Friday, January 11, 2013

The Bigs

On this date a year ago, the Seattle Mariners inked a minor league contract with Munenori Kawasaki.  Coming off a glorious 2011 Japan Series championship with the SoftBank Hawks, there was every reason to believe that the magic could translate to the big leagues. He bid a fond farewell to the Fukuoka faithful who had supported him since he was a rookie, and followed his dream to the United States. At last, the moment had arrived, the papers were drawn up, and arguably the only person in MLB history to insist on playing for the M's, or not at all, was a member of the organization. Mune had earned a spring training invite and a chance to be Ichiro's teammate.

"Being able to add a player with the resume that Kawasaki possesses is very good news for the Mariners," said GM Jack Zduriencik in a press release. "We are looking forward to having him compete for a major-league position in spring training. He is a high-energy player with a record of success in Japan."

Fast forward to his first regular season game in a big league uniform. Kawasaki takes the field in Oakland against the A's. In his debut trip to the dish, Mune faces the soon to be 39-year-old Bartolo Colon.

Full stop.

For anyone who supported Kawasaki and played the "what if" game in their head since late October; for the faithful fans in Japan who cheered for Mune on television at odd hours; for all the folks who were really hoping to see him succeed with the club as a middle infield option backing up defensive wizard Brendan Ryan; for the M's crowds who simply found Mune endearing and enjoyed watching him at the ballpark; for the skeptics who might have been swayed toward recognizing his value if the production had been average; the story begins with those first at bats.

We will probably never know if Bartolo Colon started the monkey business to prepare for the trip to Japan. Or, to recover from the journey. Or, if he only took that stuff later in the season. There isn't a way to know, nor is there a way to quantify the advantage he may have had over opposing batters. Colon was knocked out of the ballgame after 4 1/3 innings, but maybe he only made it that far with a little help. Perhaps Mune would have had more than a groundout, a single, an RBI, and a run scored. It was respectable enough for the first two trips to the plate in a debut, but everyone on that field was still feeling the effects of travel. Except Colon. Maybe. Maybe not. We simply don't know. We never will.

Bartolo Colon vs. PA AB H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS
Dustin Ackley 13 13 4 0 0 0 1 0 2 .308 .308 .308 .615
Justin Smoak 13 12 3 1 0 1 2 1 3 .250 .308 .583 .891
Michael Saunders 12 11 1 0 0 0 1 1 5 .091 .167 .091 .258
Kyle Seager 12 12 2 0 0 0 0 0 1 .167 .167 .167 .333
Kendrys Morales 9 9 1 0 0 0 0 0 2 .111 .111 .111 .222
Raul Ibanez 6 6 1 0 0 0 0 0 2 .167 .167 .167 .333
John Jaso 4 4 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 .000 .000 .000 .000
Totals 69 67 12 1 0 1 4 2 16 .179 .203 .239 .442
Provided by View Play Index Tool Used Generated 1/11/2013.

This handy chart from Baseball-Reference tells us that most of the left handed bats on the current Mariners roster were bad against Bartolo Colon last year. It doesn't tell us why. Was it the shoes? Maybe Colon is really that good. Maybe the M's are really that bad. It's hard to look at anything Colon did in 2012 without being skeptical. After all, the best 37-year-old in baseball last season was a knuckleballer who rebuilt himself from scratch. The dominance of Dickey is believable. The resurrection of Colon? Well, not so much.

After beginning his career against Bartolo Colon, Munenori Kawasaki would have 102 more at bats in 2012. He would also appear in two games on the same diamond with Melky Cabrera. At that point of the season, there were excited rumblings that San Francisco might have the next NL batting champion. Weeks later, Cabrera was the MVP of the All-Star Game. Like Colon, Cabrera would bring disgrace to baseball. We have no way of knowing who else was using among the players Mune faced last year. We can't really speculate. A lot of little things added up to a season of disappointment. It would be a shame if any of those things involved cheating by opponents.

