Lars Anderson Discovers Japan, Part 4

Earlier this week, we ran what was originally planned as the final installment of a threepart series chronicling Lars Anderson’s experiences playing baseball in Japan. Thanks to popular demand — and Anderson’s interest in sharing additional stories — this is Part 4, with more to come.

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Lars Anderson: “Birdman Bats’ fearless, peerless leader, Gary Malec made the long trek to visit me in Japan and temporarily join this bizarre circus. He flew into Osaka and took three trains in order to meet the team for our game in Kagawa. As the Fighting Dogs rolled up to the stadium on the team bus, I saw my good friend standing there wearing a Birdman t-shirt and board shirts with his trademark chicken legs sticking out. By his side was a box of bats and a suitcase. He was also sporting a huge, goofy grin. It was a cool moment.

“I met Gary through a mutual friend. We initially bonded over music, going so far as to start the band Daytime Nightlife with Gary’s little brother, Mark. Gary was hand-turning birch bats at the time, which I was obviously intrigued by. They were immaculate as well. As the years progressed and our friendship grew, we decided to use my experience and connections in baseball — and his passion of making baseball bats — to start a baseball bat company.

“That company is Birdman Bats. We now cut bats by machine, but the majority of the work thereafter is still done by hand. We strive to make bats that both perform at the highest level and have a creative, unique, artistic aesthetic. We operate out of San Francisco, CA, and there he was, in Kagawa, to see the Fighting Dogs in action. I’d estimate about 10 guys on the team are swinging Birdman Bats, so it was fulfilling for Gary to see his creations being used in professional games.

“The game was at night, so the lights were turned on. Well, most of the lights. Before the game started, [teammate] Zak [Colby] quipped, ‘You’re going to enjoy this. They don’t turn the lights on in right-center field here.’ ‘What now?’ I asked, equal parts dread and curiosity. ‘Well, since the ocean is so close and commercial fishing boats fish at night right off the coast, they keep lights in the right field off so that the boats don’t cast a shadow in the water and scare away the fish.’

“We played the entire game without 20% of the field’s lighting capacity so that the fishing would stay good. Fortunately, the other 80% was more than enough to see the ball, and it didn’t affect the game too much. I homered in my second at-bat, and with Gary in the stands, it was a trip looking up at him, cheesing, as I touched home and held the promotional sign that is forced into our hands after going deep. I held the sign up for the crowd to see, only to be gestured by the coaching staff that I was holding it upside down.

“Gary wasn’t allowed on the team bus, so he, Zak, Rich [Ruff], and I hopped in the van that Zak drives Manny (Ramirez) in, and we spent the night in Matsuyama, Ehime, where we were playing the next day. Manny was absent. He was in San Francisco for his son’s college graduation.

“On the way, we bought sake to enjoy upon arrival, but Zak informed us that it is perfectly legal for passengers to drink in the car in Japan, so we imbibed on our two-hour journey, chatting about the current state of affairs in the Shikoku Island League. During the drive, I asked Gary what was his take on the game. ‘I really liked the bat flips. It seems like they bat flip on everything.’

“We arrived at the field with the Pacific Ocean glistening only a few hundred yards beyond the left-field fence. Since the bus driver overslept – clearly not his week – and the rest of the guys were late, Gary, myself, and our driver walked down to the shore to check out the beach and water. It wouldn’t be the last time that day.

“We took batting practice and did our defensive work. When we finished, Zak said, ‘Let go jump in the ocean before the game!’ So we changed out of our ball threads, threw on some board shorts, and took off for the water. This was a first, and it was awesome. The water was warmer than I’ve ever experienced in the Pacific Ocean, and we body surfed and swam for about 15 minutes. 

“The field itself was reminiscent of a high-school or small-college field. The playing surface was satisfactory but the dugouts were rudimentary and there was no seating other than a set of bleachers and and grassy berm down the right-field line. Many locals came out and the day was lovely. The ‘Dog Fighters’ lost in ugly fashion and I had a less-than-spectacular game. Although we lost, we still won, because after the game, we hopped in the ocean again before the long drive home.

“On the drive back, we chanced upon the team bus stopped on the side of the road. I asked our driver what happened. ‘No gas,’ he responded. Like I said before, clearly not the bus driver’s week.

“We ascertained that since he was late picking the players up in the morning, he didn’t get a chance to fill up the tank. That part made sense. But it doesn’t answer the question of why he didn’t visit the gas station in the interim nine hours while we were at the field and he was free.

“Gary was originally supposed to leave on Wednesday, but we all felt like it was too short of a stay and he was able to extend his trip through Sunday for only $150. The dude always finds the best deals. With the extra time, Gary went looking for love and found it in another with chicken legs: Señor Manny Ramirez.

“Manny has actually played a seminal part in the formation and growth of Birdman Bats. While he and I were together in Triple-A for the Cubs, in 2014, Manny came across a hand-turned Birdman bat of mine. He loved the logo and said he wanted to order some for winter ball. At this time, Gary was only cutting bats by hand as a hobby, filling orders for friends and men’s league teammates. I imagined this was something Gary could get excited about, so I passed on his information to Manny. To my surprise, Manny reached out and ordered three bats. Gary has expressed this as being a ‘maybe I should take this more seriously’ moment.

“Back to the present: since Manny had been in San Francisco, essentially trading places with the Birdman, Gary still hadn’t met him in person. His extended stay provided the opportunity for that — and all subsequent hilarity. As I mentioned, we had been driving in the Manny-less Manny Van with Zak for the duration of the trip. Now that Manny was back, we would be getting some quality road-trip time together. That’s where the Gary-Manny bromance began.”

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Editor’s Note: We’ll hear more on Manny and Gary in the next installment.

We hoped you liked reading Lars Anderson Discovers Japan, Part 4 by David Laurila!

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David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from February 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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ButThatsNotMe
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ButThatsNotMe

These are excellent. Interesting and illuminating! I’ll take as many of these as we can get.