SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. (AP) -Keiichi Yabu wasted no time approaching Willie Mays for an autograph when the Say Hey Kid showed up at Giants spring training.
A little while later, Yabu exited Scottsdale Stadium and headed to his car carefully holding the ball to protect the fresh signature. Nothing like meeting a Hall of Famer in the clubhouse to give your comeback bid a little jolt.
``Willie - ooooh,'' Yabu said with a grin Friday, sitting alone at his locker after a brief visit by one of many Japanese reporters who follow his progress. ``It's cool. Very cool.''
The 39-year-old right-hander is trying to return to the big leagues with the San Francisco Giants after not pitching professionally in 2007 and barely the previous year. He played for the Oakland Athletics in 2005 and made 40 appearances that season in his lone major league campaign. Then he pitched 11 times in Tijuana, Mexico, in 2006.
Yabu went to spring training with the Colorado Rockies that year but didn't make the team. He asked for and was granted his release. In fact, his last action was eight outings for Mexicali of the Mexican Pacific League in December 2006.
A non-roster invitee to spring training, Yabu is confident he can compete for a spot in San Francisco's deep, youthful bullpen.
``I feel very good. My arm's good,'' he said with much-improved English, taught to him by his 12-year-old son, Tomoki. ``I want to pitch. I like the Giants. Cool uniform. Cool color.''
On Friday, Yabu sat in the dugout spitting sunflower seeds when another former Giant star emerged: ex-San Francisco manager Felipe Alou, now working under general manager Brian Sabean.
Yabu hopped up, offered his hand for a shake and bowed several times.
``Mucho gusto,'' Alou said - nice to meet you in Spanish.
Yabu hopes to stick around baseball for several more seasons. Yabu has thrown twice so far in camp and goes again Sunday.
``If my body's good, I will continue to pitch,'' he said. ``A few years if I can.''
He also knows he has big bills to pay back home in Ashiya, Japan. Tomoki was just accepted to a private middle school, and he has two younger children: 9-year-old daughter, Kanako, and 5-year-old son, Masahiro.
Yabu pitched 11 seasons for the Hanshin Tigers in Japan before his season with Oakland. He was Hanshin's top draft pick in 1994.
One of Yabu's competitors to earn a roster spot is 32-year-old righty Scott Williamson, the 1999 NL Rookie of the Year and another non-roster invitee to spring training. He signed a minor league deal Feb. 10.
Williamson made 16 appearances for the Baltimore Orioles last season before being designated for assignment July 4. He later signed a minor league deal with the Yankees and had four outings for Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre before getting released again.
He spent his first four-plus seasons with the Cincinnati Reds and has also pitched for Boston, the Chicago Cubs, San Diego and then Baltimore last season.
He went 1-0 with a 4.40 ERA in 2007, missing time early in the season while on the disabled list with tightness in his throwing arm. He had Tommy John elbow reconstructive surgery in 2005 and was still limited in '06.
He feels healthy at the start of a season for the first time in years.
``It's a good opportunity to pitch 60-70 games and show I am healthy,'' Williamson said. ``I can't wait to get out there and not worry about injuries. It is a very young pitching staff and I feel like the old man, which is good. I'm trying to keep up with them.''
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