Dick Williams couldn’t resist a little joke.
Standing at the podium in The Handlebar section of Great American Ball Park on Wednesday, the Reds President of Baseball Operations followed up a photo session of him handing newest Red Shogo Akiyama a cap and jersey with this comment.
“Now that we’ve got the jersey and the hat and contract signed, I guess it’s safe to say that it’s officially ‘Sho’ time,” Williams said.
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The Reds formally introduced the first Japanese-born player in franchise history at a crowded media session that was streamed around the world by MLB.com. Akiyama, an outfielder, signed a three-year, $21 million contract on Monday.
“I’ve had the pleasure of participating in many press conferences, but I don’t think any of them have been this historically significant,” Williams said. “That’s why we have a full room. I would like to welcome members of the media and baseball fans watching around the world, especially in Japan.”
Joining Akiyama and Williams on the stage were translator Roger Kahlon, Cincinnati general manager Nick Krall and field manager David Bell. In the audience were Akiyama’s wife Akaya and sons Fumiya, 5, and Yuya, 3, along with members of the Japan-America Society of Greater Cincinnati, which helped welcome Akiyama and his family to the area. The experience included a stop at a Skyline Chili for lunch on Tuesday.
The Reds Hall of Fame and Museum displayed artifacts from the team’s 17-game trip to Japan in 1978.
Williams described the franchise’s concerted effort to land Akiyama, from several years of scouting him to making sure the Reds were the first team to approach him, to meet with him in during December’s Winter Meetings in San Diego, to give him a detailed report on the franchise and the city and to offer him a contract.
“We scouted Shogo for the past several years, knowing that he had a chance to be a free agent,” Williams said. “During this off-season, we identified several areas of our club that we wanted to address. They included an improved hitting approach, team speed, defense and being a good teammate. Shogo shows all of those qualities.”
The efforts were not lost on Akiyama, who hit .301 with 20 home runs for Seibu in the Japan League while being named an all-star for the fifth time. He also hit .301 during his nine-year career, all in Japan, and has earned six Golden Glove Awards.
“The fact that they’ve never had a Japanese player was something that was very attractive, and their presentation was impressive.” Akiyama said. “It made me want to play here.
“A lot of teams were interested, but I also had my own intentions,” he added. “I listened to other offers, but I had to stay true to my intentions.”
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Akiyama primarily played center field in Japan, but Bell finds him capable of playing all three outfield spots – versatility that could come in handy as the manager tries to effectively deploy a five-man crew that will most likely Aristides Aquino, Phillip Ervin, Nick Senzel and Jesse Winker. Akiyama will most likely bat leadoff for Cincinnati.
“Shogo excels in so many of the areas that we identified as areas in which we wanted to get better,” Bell said. “He’s going to play, and he’s going to play a lot. We have to see how it all shakes out, but with the way he plays, we project him as being at the top of the lineup.”
“Wherever the team needs me to play is what I’ll do,” Akiyama said. “I’m not a power hitter. I focus more on contact and getting on base.”
Williams recalled Akiyama’s reaction in San Diego after examining the Reds materials.
“He jumped up and said, ‘I want to play baseball right now,’” Williams said.
Akiyama remains enthusiastic.
“The ballpark is beautiful, and the scenery is beautiful,” he said. “I feel like this is going to be a great place to play in.”
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