Catching Up With Rob Wooten on the Japan All-Star Series
Earlier this week, I caught up with a jet-lagged Rob Wooten who recently returned from a whirlwind trip to Japan that included stops in Osaka, Kyoto, Tokyo, Sapporo and Okinawa.
In addition to getting a crash course on the food and culture, Rob was pitching for the MLB All-Stars in the Japan All-Star Series.
In case you missed it (and you may have since most of the games were aired in the States overnight due to the time difference), the 2014 MLB Japan All-Star Series was a championship held in a best-of-five format (plus two exhibition games) between a team comprised of an elite group MLB players and Japan’s national team (Samurai Japan). Held for the first time since 2006, this year’s championship took place from Friday, November 14 through Tuesday, November 18, with Samurai Japan winning the series, 3-2.
If you follow Rob Wooten on Twitter (@RobWooten35) and I suggest you do, you may have already seen many of the great photos that he tweeted out during his time overseas, but I had the chance to chat with Rob and get a little more background on his travels, what it is like to pitch in another country with a very unique stadium environment, and the game of “Dare” going around the team which led to players photobombing, serenading, and eating fish guts.
Read on as I dissect his timeline and take you beyond 140 characters.
Back in June, the MLB Players Association began asking which players might be interested in participating in the Japan All-Star Series. Rob put his name in and got a call shortly after the season ended saying he had made the team.
Although Rob knew Jerry Blevins, a pitcher for the Washington Nationals, a little bit as a friend of a friend back when Rob was in Triple-A, he had not played with any of his MLB All-Star teammates during his career, but had played against most of them. However, in this type of environment, especially with his bullpen mates, it was easy to form bonds.
Saturday, November 8: The Team Departs for Osaka
On Thursday, November 6, Rob and his wife Katie boarded a plane from North Carolina, where they reside in the offseason, to Los Angeles. The MLB All-Stars worked out November 7-8 and took a team photo before boarding a 12 hour and 45 minute flight to Osaka.
This is a photo of Koshien Stadium in Osaka, which has an all-dirt infield.
“When Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, when that team went over in 1934, that’s where they played. So it’s kind of like their Fenway. It’s a really old ballpark, but it’s pretty neat….I hadn’t played on an all-dirt infield since Little League, so it was different in that aspect. Even from the mound to home plate, it looked very different, being all dirt,” Rob said.
For their first game, MLB All-Stars played an exhibition game here on Tuesday, November 11 vs. the Hanshin Tigers/Yomiuri Giants. The MLB team won the exhibition game 8-7.
The next night, they played Game 1 of the Japan Series at the Kyocera Dome in Osaka. They were defeated 2-0.
Here’s a photo of Rob and Katie at a party hosted by the Yomiuri Giants.
If you follow Rob on Twitter, you know he’s a big fan of Starbucks. “I was very excited. There was one right across from our hotel in Osaka,” he said, noting that he found Starbucks in both Osaka and Tokyo, but not the other cities he visited in Japan. He was also surprised to find many of the Starbucks employees he encountered were able to have a conversation with him in English.
Thursday, November 13: Kyoto
The team had an off-day in Kyoto, so Rob had the chance to explore a bit. He took in a few temple tours and then had a lunch set up with a geisha show before the team took headed to the next city.
“It was only for us and it was nice to get a peek into their culture,” Rob said.
“They have a lot of shows on the field before games, too…. I would usually only catch the end of it, but I would walk out there and the stadium would be silent because everyone was watching the show that was on the field. It’s pretty neat.”
Friday, November 14: Tokyo
The team then traveled to Tokyo where they played the next three games of the series at the Tokyo Dome on Friday, November 14, Saturday, November 15 and Sunday, November 16.
That’s also where he got his first taste of what it was like to pitch in Japan, making appearances in the games on Friday and Sunday.
Once major difference? The bullpens there are not on the field. They are underneath, near the clubhouse.
“The first time you’re exposed to the atmosphere is when you’re on the mound. You’re in the bullpen and it is dead quiet and you’re watching the game on TV…and then all of a sudden you’re in mayhem, horns, drums all kinds of stuff.”
“You really have to calm your emotions down real quick. If you let your emotions get to you, you’re going to be pretty jumpy out there. I actually think I did a pretty decent job of that and got right to work pretty quick. I think the first pitch I threw was a strike, so that calmed me down and then it was just baseball after that,” he said.
Samurai Japan took the first two games in Tokyo (including a combined no-hitter by four pitchers on Saturday), bringing the series to 3-1.
Besides the bullpen location, Rob also noted some differences in fan behavior.
“They have very good fans with a high baseball IQ. Everything is extremely different, but at the same time really similar as far as the game goes. I noticed most of the time it was really, really loud when they were hitting but when they were pitching it was pretty quiet. For instance, I noticed when it was two strikes and two outs and all they have to do is get one out to win the game and the series, nobody was standing. Nobody was clapping. It was extremely quiet—here in the States, your closer is on the mound and there are two outs, 40,000 people are standing and cheering to get that last out—but then once the out was made, everyone started standing up and clapping. But when they are hitting, it’s a whole different world. There’s cheering, people jumping around, there are horns, there are drums… it’s just, wow.”
While in Tokyo, the MLB All-Stars visited the U.S. Embassy.
