Saturday, November 9, 2013

Ma-kun & the Numbers

Across the Pacific, a phenomenal pitching talent put together a jaw dropping historic run. For thirty consecutive decisions, it was automatic. Masahiro Tanaka was inked on the lineup card, took the hill, and delivered a win.

Around Nippon Professional Baseball, fans of opposing clubs both dreaded and looked forward to his starts. Although it meant a likely loss, as the game unfolded, it became easier and easier to root for Ma-kun. A natural reaction to baseball excellence seemed like betrayal in the moment, but it could not be helped.

When the last out of the 2013 regular season was recorded, the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles were atop the Pacific League. Masahiro Tanaka had a 24-0 record with 8 complete games and a save tossed in at the end for good measure.

Major League scouts saw a lot to like during the campaign. What began as idle speculation in 2012 had developed into a story during the World Baseball Classic. As the calendar flew through summer, there was solid interest from teams in the United States. By the end, speculation about the eventual stateside destination of Tanaka had reached a rolling boil.

Even though a new posting agreement between NPB and MLB had not been finalized, nor had the Rakuten Eagles made a definite statement that Tanaka would be posted, it quickly became a foregone conclusion that he would play in North America. Lists of free agents were assembled and Tanaka was discussed without many caveats.

While the Climax Series unfolded, the tangled complications that have held up negotiations between leagues were all but forgotten. The current contract Tanaka has with the Eagles wasn't even a footnote for a lot of fans in their haste to imagine him delivering baseballs for their hometown nine. 

By the time a Japan Series crown was won in Miyagi Stadium, followers of clubs mentioned in rumors were largely convinced he was already on his way. Even MLB treated his posting and availability like a done deal. It may be why you are reading this very moment.

Full stop.

There are some things Major League Baseball fans ought to know.

All over Japan, and especially in the Tohoku region, the amazing run of Tanaka and the Eagles has meant a whole lot more than just the satisfaction of a first Pacific League crown and Nippon Series championship. It still does.

Skipper Senichi Hoshino knew how important the team was to millions of people at such a difficult time in history. He expressed those thoughts after the Rakuten Eagles triumphed with an exciting game seven shutout of the defending champion Yomiuri Giants:
"When I became manager there was the Tohoku Earthquake and when I saw all the survivors and hardships they were experiencing, I wanted to provide some comfort by winning a Nippon Series.  I felt that was the only thing I could do, and for three years I fought with that in my mind.  There are still many people still struggling.  I hope this can provide some of those people with comfort, if even to the smallest degree."
On October 10, 2013 new figures from Tasukeai Japan showed the current number of displaced people standing at 282,111. In American terms, that means roughly the population of Toledo, Ohio are still living in temporary accommodations. Toledo has a baseball team.

On that same day last month, the National Police Agency of Japan released an updated list of victims. If those who perished, are still missing, were injured, and children who lost one or both parents in the disaster are included, the sad total climbs to 308,375. That is a few thousand more than the number of people who live in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Pittsburgh has a baseball team.

At the peak of evacuations, an estimated 475,000 people were without homes in the wake of the earthquake, tsunami and radiation. Or, approximately the same number of folks with a place to call their own in Sacramento, California. Sacramento has a baseball team.

Take a quick glance at this list of a dozen cities that hosted a Major League Baseball team in 2013. 8 of these clubs had a playoff chance with a 162 game schedule in the books. A pair met in game number 163. The remaining 7 teams were part of an exciting postseason.

  • Kansas City, Missouri
  • Atlanta, Georgia
  • Miami, Florida
  • Oakland, California
  • Minneapolis, Minnesota
  • Cleveland, Ohio
  • Arlington, Texas
  • Anaheim, California
  • St. Louis, Missouri
  • Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
  • Cincinnati, Ohio
  • St. Petersburg, Florida

Now, read it again with the knowledge that the list is made up of cities with populations that are progressively smaller than the reported number of people whose lives were directly impacted in almost incomprehensible ways on March 11, 2011.

