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John E. Gibson

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Age factors in for Dragons

by John E. Gibson (Apr 20, 2012)

Not many teams can put players with a combined age of nearly two-and-a-half centuries on their infield, so it really seems like "old" times for the Chunichi Dragons this year.

The Dragons asked a 70-year-old out-of-work manager to take the throne at Nagoya Dome, befitting of a team with an embarrassment of riches when it comes to veteran leadership.

The Dragons on Sunday put one of the oldest infields in recent memory on the field. When lefty Masahiro Yamamoto, 46, beat the Hanshin Tigers 3-0, the collective age of the Dragons' infield was 233.

Motonobu Tanishige, 41, was catching, Yamasaki was at first, 36-year-old Hirokazu Ibata at short, Masahiro Araki, 34, at second and 33-year-old Masahiko Morino was at third. It was a combined 127 years of professional experience on the infield alone for Yamamoto's eight-inning stint.

"Yeah, it's a team of old guys," Chunichi's Takeshi Yamasaki sheepishly told The Daily Yomiuri recently. The 43-year-old Aichi Prefecture native returned to the Dragons in the offseason for a second stint after seven years as a part-time first baseman and designated hitter with the Tohoku Rakuten Eagles.

Yamasaki, a pro since 1989, led the Central League in homers in 1996 with 39, and topped the Pacific League in 2007 with 43. He had a strong spring and is sharing time at first base mainly because of forward thinking in Japan that he said no longer pushes elder statesmen toward the old-timers' circuit.

"In America, there are many examples of older players on the field," he said. "If you can get results, you can get playing time.

"The sport has really changed here. In the past, when you got on in years, you were always told, 'It's time to move on.' But that's not the case anymore, as long as you're productive."

Takagi, whose Dragons' teams finished second twice in his four-year stint in the '90s, seemed like the perfect skipper to bring in for this group. He had veteran teams then and didn't really allow Yamasaki, a young slugging outfielder, the chance to earn a regular spot.

Yamasaki said things are different this time around.

"I wasn't able to contribute to the team when Takagi was the manager [from 1992 to 1995]. But thinking changes over time," Yamasaki said with a wry smile. "As the years go by, I guess some people soften up, and some people get more stubborn. Anyway, my situation is different now."

He also said the practice-heavy routines of the past have also changed in the Dragons' lair.

"When I was with the Dragons before, things were extremely strict--with [manager Senichi] Hoshino, too. When you compare that to the way things are now, they don't make us practice the same way they did before. Even the younger guys prepare on their own.

"But this is a good team and the players are mature. People know if they aren't ready, they are going to get left behind. And that helps keep the team good."

Yamasaki's not in the starting lineup every day, but said the competition for playing time keeps him sharp.

"I'm in a tough battle with [Tony] Blanco, but the fact that I can do this at the age of 43 makes me really happy."


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