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Home Is Where the Plate Is: Joichiro Oyama

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Three years ago, UCI junior third baseman Joichiro Oyama first came to the United States to pursue his love of America’s favorite pastime: baseball. All he understood was the fundamentals: nine innings, three outs per inning and four bases. Oyama didn’t know any English, so everything else felt foreign. 

The path for Japanese baseball players to Major League Baseball is usually followed after numerous years of professional play in Japan. The current Angels pitcher/batter Shohei Ohtani, the former Yankees outfielder Hideki Matsui and the former Mariners and Yankees outfielder Ichiro Suzuki are some of the biggest names to grace the MLB outside of Japan, and they all share a similar story. All three started as high school phenoms that were labeled as the future of baseball for Japan. Eventually they all became Big League stars. Despite such tried and true roadmap, Oyama chose a different route, one that he hasn’t once regretted.

“I just wanted to be in America as soon as possible,” Oyama said in an interview with the New University, when asked why he came to America at the age of 18. He felt it was the best path for him to make it to the Major Leagues, which has been his ultimate goal since childhood.

After playing for years, Oyama won the Okinawa Invitational with his team at Kōnan High School in Japan.

“[That was] my favorite memory, the highlight of my life so far, it was amazing,” Oyama said fondly. Yet, he’s glad that was in the past. 

High school baseball in Japan wasn’t just a game or hobby. It consumed his life. Neither the atmosphere of the crowd, the toughness of the coaches, the competitiveness of the players nor the pressure were comparable to the U.S. Constant chanting and drumming echoed throughout the Japanese ballparks throughout the whole game. But, in America, the crowd is more mellow, with the occasional heckler. It’s much more of a spectator sport here, while in Japan, the crowd is much more involved.

“The atmosphere is electric, and we would practice sometimes for 12 hours, six days a week,” Oyama said.

Oyama emphasized that the culture of the sport was as different as any other aspect coming from Japan to America. He relishes in what he calls “the freedom of baseball” that the American coaches give him compared to Japanese coaches. 

“Back home, the only thing that mattered was the result, but here the coaches want you to improve as a player. And I really like that, less pressure,” Oyama said.

He recalled great times with his coaches from the West Coast Summer League team at Merced College with the Wenatchee AppleSox and from his current team at UCI. With the AppleSox, Oyama could steal as many bases as he wanted. This was limited to him back while playing in Japan. This enabled Oyama to break the single-season record of the league for both runs and stolen bases. For his outstanding performance, he was named co-MVP of the league for 2022. 

He is a player with multiple tools for his game, which UCI head coach Ben Orloff loves.

“He’s a special player, he can really run, he’s got power, he plays good defense [and] is a lot stronger than he looks with his physical stature,” Orloff said in an interview with the New University.

He makes life better for teammates, on and off the field. His happy disposition spreads across the ballclub and is almost never seen in a bad mood.

“He’s a special kid, the courage that I think it takes for somebody [who is] 18 years old to leave his country is something,” Orloff added. “And he’s an inspiring kid, he’s a joy to be around. He loves baseball. He’s happy every day, he’s just fun to be around.”

UCI sophomore shortstop Dub Gleed shared this sentiment of Oyama’s sunny nature in an interview with the New University.

“Jo is one of the funniest human beings you will ever meet. He brings great energy to the team and everyone kind of rallies around him because we all love him,” Gleed said.

Gleed plays shortstop, right next to Oyama at third base. He said it’s a gift to play right next to him on the diamond.

“It’s just so much fun, the communication we have together, just talking throughout the game. He is such a great guy to play next to,” Gleed added.

UCI junior outfielder Jacob Stinson has grown very close to Oyama over this year and has lots of admiration for him.

“He’s the greatest kid you’ll meet,” Stinson said in an interview with the New University. “He’s so kind-hearted and is more happy with his teammates’ success than he is about his own, and that says a lot about a person. He’s always smiling, always. He’s one of the best teammates I’ve ever had. He always finds a way to put a smile on your face.”

The reason why Oyama is so happy is because he’s living his dream. Oyama grew up in Okinawa, Japan, an island south of the mainland of Japan. He lived in a more rural part of the island, yet there were still plenty of opportunities to practice baseball. He was always sure of his future career from day one.

“Baseball is always my dream job, and where I grew up there was lots of people playing baseball too,” Oyama said.“The people here are so nice, so eager to help with any problem or confusion I may have.” 

Oyama said he never feels homesick, because of how much more he enjoys it here in almost every aspect: the bustle of the city, the fun teammates and the delicious food. He now goes by Jo instead of Joichiro, a nickname given to him by his teammates. He is now an avid country music listener due to the influence of his teammates. His walk-up song is “Sweet Home Alabama,” by Lynyrd Skynyrd, chosen after a recommendation from Stinson. Oyama has been rocking with this song since the first time he heard it. 

Oyama had to adjust yet again after moving from Merced College, but had zero doubts about choosing UC Irvine over other offers from colleges, such as Saint Mary’s. The combination of fantastic baseball weather, location and a great baseball program made the decision easy for him.

However, Oyama realized there are two things that will never change: baseball and the people.

“People are the same, it’s just the language that is different,” Oyama said. 

Oyama said that everybody has been eager to help in every aspect of his life, from becoming a huge fan of Morgan Wallen to getting an insatiable taste for Chipotle burritos after going there with teammates before and after games. 

For Oyama, this lifestyle was spurred on by watching Suzuki as a child. Since then, he knew he always wanted to play in the MLB, yet he chose not to follow the traditional path. From practicing 12 hours a day to two, from playing robotic and rigid to now playing as he pleases, the jump only made him a greater player and person. 

“I don’t want to say they are behind in baseball back in Japan, but it’s a lot different,” Oyama said.

Oyama knows that the playstyle in Japan works, especially given their win in the World Baseball Classic. However, he also knows the style in America suits him better. 

In his eyes, this style is the best way to reach his dreams, to make it to Major League Baseball. Oyama hasn’t returned home in three years. But if he does — whether to visit or to play in the Japanese leagues — it will be a success. Because in the end, Oyama is playing baseball, his one and only true passion.

Miguel Rodriguez is a Sports Staff Writer. He can be reached at