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.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

I Love Nomi

Just a little while ago, a tweet from Patrick Newman of NPB Tracker pointed out a report published in Japan that analyzed a recent blurb in the Hardball Talk section of the NBC Sports website. While his contribution was under 40 of them, Craig Calcaterra had written "Harsh Words for the Darvish Museum" - at least according to Sanspo. In defense of Calcaterra, he does his homework. I like reading his stuff. He certainly doesn't strike me as a latent racist of the old school with years of gin-fueled transgressions hidden behind a paywall. Yes, he was being sarcastic with the name drops of Tuffy Rhodes and Warren Cromartie, but I didn't sense it was an attack on the legitimacy of Yu Darvish, or the impact of his brilliant career in NPB. It was just an easy way to get a rise from fans with a little bit of knowledge, and a starting place for others to learn about notable gaijin players from their friendly neighborhood search engine. In a follow-up, he clearly states that no offense was intended.

Calcaterra mentioned the Ichiro Suzuki museum, but didn't note that Ichiro was essentially the same age as Yu Darvish when a growing collection of mementos and milestones was first made public by his proud parents. As he developed into a popular star, the museum dedicated to Hideki Matsui was founded by his family because baseball fans kept pestering them at home. Calcaterra also didn't mention that Kenji Johjima was a year younger than Darvish when a museum opened in his hometown of Sasebo. The article could have pointed out museums dedicated to many Japanese players that were founded during the golden years of their careers. Current talents also have museums. It's a baseball tradition. To be fair, it would have been difficult to cram all that information into a quick blurb and maintain the sardonic mood. Especially a blurb that was a reaction to an article with a quoted snippet. After all, this lengthy paragraph is part of a response to a tweet referring to a report about a blurb that was a reaction to an article with a quoted snippet. Obviously, the joke didn't work across the Pacific. The snark wasn't funny on this coast either. Cue the horns of failure.

Sarcasm is not easy to translate. The uproar over "I Hate Nomi" last season was a textbook example. Matt Murton reportedly said those three little words on June 9, 2012. He was not having a great spring with the Hanshin Tigers. In a 6-1 loss to the Orix Buffaloes, he made a bad throw to the plate during the fourth inning that stood out from the rest of his frustrated moments. A brief fit of pique in a post-game interview was enough to turn the tide of the media against him. All the press did was take his flip remark at face value and reduce it to three words without context. No doubt, there was hope that this tweet would have put it to rest. The humor was even more obvious when closer Kyuji Fujikawa jokingly said that he hated Nomi too. Within 48 hours, a frustrated Atsushi Nomi was quoted in Sanspo as saying, "The newspapers are being evil."

Veteran sportswriter Jim Allen sat down for an exclusive Japan Baseball Weekly interview with Matt Murton at the Q on June 17th. The star outfielder was candid and explained his side of the story in detail. It was a pretty ugly scene for Murton, a fellow who was treated like a fan favorite for most if not all of his NPB career. After all, the "Family Murton Katsu rice ball and the Family Murton Katsu lunch box" were named after him and available in the local konbini. To have all this hit the fan for weeks wasn't fair and it wasn't fun. It made a pretty miserable season even worse. It will be great to have a fresh start in 2013. I wish Matt the very best.

With all that said, I sincerely hope that my occasional bent toward sarcasm does not leave anyone offended or upset. Please let me know if there is a misunderstanding, or an error on my part. I am truly honored to have readers like you from all over the world, but translation technology is not always up to the task. As a Tigers fan it ought to be obvious, but just so it's on the record for the future:

I love Nomi.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Two Outs

There is something about Tsuyoshi Shimoyanagi that seems really familiar. He looks like a fellow who could be our neighbor. A little bit scruffy, but in a regular guy way. I don't really know all that much about his interests; though it's easy enough to imagine him as a craft brewer, or an arborist, or a historian. He seems like the sort to have a vintage motorcycle repair shop, or a rare and unusual bookstore. One could believe that he telecommutes and writes comedy bits. If the hearty odor of ribs drifts over the fence, he and his beloved have a standing invite to our backyard. If the sweet smell of yakitori drifts over the fence, we have an open invitation to their patio. His nickname sounds just like the Johnny Cash song and he thinks it's funny. Our cat is scared of his dog, but there is no real malice between them.

I can imagine an early morning with the sun just filling the sky. He pops out of the house and is talking quietly to his pooch while fumbling with the keys. He looks distracted, but remembers to grab the travel mug and Frisbee off the roof before climbing inside the Subaru. The hound is excited beyond words to be going bye-bye in the car. The adoration makes it challenging to maneuver the coffee between those eager paws to the cup holder. After the dog settles into his spot, the car starts and they pull away. It's pretty early, so our neighbor smiles and waves without giving the horn the usual quick toot. The bike was already locked on top of the car. Maybe they are going for a short ride and run along the Springwater Trail before the temperature climbs. I smile and wave back before finishing up watering the roses and rhododendrons. Of course, if the Shimoyanagi family really lived next door, their yard would look better than our yard. It's not summer though, and he isn't one of our nice neighbors. He plays baseball across the ocean.

