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Starweek Magazine

Home run away from home

Manny Galvez - The Philippine Star

MANILA, Philippines -

Alfredo Olivares Jr. of Barangay Malate is the first Filipino baseball player to be recruited to a farm team in Japan, where baseball is one of the most popular sports.

Japan is known as a baseball powerhouse, the breeding ground of such greats as former Dodgers pitcher Hideo Nomo, Kasuhiro Sasaki, Koji Akiyama and all-time home run leader Sadaharu Oh. Nomo was the first Japanese player in the US big leagues since Masanori Murakami in 1965, blazing a trail for other stars such as Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui.  

The 5 ft. 11 in. Olivares leaves on May 8 to suit up for the Shinano Grandserows Baseball Club (SGBC), founded in 2006 and based in Nagano Prefecture in the six-month, six-team Baseball Challenge League.

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

“Of course I’m proud and happy for him,” says 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, but it also brought pride and honor to Nueva Ecija and our country,” says Mayor Adrianne Mae Cuevas.

The youngest of five children of farmer Alfredo Sr., 62, and vendor Zenaida, 61, Fredo is a standout of the Philippine baseball team where he plays catcher.

The only Filipino in the SGBC line-up was introduced to the sport at the age of 11 by elder brother Arnel. Another brother, Armando, used to play the game but stopped after getting hit by a wayward baseball. Two other siblings, Arlene and Amelia, are active in softball. 

Fredo tried out for the Palayan City baseball team as a high school sophomore. In 2005, he trained for one year at the Palayan City High School under coach Francisco Bartolome, who once played on the Philippine Youth Team.

His star started to shine when the city’s team emerged twice as 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, Fredo migrated to Manila and took up business administration at National University, where he was recruited for the varsity squad by Joel Palanom and Isaac Bacarisas. The squad prominently figured in the UAAP (University Athletic Association of the Philippines) baseball wars.

It was there that Fredo caught the attention of coaches Wilfredo Hidalgo Jr., Roel Empacis and Edgardo delos Reyes.

In 2011, NU took the UAAP baseball championship. That year, Hidalgo and the other coaches held open try-outs for those who wanted to play in the national team.

Over 100 tried out and 20 made the cut, including Fredo, who landed in the second team. He was one of four invited to the Shinano try-out by Kunifuri Itakura. The others were Romeo Jazmin, a Nueva Ecijano like Olivares; Vladimir Equia of Bulacan and Lorenzo Ubungin, a Fil-Am from San Francisco, California.

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,” says Olivares.

The try-out, which ran from March 30 to April 13, was by no means easy. Olivares and his fellow aspirants would wake up at 6 a.m. in Itakura’s house and travel by train to Nagano along with members of the SGBC.

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

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

Olivares admits that at first, he was awe-struck by the Shinano players. “It was my first time to see players who were so skillful,” he said, adding he is excited at the prospect of playing with them in the league.

Fredo got the good news of his acceptance from Itakura himself. “We were 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 didn’t understand what he was telling me until one of my fellows told me: ‘You’re dumb. You passed the try-outs, that’s what he was telling you’,” he recalls.

He said Itakura then told him to sign the six-month contract to play for the team. “I just couldn’t believe it,” he says.

He immediately informed Mayor Cuevas and her husband Bong 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 says. 

To prepare for the coming tournament and to further hone his skills as a catcher, he watches 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 also admires Manuel Aristides 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.

Shinano is a young squad, with four less than sterling initial seasons. 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. This season, the team looks forward to some good games, and the man from Palayan City will be there to give it his all.

BASEBALL

FREDO

ITAKURA

NAGANO PREFECTURE

NUEVA ECIJA

OLIVARES

PALAYAN CITY

SHINANO

TEAM

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