Novo Ecijano recruited by Japanese baseball team

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PALAYAN CITY: A 22-year-old local baseball star from this once obscure provincial capital is the new toast of Philippine baseball, making history by passing rigid try-outs to earn a slot in a semi-professional baseball league in the Land of the Rising Sun.

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Alfredo Olivares Jr. of Barangay Malate here stamped his class as the first-ever Filipino baseball player to be recruited in a farm team in Japan, a baseball powerhouse and breeding ground of such greats as former Dodgers pitcher Hideo Nomo, Kasuhiro Sasaki, Koji Akiyama and all-time home run leader Sadaharu Oh.

Nomo is known as the first Japanese player in the US big league since Masanori Murakami in 1965, blazing a trail for such other stars as Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui.

The 5’11 Olivares will leave on May 8 to suit up for the Shinano Grandserows Baseball Club (SGBC), a young squad founded in 2006 based in Nagano Prefecture in the six-month, six-team Baseball Challenge League (BCL).

“I never thought I would qualify and hurdle the try-outs even in my wildest dreams, said a visibly excited Olivares.

“Of course I’m proud and happy for him,” said Abby Torres, his girlfriend of three years.

“We are very happy for Fredo. We join him in his pursuit of the great Japanese dream. Surely, his having been selected to join the Shinano squad is something not only we in Palayan can be proud of as it also brought pride and honor to Nueva Ecija and our country as well,” echoed Mayor Adrianne Mae Cuevas and husband Bong, who are Olivares’ most avid fans and sports patrons.

The youngest child in a brood of five of farmer Alfredo Sr., 62, and vendor Zenaida, 61, Alfredo Jr. – more popularly known as Fredo – is considered the most vital cog of the Palayan City and Nueva Ecija baseball squads.

He is also a stand-out of the Philippine baseball team where he plays the post of catcher.

The only Filipino in the SGBC line-up was introduced to the sport at the age of 11 by elder brother Arnel who taught him the rudiments of baseball.

Another brother, Armando, 35, used to play the game but dropped the sport altogether after getting hit by a wayward baseball.

Olivares said he himself has been hit by a baseball no less than 100 times by his recollection.

His two other siblings, Arlene, 28, and Amelia, 26 are both actively playing softball.

Alfredo Jr.’s rendezvous with destiny started when he tried out for the Palayan City baseball team as a high school sophomore. He passed the test with flying colors.

In 2005, he trained for one year at the Palayan City High School (PCHS) under the tutelage of coach Francisco Bartolome who once played in the Philippine Youth Team.

This city has been known to excel in both baseball and softball.

But interest in the twin sports seemed to have died down following the demise of a local coach.

Olivares’ star started to shine when the city’s team emerged twice champion in the provincial meet.

In 2007, he played for Nueva Ecija in the Central Luzon Regional Athletic Association and steered it to the championship. Nueva Ecija repeated as CLRAA champion in 2008.

After graduating from high school, Olivares Jr. migrated to Manila and took up business administration at National University where he was recruited in the varsity squad by Joel Palanom and Isaac Bacarisas.

The squad prominently figured in the University Athletic Association of the Philippines (UAAP) baseball wars.

It was there when Olivares caught the discriminating eyes of coaches Wilfredo Hidalgo Jr., Roel Empacis and Edgardo delos Reyes.

In 2011, NU romped off with the championship in the UAAP baseball tourney.

That same year, Hidalgo and the other mentors conducted an open try-out for those who want to play in the national team.

Over 100 tried out and 20 made the cut, including Olivares who landed in the second team.

Olivares has been described by a teammate as the “strongest catcher” whose throw towards the second base was estimated at 2.15 seconds.

Olivares was invited to the Shinano try-out by Kunifuri Itakura. He was one of four prospects who tried out. The others were Romeo Jazmin, a Novo Ecijano like Olivares; Vladimir Equia of Bulacan and Lorenzo Ubungin, a Fil-Am from San Francisco, California, all 25 years old.

Shinano’s team manager is Akinori Otzuka, former pitcher of the Japanese national team who starred when Japan defeated Cuba in the 2006 World Baseball Classic.

Japan repeated as champion in 2009, defeating South Korea in 10 innings.

“Maybe I was selected because I was the youngest,” quipped Olivares.

The try-out, which ran from March 30 to April 13, was – by no means – a child’s play.

Olivares and his fellow aspirants would wake up at 6:00 a.m. in Itakura’s house and after taking breakfast, they would travel at 7:00 a.m. to train in Nagano along with members of the SGBC.

“Normally, we would train for up to eight hours. It’s really exhausting,” recalled Olivares, adding that prior to the actual intense training, they would also undergo calisthenics and other exercises.

Japanese players were generally known to undergo Spartan-like training for the improvement of their teams.

Shinano has 78 home games, 38 of which are held at 10 stadiums in nine cities of Nagano Prefecture.

Olivares admitted that at first, he was awe-struck by the presence of Shinano players.

“It was my first time to see players who were so skillful,” he said, adding he is excited at the prospects of playing with them in the minor league.

Olivares said the good news was broke to him by Itakura himself.

“We were then on our last day of training and we were watching the game of the Shinano when Mr. Itakura came to me and told me, ‘Okay.’ I never understood what he was telling me until one of my fellows told me: ‘You’re a dumb. You passed the try-outs, that’s what he was telling you,” he recalled.

He said Itakura then told him to sign the six-month contract to play for the team.

“I just couldn’t believe it,” he said, adding before he joined the try-out, he felt his chances of making it were 50-50.

He immediately informed the Cuevas couple of the good news and thanked them for their support.

“I would not make it if they did not support me all the way,” he said.

To prepare for the coming tourney and to further hone his skills as a catcher, he said he is now watching baseball games for drills and new techniques.

Olivares counts Yadier Molina, the Puerto Rican catcher of the St. Louis Cardinals and two-time World Series champion, as one of his idols.

He was also fond of watching Manuel Aristides “Manny” Ramirez Onelcida, the famed Dominican former outfielder and designated hitter.

He also watches games of the LA Dodgers, Boston Red Sox and Chicago White Sox.

As a young squad, Shinano has its ups and downs. Its first four seasons posted a losing record. In 2011, it registered its first winning season with 33 wins and 25 losses and 14 ties.

Last year, it drew 25,016 people to its home games.

He will leave for Japan on May 8.

“I just want to savor my moments here,” he said. PNA

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