Dustin Molleken couldn’t concentrate. Twice he had to step off the mound to keep from being overwhelmed by the moment.
Pitching for the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters in the Japanese Championship Series last season, the Regina native stood in the middle of a deafening Tokyo Dome and savoured where his career had taken him.
“The atmosphere in the stadium was so high and energy was going, the stadium was shaking. I had to step off and I was like, wow, this is unbelievable,” he said.
“It was an experience and it was the best feeling I’ve had.”
Molleken wasn’t alone. His friend Scott Mathieson was also there playing for Yomiuri Giants, making them the first Canadians to ever play in the championship.
“The fans are crazy. The atmosphere is crazy. It’s a great team and the baseball’s a lot better than I think a lot of people expect or would think of being over there,” said Mathieson.
The two right-handed relievers are temporarily back in North America to play for Canada at the World Baseball Classic. Mathieson, from Aldergrove, B.C., played for Canada at the 2006 WBC, while Molleken is making his debut. Their friendship goes back 10 years when they were 18 and playing for the junior national team.
Middling careers in the majors gave them both incentive to jump the Pacific.
Mathieson made his major-league debut with Philadelphia in 2006, but injuries cost him playing time. He spent his final two years pitching for triple-A Lehigh Valley and occasionally being called up to the Phillies.
After just four games in the majors in 2011, he was released by the Phillies and signed by the Giants. He figured he’d rather play with Yomiuri than barely at all in the majors.
“They’re a real comparison to the Yankees,” said Mathieson. “They spend a lot of money. They are always winning, a big history over there. I was pretty excited to be able to pitch on that scale.
“Every game is sold out. We get 50,000 fans ever game. And even when we’re playing on the road it’s probably more than 50 per cent Giants fans at the games.”
Mathieson had thought Japan would be a brief change before returning to the United States. Now, with the language a little easier to understand and a five-month-old son, he’s hoping to sign a multi-year deal with the Giants.
“My wife loves it,” he said. “Everyone’s so friendly, it’s very safe over there. It’s pretty easy life when we’re living over there, the team really takes care of us, and travel’s easy. I’m home a lot more than I was over there.”
Molleken meanwhile is hoping Japan, and the WBC, provide the attention of major-league teams he couldn’t otherwise get.
Unlike Mathieson, Molleken never pitched in the majors. In his last season he made 40 appearances for the Colorado Rockies’ triple-A team, then moved to Japan after the all-star break.
“The money’s great. It was just fun,” said Molleken, who is returning to the Ham Fighters after the WBC. “I had no big league time over here, so it was time for me to go over there.”
He didn’t know what to expect.
“My first outing out there, I went seventh inning, the stadium was happening, there was people in the stands with those sticks,” he said. “They were on their feet from the first inning to the ninth inning. It’s an experience. It’s awesome.”
He’s hoping to have the same opportunity that San Francisco Giants starter Ryan Vogelsong had. Vogelsong spent three seasons in Japan, and returned to a revived career in the majors.
Not that Molleken is expecting any job offers after the WBC. He was part of Canada’s gold-medal winning team at the Pan American Games in 2011 and wants to take another trophy back to Japan.
“I hope we take the whole thing,” he said.