Beyond the documented suffering, there are untold thousands more who lost loved ones, friends, neighbors, classmates, colleagues, home towns, earthly possessions and their livelihoods. For those who survived that fateful day, and those who continue to live in fear of what is happening down the coast in Fukushima, the Rakuten Eagles have been a steady source of both pride and comfort.

Jim Allen covered the Eagles return to Miyagi Stadium on April 29, 2011. Masahiro Tanaka threw a complete game and won an emotional homecoming. On Japan Baseball Weekly, Jim spoke with colleague John E. Gibson about a baseball game being anti-climactic after spending time with local survivors. He distilled the moments into The Hot Corner column published on May 5, 2011. After sharing the thoughts and stories of strong willed people who were carrying on in spite of it all, he wrote:
"Baseball people are fond of saying their season is not a sprint but a marathon. Yet, when the Eagles' marathon ends, so many of those struggling to rebuild lives will still be closer to the start than the finish. A ball club can only help so much, provide a rallying point, a beacon in dark times. But there are times when people need all the help they can get."
When it comes to Masahiro Tanaka, one should not consider the individual numbers without taking the numbers of individuals into account. Along with Hisashi Iwakuma and other Eagles teammates over the last three seasons, his performance on the field had an impact that can't be measured in baseball terms, but can be seen on the faces of thousands of children at the ballpark.

Marty Kuehnert is Senior Advisor to the Eagles and has been involved with the team since their inception. A few days ago, Marty was interviewed by John E. Gibson for the latest Japan Baseball Weekly. They discussed the bonds that developed between the ballclub and the people of the Tohoku region in the wake of catastrophe. The entire podcast is essential listening. Here are a few things he shared:
"Our players spent a lot of time visiting evacuation centers and giving out food and needed supplies.... We've continued to do things with people from the most affected areas... We're the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, not the Miyagi or Sendai... the adjoining prefectures have pretty much adopted the ballclub and we've adopted them."
This past week, the Japan Times ran a piece by Kaz Nagatsuka (with an assist from Jason Coskrey) that gives great insight into the relationship between the Eagles and their fans. Go read it if you haven't yet. The following quote from a former MLB arm was included in the article.

When Sendai native Takashi Saito started his NPB career in 1992, there was no team in the area. He played down in Yokohama and stayed with the BayStars through 2005. He spent seven campaigns stateside with the Dodgers, Red Sox, Braves, Brewers and Diamondbacks, before coming home this year to pitch for the Eagles. After the final victory for Tohoku, Saito spoke to NHK:
"Those people suffering have been praised for their persistence from all over the world, not just from inside Japan, even before we became the Japan Series champions. Maybe we could say this is their second championship. Without them, we couldn’t have become the champions."
Without comparing the relative impacts of intensely tragic events, fans in North America should be able to understand the range of powerful emotions that still linger in the raw fall wind that blows through Miyagi Baseball Stadium in Sendai.

After a horrific attack on marathon competitors and fans in the streets not far from Fenway Park, "Boston Strong" became a rallying cry the Red Sox carried through a World Series championship.

Trophies were held high when saves from Koji Uehara and Masahiro Tanaka ended the final games. Smiles spread across millions of faces. Baseball had bound communities together. It left a trace of magic in the air where there once was choking dread and sorrow.

In November, the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles will be competing in the Asia Series from the 15th to 20th. Fan Appreciation Day is scheduled for the 23rd. A victory parade will be held on the 24th. It would be nice for millions of fans all over Japan to be able to savor those days before MLB teams swooped in on their ace.

If circumstances dictate that Ma-kun stays on the Eagles roster and defends the NPB championship in 2014, folks on this side of the pond will just have to hold their horses. After all, if he were one of your hometown heroes, that is exactly the outcome you would fervently wish for, right?

Perhaps the breathless faithful in the United States will channel some of that eagerness into a list of nice things to do for the many people still suffering in Japan who found beauty and a bit of solace watching Masahiro Tanaka win ballgames.

For now at least, everyone in baseball should let the Eagles and their fans enjoy this moment at the top. It was earned in ways that can't be fully explained with numbers, or words for that matter.

