Few players can appreciate the World Baseball Classic experience like Norichika Aoki. The outfielder is back for a third trip to the international tournament, but this time as a key veteran instead of a young prodigy, as he was more than a decade ago.
When Team Japan won the inaugural Classic in 2006, Aoki was a 24-year-old outfielder just starting a run of seven all-star seasons in his home country, and it would be several years before he'd begin a fruitful stint in the Major Leagues. When Aoki, now 35, steps on the field with the team known at home as "Samurai Japan" for the 2017 tournament, he'll do so with the honor of being the squad's lone Major Leaguer. He'll also have the distinction of becoming just the second player to participate in three World Baseball Classics for Japan -- the other being left-handed pitcher Toshiya Sugiuchi.
An All-WBC selection in 2009, Aoki brings with him two championships in this very tournament, plus a cache of Major League service time gleaned since his last trip to the Classic. That experience is something he looks forward to sharing with his Team Japan teammates.
"It's important to play with confidence," Aoki told The Japan Times after being named to the 2017 WBC roster. "Looking back [at past Classics], I was very aware of playing against the Major League players. Yet they are just human beings, too."
Aoki was part of the WBC-winning squads in 2006 and '09 while a member of the Yakult Swallows of the Japanese Central League, one of two divisions of Nippon Professional Baseball. After skipping the 2013 tournament, which the Dominican Republic won, he'll play for Team Japan once again before heading into the 2017 MLB campaign as a member of the Astros, his fifth Big League stop since his 2012 debut.
In his first five Major League seasons thus far, Aoki has brought a skilled left-handed bat and outfield expertise to four clubs, including the American League pennant-winning Royals in 2014. He owns a career .286 batting average and .353 OBP, and with Seattle last season, he ranked second among AL outfielders in fielding percentage. In 2017, he could see time at all three outfield positions and factor into Houston's leadoff plans. But first, he will be the veteran standard-bearer for Team Japan. In his last Classic appearance in 2009, Aoki matched icon Ichiro Suzuki with a team-high 12 hits.
Since his last Classic, Aoki has received a Major League education, which he is happy to impart to his Japanese teammates as they face rosters sprinkled with MLB talent.
"I know the players for sure, and I can give my teammates a little advice," Aoki said.
From 24-year-old novice to 35-year-old mentor, it's safe to say Aoki is making the most of his World Baseball Classic experience.
John Schlegel is a national reporter for MLB.com. You can follow him on Twitter @JohnSchlegelMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.