The ball player that inspired Haruki Murakami to write speaks with Tom Keiser about going first in the MLB Draft, playing internationally, and what keeps him involved today with the game he loves.
For Dave Hilton, baseball is truly an international game. Selected first overall in the 1971 MLB Draft by the San Diego Padres, Hilton went on to play all over the world, including Hawaii, the Caribbean, and Japan, where in 1978 he won the Japan Series with the Yakult Swallows. During his stay in Japan, Hilton was teammates with future Philadelphia Phillies manager Charlie Manuel, and in opening day of 1978 he hit a double that inspired author Haruki Murakami to write his first novel.
How did the pressure of being selected first overall in the 1971 MLB Draft affect you?
I wasn’t affected by that so much. The inner pressure that I put on myself normally was more of a factor in my career in the States. It was in Japan that I learned to have a Zen-like mind-set.
Two of your Topps baseball cards show you playing for teams you never suited up for, the 1977 Toronto Blue Jays and the Padres team that would’ve played in Washington starting in 1974. How close were you to playing in either city?
It was interesting about the Padre card. The team was to be moved to Washington, I think as late as December. Then Ray Kroc, the owner of McDonalds, saved the franchise for San Diego.
I guess the cards had been printed, though, and I think are a collector’s item. We didn’t go to Washington, but I was the Opening Day third baseman in S. D. That was when the incident occurred, when Mr. Kroc got on the PA (public address) system when we were behind in the fifth inning and berated the players for our play. His speech was a little slurred, I might add.
The Blue Jays situation was also interesting. I had made the team with a good spring training, and was to be the Opening Day third baseman in Toronto. But I hadn’t signed my contract and was still negotiating. My bags were on the van to Toronto on the last day of spring training, and they took them off the van and sent me to AAA. The cards, however, had been printed.
I sat out for a month and eventually reported to AAA in Toledo. I played the year without a contract, and was a free agent at the end of the year. I then had discussions with Texas, Oakland, Yakult, and Yokohama, eventually signing with the Swallows.
How did you end up playing in the Caribbean winter leagues and then Japan? Was there any culture shock, and how did you adapt to it? Have you returned to Japan and the Caribbean after your playing career ended? How did playing in these locations compare to playing AAA ball in Hawaii?
I had started playing in winter ball after my second year in pro ball. I had a good year, and the team went to the Caribbean Series. Thereafter, I could always go there, and I loved to play.
So I would take a week or two off after each season and then go down and keep playing. I did this after playing in Japan also. Out of my 12 pro years playing, for eight of them I played year round. Also, for one year I managed in winter ball.
The culture shock was pretty big. I ended up being in Bob Whiting’s second book (You Gotta Have Wa) about baseball and Japanese culture. Playing in Hawaii was also great, and completely different than the other places. It was a vacation spot, with palm trees and ocean breezes. My first child (son) was born in Honolulu, in the same hospital as President Obama.
I have been back to Japan for an Old Timers event, and to winter ball also for the same.
We (my wife Patty and I) have good memories of all the places we have been.
You were part of the first wave of American baseball players in Japan. How did the NPB (and Caribbean ball for that matter) stack up against playing in MLB and the minors? Were there any players in Japan that could’ve succeeded in MLB back then (besides possibly Sadaharu Oh) the way Daisuke Matsuzaka and Ichiro Suzuki have?
At that time, it seemed that people in the industry didn’t know as much about Japan. When you play there you know what the level of baseball is. I thought there were a number of players that could have played in the Major League. But I didn’t think they would like being by themselves outside of their culture, and they weren’t being scouted so much back then. Now it is different.
You have been credited by author Haruki Murakami for hitting a double in the 1978 Yakult Swallows season opener, which inspired him to become a writer. What are your memories of that day, and the championship season that followed? Have you ever read any of his books or stories, or contacted him? Also, how did you first hear of this story, and how did it make you feel?
I do remember that day. It was very exciting for me to be in Japan. I loved everything about Tokyo, the fans there, and playing baseball in Japan. I was playing shortstop and leading off.
I had a good year then, leading the league in hitting, I think, for most of the year and falling back some at the end, but finishing well. I loved the excitement of the play-offs and winning there.
After coming back to the States, I played a couple of more years and then began coaching and managing. I hadn’t heard the story initially about Mr. Murakami, and didn’t until the late ‘90’s. My cousin was flying over to the U.S. from England where she lived. She happened to read about Mr. Murakami (and the game) in a magazine on the plane. She is a literary person, and it came out of the blue, so she was very excited to learn of it and to tell me about it. I felt very surprised and honored to be a part of his life in that way.
I am familiar with his work and have read a couple of his books. We have never met or had contact with each other. I would like to do that though, if it could be arranged.
Your 1978 Swallows teammate Charlie Manuel is now best known for managing the Philadelphia Phillies but was a star player in Japan when you were playing. What was it like playing with him?
Charlie was great to me in Japan. He had already played there, and really helped me to feel at home. He was a talented player, and a very funny character as well. He is very likable.
He was a very good power hitter, and his defense was underrated. We have seen each other since while working in baseball, and remember our Japan days fondly. I am happy for his success.
You have been involved in baseball for your entire adult life. What keeps bringing you back to the game you love?
I love the game, and love to help players with their career. I feel like I know them, and know what will help them with their game. I will continue to work with both pro and amateur players.