[Updated 11/11 to include thoughts of Marty Kuehnert in JBW interview. Gratitude to Gen Sueyoshi, Jim Allen, John E. Gibson, Kaz Nagatsuka and Jason Coskrey.]

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Japan Baseball Weekly

Baseball reporter John E. Gibson is celebrating his third season of putting together this excellent podcast from Japan. He is regularly joined by author and veteran sportswriter Jim Allen, and on occasion, Michael Westbay, founder of, the site that features Japan Baseball Weekly.

If you haven't dived into the richly informative JBW archives, here is a selection of shows with featured interviews. These guests have backgrounds in all aspects of the game and the conversations can often be quite candid. Topics run the gamut from the front office to the playing field and from scouting to writing about baseball in Japan.

Japan Baseball Weekly is on Facebook and the podcasts are available from iTunes. It is an interactive show and listeners are invited to send questions either in an email or an MP3 under 60 seconds. Immense gratitude to John, Jim and all the guests over the years. The information and insights have been invaluable. Thanks also to Shooters in Nagoya and ONE World Sports for sponsoring the show.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

A Mistress Speaks

Dear Marlins Fans,

It brings no pleasure to correspond under these circumstances, but in light of what the owner of your franchise wrote to you this weekend, it seems like there is little choice. Our hearts go out to all of you and your families. Best wishes to all the players and coaching staff in the coming season as well. We hope that by sharing some of our side of the story, perhaps the healing process can begin.

It is not a secret that your owner and the powers that be in MLB have had an inappropriate relationship with our fair city for a long time. Baseball fans in this area have been treated like a cheap booty call and an easy mark. The suits have engaged in an unsavory habit of making empty statements about our chances to land a ballclub with a total disregard for our feelings. It has gone on for decades. 

Whenever there was difficulty in a marriage with another metropolis, the usual suspects would show up at all hours with a bouquet of gas station roses and cheap red wine. In the past, we've let Jeffrey Loria and others play us like a fiddle and prey on the insecurities of our politicians. The insincere compliments and half-hearted flirting made this bedrock Pacific Coast League town with a rich baseball history feel something akin to attractive and important. We were taken for fools.

Well, that is simply not acceptable anymore. Now that things are going poorly in Miami, we would like your owner to rethink any future overtures to our town. In fact, we would very much like it if everyone involved with the Marlins franchise simply stayed away. It will be awkward if we have to get a restraining order.

It is true that Jeffrey Loria could not possibly be the most despicable person ever involved with baseball in Portland. We are pretty sure that title will always belong to the man who once said that "women are a lot like dogs" and did unspeakable things to young ladies on videotape while ranting on and on about Adolf Hitler. 

It would also be hard to accuse Jeffrey Loria of being the most underhanded person involved in athletics in our state. Some might argue that one of our universities is essentially run by a shoe mogul. Recently, lawmakers in Salem used the fog surrounding a horrific shooting at a local mall to ramrod a "sweetheart deal" for the shoe mogul that shifted a growing portion of his future tax burden to the citizens of Oregon for the next 30 years.

While schools closed, park programs were cut and a growing number of kids faced poverty, this community paid over $70 million to rebuild the same sports facility twice in a decade. In the not so distant past, we supported and helped launch the careers of an ice skating thug and a race baiting sportscaster. No, Loria wouldn't be the worst excuse for a human being in sports around this neck of the woods. The all-time rosters have set unbreakable marks. The competition is far too fierce.

With all that said, we think Mr. Loria and Mr. Samson should explain a few things to you wonderful fans in Miami. Before you put them on the hot seat, maybe we ought to refresh their memories with a handful of highlights from the past few years of our lengthy affair:

February 24, 2006: The Florida Marlins announced new contracts for ten players including Ricky Nolasco, Josh Johnson, Hanley Ramirez and Dan Uggla. All were signed for the major league minimum of $327,000. Maria Cantwell received $1,000 from Marlins President David Samson for her reelection campaign. A lifelong baseball fan, Senator Cantwell of Washington has a very good relationship with the Seattle Mariners. With Safeco Field less than 175 miles from downtown Portland, territorial issues would have been an important part of any potential deal. Senator Cantwell could have been a valuable teammate in negotiating a move of the Marlins to Portland.