Tsuyoshi Shimoyanagi stepped to the rubber and delivered another warmup toss. Motohiro Shima popped up from behind the dish, double clutched, threw it back, and blew on his fingers out of habit. It was frigid at the Kleenex Box. In the opening series at home, the Rakuten Golden Eagles had endured gusts strong enough to change the path of pitches, torrential downpours, driving sleet, and gently falling snow that looked like cherry blossoms. The air was calm and relatively warm inside Kyocera Dome. Tsuyoshi stared into the outfield and rubbed up the baseball. His teammates took a brief opportunity for a bit of catch. Beyond the islands of dirt on the infield, there was a wide expanse of green turf that stretched out toward the wall like a plastic prairie with a buzzcut. In a row of advertising above the bleachers, a giant Ichiro stared down at the action with a frosty cold beer. Ichiro deserves a frosty cold beer. 

The Orix ouendan was restless. Tsuyoshi turned toward the plate and delivered another warmup toss. It had been a pretty good game so far. He'd only thrown 42 pitches, but the Buffaloes had touched him up for a run in each of the last two frames. The pitching coach hovered like a hummingbird for a few more moments, said something encouraging, and left for his place by the whiteboard in the dugout. The umpire gently dropped a fresh baseball into the catcher's mitt. Shima looked out at his veteran starter with calm trust and tossed the new pill to the mound. Alone with his thoughts, Tsuyoshi turned again to the big expanse of carpet and nodded to each of his fielders. He said a few words to himself. Everyone was ready. Takahiro Okada took a last swing and stepped into the box. It was time for the fourth inning.

The umpire hollered to start the action. Okada set his spikes, stared out at the mound and tightened his grip on the bat. Shima put down the sign for a shuuto. Shimoyanagi nodded, toed the rubber, paused for a second, then went into his delivery. The ball exited his hand, and began to break hard left in a big hurry. As Okada spun around to avoid getting hit, a dead ball caught him right between the double nickels on his back. The baseball dropped to the dirt and lay still. Shimoyanagi tipped his cap with a sincerely apologetic look. Okada nodded back and straightened his fives. The umpire awarded him first base and he headed down the line toward the pillow. Aarom Baldiris was initially worried for his teammate, but only needed to offer encouragement. Manager Senichi Hoshino expressed his dismay from the Rakuten dugout. The inning was not going well so far. 

In the history of the sport, Senichi Hoshino should rank among the most interesting characters to skipper a club. He can holler and flap his arms with the best in the game, and sometimes his face writes paragraphs without a sound from his mouth. Other times he slaps a chair in the dugout with such force that somebody checks to see that it isn't broken. Once in a while, he quietly senses when the other manager has made a big mistake and slowly licks and smacks his lips just once like a silent cat about to pounce on a meal. He isn't known for being touchy-feely at all, but still gave an iconic bear hug to Tomoaki Kanemoto after the sayonara home run that ended the fourth game of the 2003 Japan Series. Like Stengel and Weaver, he is both traditional and unconventional. He says things that are odd, interesting and old school. Unlike those men, he isn't known for colorful profanity to the press. Furthermore, Hoshino-kantoku was a winning pitcher at the highest level of his profession before ever taking the helm. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe he does his post-game interviews fully clothed too.

Shimoyanagi was going to have to do something right in short order to keep this game from getting to the bullpen early. His manager was not a man of infinite patience. He became familiar with that withering look from the skipper when he came over to the Hanshin Tigers in 2003. To a starter, that face meant the leash was probably about one pitch long. Shima came out with a new baseball and said a few kind words to his battery mate. Shimoyanagi thanked him, turned toward first and tipped his cap to Okada again. The first base coach was busy double checking for injuries and discussing the next play with his base runner, so the nearby umpire acknowledged the hat tip. Taking a short walk up the back of the mound, Shimoyanagi rubbed up the baseball. Shima returned to the plate. The umpire finished his sweeping and retook his position behind the catcher. Aarom Baldiris made his way back to the batter's box. The umpire hollered once more and Shima dropped the sign for a shuuto. Shimoyanagi took a deep breath. It was time to give it another try.

It was in this moment that the baseball gods looked down and smiled upon the veteran southpaw. Sure, it wasn't something big like helping him sustain a streak of at-bats without a strikeout to push him past Ichiro's record of 216 straight appearances, nor was it a run to the postseason, but it would be a small miracle for a worthy fellow who needed one on April 8, 2012. Shimoyanagi toed the slab once more and went into his delivery. Baldiris offered and punched a grounder toward shortstop Toshihito Abe who crossed the bag at second and fired a seed to Jose Fernandez at first. The camera paused briefly on Shimoyanagi. His face flickered the tiniest grin mixed with more obvious signs of relief. Okada and Baldiris jogged back toward the Orix bench. In the visitor's dugout, Hoshino-kantoku was a bit less reserved and glad to see the mess cleaned up. In those brief 90 seconds of the fourth inning, a whole range of emotions had filled the benches and bleachers. Now, it was two pitches into the frame. Shimoyanagi had two outs on the board. Baseball isn't always sublimely pretty, but it can be pretty sublime.