This is the infuriating part about abuse in the game. Not just the silly cartoon numbers put up by gifted guys who were breaking what should have been the rules over the last twenty something years, but the questions left lingering for fringe players and their fans. Ethical hard working men who played their hearts out, yet were doomed by poor numbers over small sample sizes. The marginal ones who might have had some or all of their only chances spoiled by a competitive imbalance. They are the real victims of performance enhancers. Not the cozy multimillionaires hiding behind weepy confessions and indignant humblebrag. Definitely not the ones caught red-handed who color their reaction with plaintive cliches about statistical advantages granted by a higher power rather than a syringe or cream. They've got their money already. The rest is just theater.

Soon to be forty-year-old Bartolo Colon still has five games left to serve on his suspension for synthetic testosterone, but was tendered a shiny new contract by the Oakland A's in early November. Melky Cabrera sat out 50 games for the same infraction, watched from his comfy chair as the Giants took the crown, and was rewarded for his mistakes with a two year deal from the Toronto Blue Jays. The career of Munenori Kawasaki is still in limbo.

Perhaps it isn't a big deal to people who live and breathe wins and losses. The ones who are only in it for the cold beer, vicarious trophy hoisting, and high fives. I get it. Adults invest time and money into the sport. It's gone beyond an emotional connection for the serious fan. A part-time light hitting shortstop with good defense doesn't spark their interest like another player might. That makes sense.

At the same time, the sport sustains itself by cultivating interest in new generations through personal interaction. The game needs genuine ambassadors to the kids along the fence. Youngsters of all shapes, sizes, colors and backgrounds should feel like there is a place for them in the big leagues. Perhaps a kid would rather emulate a high priced talent in his practice and playing style, but it's seldom the superstars in MLB who come over with a friendly smile to sign his or her baseball, or play catch for a little while, or give them a big hug for a picture. Given a chance to share the joy of the game, Munenori Kawasaki never hesitated.

Mune has been a member of eight NPB All-Star teams. He's been a part of Pacific League, Japan Series and WBC Championship runs. He's also been a bench player for a not so good MLB club. He is well acquainted with the cycles of pain and disappointment, of elation and triumph, and of waiting and wondering. No matter where you look on the arc of his years in professional baseball, you'll see an effervescent, yet humble man who takes his responsibility to young people very seriously. He also works extremely hard at his craft. Mune is a fellow grateful for the chance to play the game he loves. He embodies the positive spirit of baseball, and has touched the lives of youthful Hawks and Mariners fans alike.

Like Munenori Kawasaki, 2008 Hall of Fame inductee Rich Gossage connected with youngsters as a member of the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks and the Seattle Mariners. Reacting to the news of a shutout in Cooperstown, Goose told the Los Angeles Times, "I don’t know how we can reward these guys for cheating. What does that say to kids?”

Yesterday, in the wake of a thoroughly embarrassing and controversial Hall of Fame election that featured an incoming class of known and suspected PED users, Major League Baseball announced overdue additions to the drug testing program. Soon after the official announcement of stricter rules on drug use, Mark Teixeira of the New York Yankees sent out an enthusiastic tweet that said in part, "Lets make our game a great example for kids!"

While I applaud their sincere efforts at this late date, it seems like the real message to youngsters was sent over the course of a few weeks last fall. The days that saw Munenori Kawasaki released, Bartolo Colon given at least a seven figure raise, and Melky Cabrera working out a two year $18 million dollar contract. Whether or not Munenori Kawasaki ever earns the opportunity to wear a big league uniform again is an unanswered question, but we know without a doubt that Mune made our game a great example for kids.

At the risk of sounding cynical, it seems like the lesson for the moment is pretty clear: If you're thought of as a not so good ballplayer, but proven to be a decent human being, the chances for staying in the game are slim to none. If you're proven to be a not so good human being, but thought of as a decent ballplayer, the chances for staying in the game are still pretty good if your lack of scruples puts wins on the board. Welcome to the bigs, kids.

The Mariners spring training invitations came out this afternoon. Munenori Kawasaki is not among the eighteen non-roster invitees.

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