August 7, 2007: Mauro Zárate made his major league debut and became the fourth player in Florida Marlins history with a "Z" last name. Marlins President David Samson sent $2,000 to Oregon's former junior senator, Gordon Smith for his reelection campaign. The frozen food magnate is a professed baseball fan who advocated publicly for moving a franchise to the area. He could have teamed up with his colleague from Washington to help bring the Marlins to Portland during his time in Congress. It never came to fruition.

July 18, 2009: The Philadelphia Phillies led the Florida Marlins 2-0, but the game was rained out in the second inning. Ground was broken on a brand new $515 million stadium for the Miami Marlins. "Thousands of fans were booing" during the ceremony. Some of the funding for the facility was secured when 1,700 county employees were laid-off in the week prior to the groundbreaking.

February 13, 2010: The Florida Marlins hosted the 15th Annual Fan Fest. It looks like Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria celebrated his big day with the Miami faithful by filing a $50,000 campaign contribution in Salem, Oregon. Loria soon doubled down this bet on former NBA backup and then candidate for Oregon governor, Chris Dudley.

August 23, 2010: Popular Florida outfielder Cody Ross was claimed off waivers by the San Francisco Giants. Documents showing that the Florida Marlins lied about their financial status surfaced on Deadspin. By not seeing these figures before approving a stadium, Miami-Dade County was apparently swindled out of over a billion dollars.

October 4, 2010: It was one day after the Florida Marlins schedule closed on a win. Dan Uggla had finished 3 for 3 with a home run. With the past season of baseball fresh in his mind, it seems a cruel coincidence that the last half of Jeffrey Loria's $100,000 contribution to the Chris Dudley campaign was filed with the Secretary of State's office in Salem. Even though it had been over a year since the ground was broken on a new facility, it seemed like the Marlins were still trying to buy their way into Oregon politics.

October 15, 2010: Lines formed as Miami residents signed a petition to recall Mayor Carlos Alvarez for raising taxes largely to pay for a stadium the region could not afford. Ballots were mailed out to Oregon residents for the upcoming election. As the race for governor entered the home stretch, backup center Chris Dudley was in a hotly contested battle with Dr. John Kitzhaber. Contributions to the Dudley campaign cost double what the Florida Marlins saved by dismissing John Routh, the original Billy the Marlin.

Why does your unfaithful owner and his sidekick keep texting us lurid things after you fall asleep? Well, the answer dates back to the days when Jeffrey Loria left the Montreal Expos in ruin. In 2003, the year your hometown ballclub won the World Series, our gullible legislature decided that a pig in a poke was better than no pig at all. So, they voted to start a contest for relocating MLB teams with a whopping $150,000,000 grand prize to give away. Neither MLB nor the Expos ever seriously considered Portland as a viable option, but knowing the ORS 184.400 to 184.408 money is still on the table keeps the men who run your baseball team interested in our town. 

Moving the Marlins to Portland would drain our state of scant financial resources in much the same way it has devastated your communities. We know how hard it is for you to keep supporting a team with so little to lose and everything to gain. All we ask is that you keep these men away from us. While there are a few stubborn magical thinkers among the ranks, realistic fans have moved on from believing there is any future with MLB, and specifically, the Marlins. We are dedicated to other big league teams and we are happy. Minor league ball is returning to the area too. The game feels beautiful to us once more. We sincerely hope that baseball brings you joy again someday soon. It hurts us to see them treat you with such disdain and cruelty.

In Sympathy,

Friday, February 15, 2013

Flying Past Fenway

Freeways in Boston could be beautiful at night. My brother and I discovered the lights of Fenway from the friendly confines of our car seats. The world outside the Volkswagen wasn't always easy to understand, but it was well worth the effort. Dad being Dad, we drove past the park pretty often during ballgames. I remember the surreal way that the Citgo sign raced toward us like an eager young lighthouse keeper with a lantern running out to meet a vessel. It stood perfectly still as we sped past, then became smaller and smaller in the back window until it was lost. The aura of the stadium lights lasted a few seconds longer before being swallowed up in the sea of headlights behind us.

