THE ITALIAN STALLION TAKES JAPAN
Brisbane Bandits ace “italian stallion” Alex Maestri has headed overseas and taken over the closer role for the Kagawa Olive Guyners
Why not add Japanese to his repertoire?
Brisbane’s Italian ace right-hander Alex Maestri is making himself even more internationally known, spending his current baseball season with the Kagawa Olive Guyners of the Shikoku Island League of Japan.
Before Maestri could travel the more than 11,000 kilometres from his home in Cesena, Italy to Kagawa, he ran into some troubles obtaining the proper paperwork that he needed in order to play for the Japanese team. The postponement of his journey did allow him even more time in Italy than he originally thought he would have.
“I ended up spending a good month-and-a-half at home in Italy because I was waiting for a visa and it happened a lot later than I thought it would,” Maestri said over the phone from Japan. “It was good though, because I got to spend a lot of time with my friends and family and I was working out with a team that is close to my house.”
The 26-year-old righty also spent some time at the Italian Baseball Academy, visiting his old coach and getting some work in on the mound. Once his local team got on the diamond however, he joined them and even started the season on their roster.
“I only went to the academy for a few days,” he said. “I went to say hi to the coach who works there because he’s helped me out a lot. But I only went for a little less than a week and when the team close to my house started working out, I went there to train with them every day. I had a place to throw and to practice and it was only a few minutes away from my house.
“I actually played the first series of the season with them too. They started the week before I left to come to Japan and I threw a couple innings for them.”
Any team would be grateful to have the Italian Stallion throw even just a few pitches for them, as the Bandits were. Brisbane’s fan favourite started nine games, finishing the season with a 3.25 ERA, ranking among league leaders with 63 2/3 innings pitched and 53 strikeouts on the year. Maestri pitched the third complete game of the Australian Baseball League season, a two-hitter earning him Player of the Week honours for Round 8 of ABL action. He was runner-up for the award several times.
Despite his dominance as a starter down under, Maestri has taken on a new role with the Guyners.
“I’m closing here, not starting,” he said. “And it’s pretty crazy, because I don’t think they have the same concept of what the closer does as we do. I think for them the closer is just the guy for the ninth inning. It doesn’t even matter what the score is, but I will come out to finish up the game.”
Not only has the Italian import made his way into many more games than he’s used to, he is also trying to adapt to the rigorous schedule that the pitchers are on, throwing almost every single day of the season.
“They have the pitchers throw a lot here,” Maestri said of the routine. “They’re all used to it already and I just hope that I’m going to get used to it too.”
So far, so good for Kagawa’s closer, as his transition from training in Italy to getting game-ready for the Guyners has been mostly smooth sailing.
“It’s good,” he said. “I’ve only had one bad outing I guess. I gave up two runs one time in one inning. Other than that, it’s been pretty good. I’ve maybe got seven or eight innings racked up by now and the rest were good. So the team seems happy too.”
There are a couple of new experiences that have taken some adjusting from the right-hander. Pitching mounds are the same size in Japan as they are elsewhere, but they are made of softer, more powdery dirt. It allows hurlers to dig in more easily, the dirt providing less resistance for those who drag their back foot.
“The mounds are very soft,” Maestri said. “You just have to get used to it. It’s not that bad anymore, but the first few times it was kind of weird. [Saturday] we went to play in a different stadium and the bullpen was pretty bad. It was really soft. It was like pitching on Fraser Island.”
Another adjustment for the trilingual pitcher is to the fact that his fluency in those three languages is not enough. While he has befriended a Spanish-speaking teammate, they are limited with their interactions beyond one another.
“It’s just me and one guy from the Dominican Republic and nobody else here speaks any English,” he said. “It’s pretty funny. We have all these meetings with the whole team and the coach just speaks Japanese the whole time and we just sit there listening as if we understand, but we don’t.”
The language barrier extends beyond the field as well.
“There’s no kitchen so we always go out to eat,” Maestri said. “And we go to restaurants and the menus are in Japanese and we try to understand each other. We’re in the middle of a pretty small city where everyone speaks only Japanese.
“We went to one restaurant the other day and the menu was only in Japanese. Me and the Dominican guy sat down and looked at it and we didn’t know what to do. This woman came over to take our order and we were trying to ask for rice and chicken, but it took a while. The food was actually really good in the end, but there was zero English between us.”
With baseball as a universal language between Maestri and his Guyners teammates, there are some things not lost in translation. Though it takes a little longer to communicate with the others, Brisbane’s ace has learned the signals, and won’t be crossing up his catchers anytime soon. And despite not being able to read his monthly schedule because it is in Japanese, he knows when to leave for the park every morning.
Maestri also understands his pitching coach when he tells him to throw the ball as hard as he can, as is often the case.
“Most of the pitchers here don’t throw really hard and the hitters are not power hitters,” Maestri said of Japan. “So if a foreigner comes in and throws hard or hits home runs, that’s exactly what they want to see from us. I actually got here and I was throwing around 93 or 94 [mph] I think and they were like, ‘Oh wow.’ And the pitching coach always just tells me to throw, ‘Max speed, max speed.'”
When the Japanese season ends in September, the Brisbane Bandits might see their ace and fan favourite back on the mound at RNA Showgrounds.
“It would be nice to go back there,” Maestri said of Australia. “Next year I have the World Baseball Classic [with Team Italy in March] so it would be nice to keep pitching.”