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Hoping to Be Big In Japan: Cody Thomas and Alex Dickerson Prepare For a New Experience

 Leif Skodnick  |    Mar 19th, 2024 6:30am EDT

Former MLB outfielders Alex Dickerson, left, and Cody Thomas, right, are about to begin their debut seasons in Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball. (Photo Illustration by Leif Skodnick/Photos By Getty Images)

OSAKA, Japan – It’s a long way from Edmond, Okla., to Osaka, Japan.

If there were a direct flight, it would take about 13 ½ hours, but another way to get there is with a bat and a glove, the way Cody Thomas did.

Thomas, a former Oklahoma quarterback who once beat Patrick Mahomes and Texas Tech on the gridiron before focusing on baseball, found his way to Osaka this offseason to play for the Orix Buffaloes in Japan’s top professional league, Nippon Professional Baseball, though he’d been thinking about it long before.

“This really goes back to before last season,”  Thomas told World Baseball Network at the Kyocera Dome before game two of the 2024 CARNEXT Samurai Japan Series. “My agent, he works with an agent over here named Yoshi, and I met him during spring training last year and I told him, ‘Hey look, obviously, I have to go through the season and see how things go during the season, but if there’s a chance to go overseas in Japan, like I think it’s something I’d like to pursue.”

Thomas grew up in the Dallas area and settled with his wife in Edmond, near Oklahoma City. He’s appeared in 29 games in the Majors over the last two seasons, all with Oakland. 

“I just threw that idea out there to them and didn’t know what was gonna come of it,” Thomas said. “They started kind of talking with other teams, seeing what the interest level was. It ended up that this team was a little interested. They were interested in me and another guy. The deal fell through with the other guy and that’s the only reason why I got signed here.”

Here, of course, is Osaka, Japan’s second-largest city, where cars drive on the left, culinary choices are often interesting, and  where Thomas doesn’t speak the language and can’t read it either.

“They drive on the other side of the road and the steering wheel’s on the other side,” Thomas said of his limited experience driving in Japan. “It felt like – it’s like if someone gave me a bat and told me to go hit right-handed. You know what I mean?”

But talk to a professional baseball player, and they’ll tell you that the game is the same, even in Japan, where the game ball is different (it’s about 7mm smaller than a Major League Baseball game ball and comes from the factory with a tacky surface), and the emphasis is on teamwork, defense, small ball, and contact. 

“The practices are much more intense and very long,” Chunichi Dragons left fielder Alex Dickerson told World Baseball Network before a March 5 exhibition game against the Orix Buffaloes. “They prioritize a lot of reps, which over the years in the United States has kind of gone the other direction, if anything. A lot of times, you don’t even take batting practice.” 

Dickerson, a native of Poway, Calif., spent the 2023 season with the Acereros de Monclova in the Liga Mexicana de Beisbol. Three years ago, he spent most of the season in the Major Leagues, playing in 111 games with the San Francisco Giants, a career-high, only to be released in November.

The next year with Atlanta, he appeared in just 13 games in the big leagues, spending the bulk of the season with Triple-A Gwinnett.

After a year in Mexico, it was an easy call for Dickerson to sign with Chunichi.

“A lot of the veterans are having a tough time. They don’t stock Triple-A like they used to,” he said. “So, in my case, Japan started calling, and I was going to jump on that immediately because I didn’t want to wait for the free agency to trickle down, which it’s still trickling down. It’s been later and later, year to year, so you don’t want to wait for that opportunity that might not be there. I always wanted to come out here and I just made the jump as soon as I could.”

American players have been playing professionally in Japan since the late 1930s, when Fumito “Jimmy” Horio, a native of Hawaii, joined the team that would become the modern-day Yomiuri Giants of Nippon Professional Baseball in 1934. Thomas and Dickerson, who stopped to talk to a WBN reporter about an hour before game time, are two of the most recent Gaijin to come play in NPB.

Now, with MLB clubs signing fewer and fewer free agents to fill out Major League and Triple-A rosters, NPB is a league where players who can’t find interest from an MLB organization can find a place to play with a good salary in a completely different environment.

And though he only came over to Japan just over a month ago, Dickerson already knows a little about what the environment would be like.

“It’s wild,” he said. “They pay attention to every single pitch. They react to every single pitch… calmly. But yeah, it’s different. It’s very different. I came in college with Team USA back in the day, and it was just a cool experience. The love for baseball here is probably the best in the world as far as the entire country just lives and breathes it. You’ll see it at the game today. It’s kind of a different experience.”

He was right. With about 15 minutes to go until the first pitch, the Dragons fans had filled in the sections on the left field, and their counterparts who cheered for the Buffaloes had filled in the sections on the right. And even though the game hadn’t started, they were already performing their well-organized cheers, which include rhythmic drumming, clapping, hand motions, and, oh yeah – they bring a horn section, too.

And by “well organized,” there are several hundred fans in each team’s outfield cheering section, and they all know the cheers and the timing.

When Dickerson made his first plate appearance in the second inning, a guy wearing a Chunichi Dragons cape in the left field stands blew a whistle, and the throng erupted in a chant of “LET’S GO! LET’S GO! DICK-ER-SON! LET’S GO! LET’S GO! DICK-ER-SON! LET’S GO! LET’S GO! DICK-ER-SON!”

He’ll hear it a lot, especially once the NPB season starts on March 29. It’s a long flight back to California from Japan, but Dickerson says there isn’t much he misses.

“As a baseball player, you’re used to just packing your bags and going to play somewhere, so it’s always different,” Dickerson said. “There’s nothing that really pops out, to be honest. You just kind of learn to adjust to whatever team you’re on and go out and play.”