Early memories of Fenway include another landmark too. It's still difficult to describe the catharsis that came with deciphering the fourteen letters that stood proud and tall on a nearby rooftop. In the realm of childhood achievements, piecing together "BUCK PRINTING CO" was an immeasurable triumph. After the meaning of glass doors with "TIXE YCNEGREME" had eluded me for a few frustrating weeks, I finally had to ask someone what the words said. As a developing young reader, solving this latest riddle on my own felt like a personal breakthrough of mammoth proportions.

Seeing the game played professionally for the first time was an eye-opening experience too. Crowded into a living room of restless relatives, a few cousins and I shared a small island of rag rug in front of the television. As the game progressed, adults that I'd known my entire life were expressing levels of emotion that weren't often seen outside of a four alarm crisis. There was whooping, hollering, begging, imploring, arguing and passion that seemed to get more intense throughout the course of the game. The vibe in the air was a little scary. It wasn't the result of demon possession, or palatable potions in translucent Tupperware. It was the agony and ecstasy of baseball.

The Yankees were playing somebody pretty damn good. Since green jerseys are etched in memory, I'm guessing it must have been the A's. The camera angles made me flinch for the first frame or two until my Grandpa asked why I was twitching with every pitch. Everyone had a good laugh when I explained that the mound was dangerously close to the batter and the catcher was bound to get his brains bashed in. The sport was just an abstract at that point. My experience was an ever-growing number of days playing catch, a collection of scattered concepts gleaned from conversations, and of course, those wonderful drives back home hearing an impassioned Ned Martin and his partners on the radio. Most of the time, it seemed like they were speaking in a foreign language.

It was no different for me in front of the television except that it was my relatives carrying on about the game and the discussions were framed with familiar gestures and rising tones. The true value of my new found silence became apparent as the game wound down to the final outs. As the room quickly hushed, everyone was staring at the screen with both the ashen certainty of a doomed submarine crew and the optimistic intensity of a bomb squad. After a few anguished moments, it was all over. My Dad, Grandpa, Uncle Skip and the other men headed out to the backyard to discuss the outcome. I tagged along to see what might be learned from the debriefing. In order to communicate with my elders during ballgames in the future, I would figure out how to understand grunts. I also learned that baseball at my Grandparents' house in upstate New York usually involved the Yankees playing somebody pretty damn good.

In the fall of 1975, my family moved from Boston, Massachusetts to Portland, Oregon. Thanks to the merciful winds of fate, I wasn't raised in the heart of Red Sox Nation with relatives that followed the rival New York Yankees. Weeks after we headed west, Boston lost an epic seven game battle with the Big Red Machine. After settling into our new hometown, my brother and I discovered the lights of Civic Stadium. Dad still went out of his way to drive us past the historic ballpark, but we were often heading to a secret parking space in Goose Hollow. Membership in the Knothole Club was affordable, so we nursed our critical cases of Beaver Fever with season tickets in the bleachers.

Our home at the park was the sovereign territory of wise old timers weighed down with patches and pins, unrepentant loudmouths with swimming pool sized beers, little kids with doting thoughtful parents, and the occasional drunk who lunged for a home run ball before succumbing to gravity. I would learn a whole lot about live baseball in a rising cloud of cigar smoke overhearing blasts of commentary that were often every bit as blue. One night a game-ending call at the plate was so bad that everyone in attendance chanted a euphemism for cattle feces at the top of their lungs for ten straight minutes. It was a positively glorious thing to behold. It would happen again with equal vigor a couple years later at a contest with the Dukes. That night Lucky was ejected for swapping out the visitors city on the scoreboard with a replacement that read, "Albuturkey."

