The Fire Hydrant they call Hideki Nagasaka
Appeal Sports Writer
RENO – Describing what stands out most about Reno Silver Sox pitcher Hideki Nagasaka depends on one’s point of view.
When speaking with the 27-year-old from Yokohama City, Japan, one will quickly notice his broad smile, easy laughter and body language, which he uses to emphasize and expound upon whichever topic he’s addressing at the moment.
Another might take note of his diminutive but powerful stature – at 5-foot-6, 160-pounds, Nagasaka has earned the nickname of “The Fire Hydrant.”
And an opposing batter would surely be fixated on the heat coming from the mound when Nagasaka lets loose with his best stuff.
“Hideki is a good competitor. He throws the ball hard,” said Silver Sox pitching coach Mike Hartley. “He’s got a good curveball. He’s also a strikeout pitcher for sure. Not too many hitters are comfortable stepping into the box against him.”
Nagasaka pitched three scoreless innings in Reno’s first exhibition against the Chico Outlaws last week – he allowed only one hit while striking out four – and will start the first game of the Sox’s three-game set against Fullerton on Monday.
Even in light of his other qualities, perhaps what shines through the most about Nagasaka is his love for the game.
“It’s a life. My life is baseball,” Nagasaka said after searching a Wednesday night sky for words following practice.
He started playing when he was 7 years old, always knowing his future lay in the sport, in spite of two obstacles.
“I can’t hit,” Nagasaka said with a laugh and a wide grin.
The second deterrent to his career still comes from his parents, Yukio and Youko Nagasaka.
“They don’t support me. Not really,” Nagasaka said. “They think I should stop playing baseball and find a job. But I don’t listen.”
Call him a rebel with a cause.
“He’s a professional,” Hartley said. “He’s a tough competitor. He gives you everything he’s got and gives the team a good chance to win.”
Nagasaka said he grew up wanting to be like Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan, whom Nagasaka tracked on television and read about in books.
“Everyone knows him,” Nagasaka said. “If you play baseball, you know him. He throws strikeouts. He pitches 100 miles (an hour). He’s always the strikeout king. He’s the pitcher.”
As in The Man.
While he picked up his formal education at Tokai Daisan University in Yokohama City – which he said is about 15 miles outside of Tokyo (“Like Long Beach is to Los Angeles,” he said) – Nagasaka began his real-life education about five years ago, when he arrived in the United States to pursue his dream of playing in the Major Leagues.
“It’s a good experience, a good life. I’ve learned a lot – also English from baseball players. Sometimes my English is broken. I speak a little Spanish, too,” said Nagasaka, who added that his American and Hispanic teammates supplied him with plenty of cuss words and slang.
In addition to leaving behind his parents and younger brother Masaki, Nagasaka – a budding deejay – left behind his collection of more than 1,600 CDs when he followed a teammate’s advice and decided to follow him to the United States.
Nagasaka said he couldn’t nail down a favorite hip hop artist, naming several contemporary ones as he thought about it, but said he was also into “older school,” such as Big E and Tupac Shakur.
He began his ascent up the independent league ranks with a stop in Cook County of the Frontier League in 2002, followed by a sojourn for Solano County of the Western League.
After briefly leaving the U.S., he returned in 2004 to play for the Lincoln (Neb.) Saltdogs of the Northern League, where he began to exhibit his potential. He ended up starting 17 games and carried a 3.58 earned run average.
Two weeks into the 2005 season he was traded to the Japan Samurai Bears of the Golden Baseball League’s California Division, where he started 16 games and went 8-6. He pitched four complete games, including one shutout, and carried a 3.26 ERA to go with his 148 strikeouts.
Only Ben Simon of the Atlantic League had more independent professional baseball strikeouts than Nagasaka, with 151, but Simon pitched 78 more innings.
Silver Sox manager Les Lancaster said he acquired Nagasaka following a three-way trade involving the Joliet (Ill.) Jackhammers of the Northern League and the Sioux City (Iowa) Explorers of the American Association.
Lancaster said he liked what he saw in Nagasaka, who pitched against his Mesa Miners last year.
“He knows how to pitch. He can throw any pitch at any given time in the count,” Lancaster said. “He works ahead in the count. He’s a strikeout pitcher. I knew what I was getting. He’s good around the clubhouse and loves baseball. He wants to play as much as much as possible. He gets along with everyone really well.”
Hartley said Nagasaka gets the most out of his stature and natural gifts.
“Every pitcher is born with a certain amount of arm strength,” Hartley said. “He’s a hard worker, his legs are strong and he gets the most out of his body. He hasn’t reached his potential yet. This year he’s throwing around 86. We expect him to get to the upper 80s or low 90s. He’s tough to hit.
“We hope he’ll be one of out top two starters. We’re looking for him to win eight or nine games for us this season. When it comes down it, pitching wins championships. We hope he has a good season for us.”
Asked what he has to work on, Nagasaka pushed his hands down to illustrate which statistics he needs to lower.
“Less walks. Keep my ERA down. More wins,” he said, raising his hands back up. “Baseball is all numbers. Numbers are the whole thing.”
Nagasaka said he wants to play 10 more years before returning to Japan to either become a coach (he has a degree in physical education) or a policeman. But in the meantime he said he would be hoping for a call up the ladder to a minor league – and some day a Big League team.
Until then he said he would continue to enjoy the company of his teammates.
“This is a good team,” Nagasaka said. “We have good pitchers, relievers, starters…especially the closers. We have good offense. I like the catcher, Marcus Jensen. Everybody is friendly. I love this team. Every day is a good memory.”