And as I was thinking about who I should reach out to about baseball in Japan, a great Facebook post came across my timeline last week – a very simple "Man I sure do miss me some Korean BBQ." Talk about karma.
After I laughed, I instant messaged Micah Hoffpauir to let him know I would love to talk to him – something along the lines of “Hey Micah! I would love to talk to you!” Which was quickly followed by his response of “I would love for you to do a story!”
You have to love when no begging, groveling or arm-twisting is needed.
Hoffpauir spent the 2011-2013 seasons playing for the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters after spending eight pro seasons in the United States – including parts of three with the Cubs from 2008-2010.
When I caught up with him a few days ago, I immediately started with the Korean BBQ angle. I have to admit, Korean BBQ sounded good.
“Korean-style BBQ is a really neat environment,” Hoffpauir said. “You go to a restaurant, you sit at a table, and in the middle of the table is an open grill. You order pieces of meat and they're usually in bite-sized portions. They cook them at the table, and they have meat, vegetables, fish, shrimp – anything you can think of. And obviously, they have rice and noodles. Overall, a really neat experience – and very good food."
Hoffpauir, who now works in marketing for Grace Hospice in his native Texas (“It’s for terminally ill people who need end-of-life care … it’s an absolute blessing to see people being taken care of … it’s been a very humbling experience to see the way people are cared for), first reached the big leagues in 2008. He wasn’t exactly on the fast track, as he was in his seventh professional season – and his fourth as a Triple-A regular.
Near the end of the 2009 season, a scout approached him about playing in Japan – putting overseas thoughts in his head for the first time. During the 2010 campaign, the Cubs traded Derrek Lee to Atlanta in-season, and Hoffpauir platooned with Xavier Nady during the final six weeks of the season. It was during that time that he talked about his big league future with general manager Jim Hendry.
“Jim and I had a little conversation, kind of what his thoughts were,” Hoffpauir recalled. “We just felt I wasn’t going to get a shot to start in Chicago. At my age, I started thinking about doing the most to help my family’s future. My agent said there was probably interest in Japan, so we reached out to a couple teams. They decided they wanted to pursue me a little bit with the blessing of the Cubs – and Jim let me go there.”
“You've probably seen the movie Mr. Baseball, where Tom Selleck is sitting in the dugout – and everything is very serious,” Hoffpauir said. “It's business; it’s not a game. It's about winning games. If you are losing the game, nothing is funny.
“There was this one day in spring training when one of our young players, Sho Nakata, missed a bunt sign. In the States, if you miss a sign, they're going to fine you, or someone says ‘Hey dude, pay attention.’ Well, Sho missed a sign – and again, this is spring training – and we're all sitting in the dugout after the game – and they’re talking about it. First of all, I have no idea what they're saying. My interpreter is whispering things in my ear as I need to know them. All of a sudden, the coach calls Sho up in front of everyone. He's standing there, and the coach is there – and he completely changes his voice. I could tell there's anger there, that he's upset. He starts talking to Sho, then all of a sudden the guy just thumps him on the forehead hard. It made this loud ‘THUMP’ sound. It hurt. Of course, my reaction was ‘’WHOA.' It was crazy. I've never seen anything like that. I said to my interpreter, ‘What the heck is going on here?’ He said the guy missed a sign, and that was his punishment. I looked at him and said, ‘Listen, if I miss a sign and that happens to me, we’ll be rolling around in the dirt out there.’ He laughed. I said, ‘I'm serious. I can't do that.’ He said that would never happen to me, that things were different for me. I had to understand their culture was different. I said, ‘Perfect. As long as he knows he can't do that to me.’ “
Hoffpauir played with some big-name teammates during his three years with the Cubs, but none could have approached the level of Yu Darvish, who had reached “rock star” status in Japan by the time the two were teammates in 2011 (Darvish came to the States in 2012 to pitch for Texas). Hoffpauir talked about a poll he saw that year naming Darvish as the second most recognizable person in Japan – and that the pitcher couldn’t go anywhere without being swarmed.
“What an awesome guy to get to watch play, and to watch his off-the-field routine and the things he goes through,” he said. “I’ve played with guys who work hard, but I’ve never played with an individual who works as hard as that guy does. Very, very, very intense. Very impressive workouts. Very intent on being the best. He was dead set determined to be the best. I don’t see that changing. Very impressive human being.”
Hoffpauir was able to bring his young family with him overseas all three years, which certainly helped create a bonding experience for his family.
“In the States, after games, you sit down in the clubhouse and talk about the game and about frustrating things that are going on,” he said. “Over there, you don’t.
“You have one or two guys on the team who spoke English. For us, they were pitchers. In Japan, pitchers don’t have to stay for the whole game if they’re starting pitchers. So they got their workout in and stayed for a couple innings – like spring training – and then they went home. After the game, I didn’t have anybody to talk to. So I’d go home and sit with my wife. She heard a lot more about baseball in the three years over there than the eight when I was in the States. We really grew closer together. And our kids got to experience some things that most people don’t get to do. It was really an awesome experience.”
And, of course, with limited English spoken there, Hoffpauir said he had his share of “lost in translation” moments. He said those moments for him and the other U.S.-born players took place “every day. Every day for all of us from the States. If you ever get to talk to Matt Murton, ask him about ‘lost in translation.’
“You have to understand Japanese baseball. If you’re hitting well and doing well, you’re never questioned. But as soon as your average gets below where it’s supposed to be or you haven’t hit a home run in a while, then they start asking if other things are affecting you. Matt made an error in the outfield – he overthrew somebody. And the pitcher asked him, ‘Why did you do that?’ Like he chose to make this error. And Matt’s like, ‘What do you mean, why did I do that?’ When he questioned the pitcher, it was funny – because the press made it into a New York scandal.”
As much as he enjoyed his time in Japan, nothing quite compares to getting told you’re going to the big leagues. For Hoffpauir, that came in the form of a phone call – in familiar surroundings.
“We were in Round Rock, Texas, which made it even cooler since my family was there,” Hoffpauir said. “(Manager) Pat Listach called me one morning and asked if I was in my hotel room. I’m like, ‘Yeah man, what’s up?’ He said he had to talk to me.
“My wife is in the room with me. I got off the phone, and she asked, ‘What’s wrong?’ I said I didn’t really know. She asked who it was on the phone … and I told her … and I said he wants to come to our room – and it was just weird. There were only a couple things that could be. We thought the worst. We were concerned. I had just come back from an injury. “He ended up calling me back and said, ‘Hey, I’ve got to get to the field. You’re going to the big leagues.’ I was like, what? ‘You’re going to the big leagues. Get yourself to the field and get your stuff together. You’re going to Chicago.’ I’m like … OK.
“I get off the phone and my wife says, ‘What is it?’ And I said, ‘He just told me I’m going to the big leagues.’ First thing you know, she starts boo-hooing. Then we start calling our family. And I’m sure people in the hotel could hear my family up and down those halls screaming ‘Yeah! Yeah!’ I flew into Chicago that afternoon and went to Mike Fontenot’s house and slept on the couch. I got up the next morning and went to the field. We were playing the Pirates. I got a pinch hit at-bat in the 7th inning, and they changed pitchers. They brought in John Grabow, and he could have thrown beach balls up there and I would have swung and missed them. I couldn’t do anything … I was as nervous as I’ve ever been in my life.
“After that game, we flew back to Houston to play the Astros. The second day in I got to start against Shawn Chacon and got my first big league hit in front of my family and tons of friends. I could not have written a better story.”