Baseball might have been on television once in a long while, but it was on the radio every day. The pair of transistor sets we got for Christmas were keys to another universe. In the magical spring and summer of 1977, Trailblazers basketball was the biggest story in town. As fantastic as the run was that year, Bill Schonely could only call 'em one at a time and they didn't pound the hardwood every night. Coincidentally, The Schonz was the play by play voice of the Seattle Pilots in 1969. He came to Rip City in 1970 to start over with another expansion franchise. The debut of the Seattle Mariners made that spring and summer just that much more amazing and succinct. Even though it would be a long time before the excitement of that glorious year was matched, both Dave Niehaus and Bill Schonely would be radio mentors to young sports fans all over the Northwest for generations.

Following the Beavers on the road became part of our routine in the summertime. From the debut of the Mariners in 1977, I was enchanted by the sounds of the Kingdome too. In time, Dave Niehaus grew into a surrogate Grandpa. It didn't take long to discover outlets in San Francisco, Oakland, Los Angeles and San Diego. Vin Scully, Lon Simmons and others became great-uncles. Minor league affiliates in places like Vancouver, Calgary, Tacoma, Salem, Boise and Eugene could be heard sometimes too. Between live play by play and midnight baseball rebroadcasts, games could potentially be enjoyed from the moment I got home from school into the wee small hours of the morning.

Once school was out for the summer, my brother and I would go outside and play marathon games of Wiffle Ball. On a good day, there would be an afternoon game to keep us company and an evening matchup to make sure we were exhausted. Sometimes we would try to re-enact the game as it happened. Other times we would try to play and keep an ear on the broadcast. These attempts to multitask would often result in a resounding thwack on the siding of the neighbor's house. As right handed batters, one lapse in concentration led us to naturally hit toward left field. We may have left Boston, but we kept the monster. Our monster was grouchy.

After the sun went down, it was time for dinner and more baseball. Long nights after full days became a routine ritual during the summer. Even after coming home from a double-header downtown. Looking back it seems like a great many childhood things led me from Yawkey Way to Puro Yakyu. The late night drives, the slow frustrating process of learning a new language, the hometown heroes playing in historic parks, the rhythmic chanting in the bleachers, and the transistor radio hidden in my pillow. Portland Beavers road games against the Hawai'i Islanders prepared me for the start times of NPB day games. Midnight baseball rebroadcasts of contests that went late would usually get started right around the same time as night contests do in Japan. Insomnia is no curse. It is a blessing. Four decades later, baseball remains a puzzle to be put together one brief glimpse at a time. It isn't always easy to see them play across the ocean in the wee hours, but well worth the effort. The game can be beautiful. Especially at night. Baseball is a gift from Japan to an owl on the internet.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Pacific Mariners: Japan


Sixteen players born in Japan were part of the Seattle Mariners organization during the first thirty-five seasons. Eight of these men played for the big league team.


Eighty-two Nippon Professional Baseball players and one manager were part of the Seattle Mariners Major League club over the first thirty-five seasons. This list includes players, managers and coaches at the big league level. Partial seasons and cups of coffee are listed right along with regulars, a respectable number of All-Stars, and every Rookie of the Year Award winner in M's franchise history. The list also includes one Hall of Fame player and another who will likely be elected on his first ballot. Mariners who later coached with the big club are not marked as coaches.

* coached MLB Mariners
** managed MLB Mariners
*** managed NPB Marines

One-hundred and twenty-one Nippon Professional Baseball players and one manager were part of the Seattle Mariners organization over the first thirty-five seasons. This list is expanded to include players and managers at all levels of the minor league system, along with players, managers and coaches with the big league club.

Members of the Seattle Mariners big league club also had family who played baseball in Japan. Jim Paciorek (Whales '88-'91; Tigers '92-'93) is the brother of Tom Paciorek. Bump Wills (Braves '82-'83) is the son of Maury Wills.

[Note: This draft is based on a week spent poring over every level of the all-time organization roster and individual player pages at Baseball-Reference. Please let me know if there are any errors or omissions. Latest update: January 31, 2013]

Pacific Mariners: Korea


Five players born in Korea were part of the Seattle Mariners organization during the first thirty-five seasons. Two of these men played for the big league team.


Fourteen players in the Korea Baseball Organization were part of the Seattle Mariners big league club over the first thirty-five seasons.

