biggest concern is the toll the constant travel will have on his team. He believes once his players are comfortable in their new environment they will be able to correct their slow 2-12 start. “As a player/coach, I hope just one (player) goes to the next level, that is the main goal as a team,” says Nerei. “Last year I played with a traveling team and everyone gets hurt during the season. At the end of the season 10 people were on the DL (disabled list). We just play 90 games and never give up. Even if we lose, we play 100 percent, we try to do our best. The Samurai spirit is to never give up.”

The one thing the Bears do share with the other teams of the GBL is knowledge of Rickey Henderson’s career and accomplishments. “They know who he is and they plan to keep him off the bases,” says Cromartie. “They know they gotta pitch to him and we’re not going to be intimidated by him. I already told my pitcher to go after him, if he gets on, he’s done his thing – it’s nothing new!”

After sweeping the Bears, the Dawgs would play a weekend series against the Long Beach Armada. This was the second series for the two teams, with the Dawgs winning the first series 3-1. The Armada fired the initial blow in the series winning the first game 5-2, snapping the Dawgs winning streak. The Dawgs would bite back in the next game winning 6-2, despite having Henderson ejected from the game in the first inning for violating the new minor league “Batter Box Rule,” which is an attempt to speed up the game by having the batter keep one foot in the batters box between pitches. Henderson watched the rest of the game from the stands, delighting fans with autographs and observations.

Rookie pitcher Justin Ottman’s strong seven-inning performance in the game would be one of the series’ highlights. The rookie pitcher only gave up four hits, resulting in two runs with nine strikeouts in the victory. Catcher Cody Clark’s three-run homerun in the final game of the series wouldn’t be enough to overcome an error-plagued seventh inning, where the team committed three errors resulting three unearned runs and a 9-4 loss. The fifth series of the season would be the Dawgs first losing series. The team would remain in first place in the California League with a 12-4 record.

The Surf Dawgs will be at Tony Gwynn Field for a series against the Japan Samurai Bears June 24-26, Chico Outlaws June 28-29, and will wrap up this homestand against the Mesa Miners June 30-July 3. For game times and ticket information, visit http://sandiegosurfdawgs.com.

Tami Rapozo, is a San Diego native who has written for several local publications. In 2001 she wrote “Keepers of the Faith,” a book on the San Diego Padres and their booster club the Madres.

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