“We got to see Caroline Kennedy, which was pretty sweet and Katie and I had the chance to hang out with the Aoki family as well,” Rob said. Of course, Rob is talking about his former Brewers teammate and favorite while he was here, Norichika Aoki.
“Nori was actually at the first game in Osaka, which is where I saw him first….In Japan, obviously, it is respectful to bow and everything, but he had an entourage of people around him, paparazzi, and I came up and gave him a great big bear hug,” Rob laughed. “It was good to see him there, but then it was nice to get to hang out more with him and his wife at the U.S. Embassy.”
Rob tweeted this photo of the national anthem which took place before the game on Sunday, November 16. Rob pitched a scoreless inning in that game, which resulted in a 6-1 win for the MLB All-Stars.
When in Japan. Rob said the sushi in Japan was very different than what he was accustomed to.
“It’s so good because it is so fresh. We’ve all grown up on the fried and cooked fish and that’s really good, but in Japan, you can’t really find that. Everything is raw. Also, the noodles were incredible over there,” he said.
He also noted that breakfast in Japan was not anything like what we’re used to in America. Although some of the hotels tried to provide an Americanized version, in Japan, you’re more likely to find raw fish, noodles and even salad for the morning meal.
Tuesday, November 18: Sapporo
The team then headed to Sapporo for the final game of the Japan Series.
“We only spent one day in Sapporo and it was really cold and snowing, actually,” Rob said.
The MLB All-Stars won that game 3-1, but lost the overall series, 3-2.
Here’s a photo that a fan tweeted of Rob signing autographs. Rob said that one of the best parts of the trip was all of the fans.
“The people over there were so polite. They welcomed us into their country with open arms,” Rob said. “Not one time did I feel uncomfortable. It’s crazy how much knowledge they have of the game and us. I’ve only been in the Big Leagues for parts of two seasons and everyone knew who I was. I’d be walking out of the hotel and there would be people everywhere asking for autographs. I signed pictures I had never seen before of myself. It was pretty wild. And I know with [Robinson] Cano and [Evan] Longoria, they got it even more than I did.”
Wednesday, November 19: Okinawa
Before heading home, the team had one more stop. They headed to Okinawa to play another game vs. Samurai Japan; however, this one was considered an exhibition. While they were there, Rob and his teammate Jerry Blevins from the Nationals, paid a visit to an all-boys orphanage where they posed for photographs and took part in a Q&A through an interpreter.
“They were really nice, really polite, but it was also very sad as well. I wish we could have stayed longer and done more for them,” Rob said. He noted that all of his teammates made similar appearances in the cities they visited, including places like hospitals and even tea parties.
He also had dinner at Sam’s, a steakhouse in Okinawa. It was at Sam’s that Rob completed a dare—but more on that later.
On Thursday, November 20, the teams played their final game. There was an impressive pregame ceremony for the finale.
“That was kind of like the grand finale of a fireworks show,” Rob said. “There were people coming out of every corner of the stadium with drums, instruments, costumes, it was really cool.”
Rob pitched a scoreless inning in that game, but Samurai Japan ended up winning 6-4.
All in all, Japan won the official five-game set 3-2. And the teams split the two exhibitions.
“Everybody has asked me what was my favorite part of the trip…just to be associated with the team that I was with and just being in the clubhouse with those guys was really neat for me….As far as one particular moment, I don’t know if there is one. Everything was so great from the start.
“Interacting with the fans over there was something I’ll never forget. It was kind of difficult to carry on a conversation, but just the one-on-one, even for two seconds, you could see that we were making a difference in their lives and they in ours. We don’t go over there often and they were so excited for us to come and they rolled out the red carpet everywhere we went. Just the fans and the people over there were unbelievable,” Rob recalled.
Twitter Truth or Dare-Minus the Truth Part
Aside from baseball, appearances and sightseeing, one other thing kept the MLB All-Stars occupied during their time in Japan: a giant game of Twitter Truth or Dare—minus the Truth part. Basically, players began daring each other to do things and they had to prove they had completed the dare by filming it and posting it to Twitter.
Here are few examples:
Rob dared Jerry Blevins of the Nationals to eat “fish guts pickled in salt of the tuna,” a menu item at one of the restaurants where they dined:
Here’s Jerry completing the dare:
“He struggled to get it down, but he did it,” Rob said. So, in turn, Jerry dared Rob…
…who held up his end of the bargain:
“There was no English, so I had to somehow get them to let me get in the middle of them and take a picture. It ended up working out pretty easily. They had a good time with it. They were excited,” Rob recounted.
For your viewing pleasure, here are some of the other dares that were pretty amusing:
Rob said he enjoyed bonding with his teammates and it certainly seems like all of the players had a great time in Japan.
It was great to connect with Rob. He was blown away by the fans in Japan, as well as the country’s cleanliness and beauty. I could tell just how much he enjoyed the trip and cherished this special experience and opportunity, but I also know just how much he, like us, is looking forward to 2015.
“As fun as this was, as great as this was, my focus is now completely on 2015,” he said.
I hope you enjoyed reading about Rob’s trip as much as he enjoyed taking it and I enjoyed hearing about it. It’s certainly always great to have a little extra baseball to tide us over until Spring Training.