Thirty-six players in the Korea Baseball Organization were part of the Seattle Mariners system over the first thirty-five seasons.

[Note: This draft is based on a week spent poring over every level of the all-time organization roster and individual player pages at Baseball-Reference. Please let me know if there are any errors or omissions. Immense gratitude to Dan at for his help. Latest update: February 10, 2013]

Pacific Mariners: Taiwan


Seven players born in Taiwan were part of the Seattle Mariners organization during the first thirty-five seasons. 


Two players in the Chinese Professional Baseball League were part of the Seattle Mariners big league club over the first thirty-five seasons.

Five players in the Chinese Professional Baseball League were part of the Seattle Mariners system over the first thirty-five seasons.

[Note: This draft is based on a week spent poring over every level of the all-time organization roster and individual player pages at Baseball-Reference. Please let me know if there are any errors or omissions. Latest update: January 31, 2013]

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Welcome Change

Let's turn back the clock to June 22, 1981. The MLB season was on hold that spring. As summer began, the starving baseball press descended on a brand new ballpark in Tulsa, Oklahoma. While most AA debuts fly under the radar, everybody was excited to see the ninth overall draft pick pitch in his first professional game. Fifteen years after playing for the Toei Flyers, Texas Rangers skipper Don Zimmer was among an entourage of important people from the big club. With the dirt of Yale still fresh in his spikes, Ron Darling took the mound for the hometown Drillers. The sellout capacity was 8,000 and the stadium was overflowing with fans.

Counting down the hours and daydreaming about the Cactus League? Maybe this is a better example: With the opening of camp inching ever closer for pitchers and catchers, imagine Phoenix Municipal Stadium filled with the faithful for a spring training game. As the ache for baseball becomes unbearable, one can almost feel the sunbeams, smell the hot dogs, hear the roar, and taste the contents of a big frosty cup. In the depths of winter, it's nice to think about an 8,000 seat facility bursting at the seams with fans of the Oakland A's and their worthy opponents.

Can you picture one of those big crowds in your head?

Now, imagine that every single person packed into the grandstands represents a different syllable in the English language.

By way of contrast, think about taking somebody special to a sold out performance of Damn Yankees in a beautiful small theater. The Pearson Auditorium at the Pendleton Center for the Arts is an intimate space in an almost century old building that once housed the Umatilla County Library. Alternately, there is the Kerrytown Concert House located in a historic section of Ann Arbor, Michigan. Or, the St. Germaine Stage at the Sydelle and Lee Blatt Performing Arts Center in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Each one of those venues seats an absolute maximum of 110.

They seem like pretty nice places to take a date, right?

Now, imagine that every single person ushered to their chair represents a different syllable in the Japanese language.

As a baseball player, remembering every face in a packed house of over 8,000 is impossible. Even if the bleachers are filled with the exact same people night after night over a long season. As a performance artist, your odds of remembering every face in a regular crowd of 110 might be a little bit better, but still pretty long. You are supposed to be working, not studying everyone in attendance.

Let's say for the sake of argument that every face is etched in your memory after a season. Would you also know enough about each one of those people to understand exactly how they all fit together in the community? Sorting out and recalling increasingly familiar sounds is just one step toward understanding a language. Connections and relationships are also important to the formation of spoken words. A "sexy and cool" GM like Billy Beane would say, "It's a process."

It's an embarrassment to the sport when old fashioned executives with limited monolingual vocabularies discuss timetables for learning English. In condescending tones, these ignorant men in their dusty suits imply that adopting a second language is both easy and fast. Some press conferences called to introduce overseas players have been almost comical in their bumbling tin-eared way. After witnessing years of such cringe-worthy attitudes, it's nice to celebrate the latest step on the march of progress.

At last, a proposed rule change will allow an interpreter to accompany a pitching coach or manager to the mound. Not just when a guy is injured on the field. Not just when a guy is on the bench. Not just when a guy is in a post-game press conference. For foreign talents, one of the last communication barriers in the game could be banished by 2014. Another petty-minded way of doing things in Major League Baseball will finally ride off into the sunset.

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.