Major League Baseball Players in Japan – Strangers in Paradise

The final match-up of the World Baseball Classic featured two teams from countries where baseball is a beloved sport – Cuba and Japan. Both countries are noted for producing fine players, some of whom are enjoying stellar careers in America. Presently, Ishiro and Matsui from Japan are two of the best and most consistent players in the majors. Making it in the big leagues in America is a big deal in Japan, a country that loves baseball and embraces its own professional teams.

American teachers first introduced the game to the island country in the 1870’s, and it firmly took root. By the turn of the century, it was a sport throughout the nation and in 1936 the first professional teams were established. The current professional structure was created in 1950, with teams playing in either the Pacific League or the Central League.

The exchange of players between the Japanese leagues and Major League baseball is not a one-way street. The first American to play baseball in post-World War II Japan was Wallace Kaname Yonamine, a Nisei Japanese American who had played NFL Football but never had a spot on a Major League Baseball club. Yonamine had a Hall of Fame career in Japan.

When major leaguers from America first started to compete in the Japanese League, they were often at the end of their careers. In 1962, right-handed pitcher Don Newcombe became the first MLB player to sign and play with a team in Japan. During his 10 years in the majors, Newcombe posted a 149-90 mark, with 1129 strikeouts and a 3.56 ERA. He is still the only player to win Rookie of the Year, MVP and the Cy Young. Newcombe was the first of many Americans to go to the Far East to play what many consider “the” American sport.

In the past decade something has changed concerning the emigration of professional players from America to Japan. The men who go to the Japanese League are no longer at the end of their careers. They are now, more often than not, mid-career players who can’t seem to find an everyday role on a major league team. Often, these players decide to go to Japan because they will have a chance to contribute every day.

Some players find a home away from home in Japan, while others go and get some daily experience and come back to parlay that into a starting role in MLB. Still, others struggle in their foreign environs and come back looking to play in the big leagues, even if it’s as a utility player.

Alex Cabrera is an example of the first type of player, while Lou Merloni seemed as though he might fit the bill for the second category but didn’t quite get a break in Japan or make the cut when he came back to his homeland. Gabe Kapler illustrates a player in the final and least desirable of the three groups.

First baseman Alex Cabrera, who spent nine seasons in the minors with the Chicago Cubs, Tampa Bay Devil Rays, and Arizona Diamondbacks, finally got his chance to play Major League Baseball in 2000. In 31 games he hit 5 homer runs, scored 10 runs, knocked in 14 RBI and accumulated a .262 BA. Then, in 2001, the Seibu Lions of the Japan Pacific League bought his contract from the Diamondbacks. For Cabrera it was the perfect move at exactly the right time.

Cabrera immediately became a star in Japan. In his first season he hit .282 with 124 RBI and 49 HR. In 2002, his second season, he won the Pacific League’s MVP award and tied the single season homerun mark (55) set by the Babe Ruth of Japan, Sadaharu Oh. (Tuffy Rhodes, another former MLB player also tied the record in 2001.)

In 2004, Cabrera hit two homeruns in game three, including a grand slam, and a massive dinger in the seventh game of the Japan Series to help the Seibu Lions defeat the Chunichi Dragons 7-2, leading his team to their first championship since 1992.

Cabrera totes a .308 BA with 413 RBI and 147 HR in his first four years with the Lions. Life is great for the first baseman and he loves Japanese ball. Except for one thing. In an interview with he acknowledged his frustration at not being allowed to break the record set by Sadaharu Oh.

Cabrera noted, “All my teammates wanted me to break the record. A lot of the players on other teams wanted me to break it, too. The pitchers want to throw me strikes but the managers and coaches don’t let them.”

“They didn’t want me to get the record,” he acknowledged. “All records are for the Japanese. The last 20 at-bats of the season, I think I only saw one strike.”

There are aspects of the game with which MLB players have difficulty. Cabrera said it very clearly, when he complained, “Here, if you hit a home run your first at-bat, they walk you the next three. In America, you get a chance to hit more home runs. They challenge you.”

In the same article, former Japanese player and present Yankee Hideki Matsui observed, “In the past there has been more of that sort of unfairness,” Matsui said, sympathizing with Cabrera. “But it has been decreasing in the last couple years and I just hope that in the future it will get better.”

Although Cabrera has found a home with the Lions, he’s certainly willing to come back and play in America. In fact, he’s anxious to prove that he can hit big league curveballs – something scouts claim he can’t do – and pound 40-plus round trippers per season in the majors.

Lou Merloni and Gabe Kapler both did their time in Japan for the same reasons and with similar results. Merloni and Kapler were enticed by the chance to play every day, something that had eluded them when they were both with the Boston Red Sox.

In 2000, Merloni went to the Yokohama Bay Stars with the understanding that he would be the team’s regular third baseman. But the player he was supposed to replace decided to stay with the team, and so Merloni spent much of the season on the bench. Although he found it to be a frustrating season, he also thought it was a once-in-a-lifetime cultural experience.

The game is pretty much the same, except there’s a rule prohibiting tie games from going more than 3 extra innings, which means the game ends in a tie. First, there are the pre-game workouts and warm-ups, lasting hours. Then there’s all the cigarette smoke – Japanese players light up a lot. Also, there’s the fact that when the club is on the road everyone has to dress for the game at the hotel because there are no visiting locker rooms.

The media never tired of asking the third baseman if he’d like to marry a Japanese woman. When Merloni answered questions, he often felt his translator was editing his comments along with reporters’ queries.

Along with the possibility of being an everyday player, there’s the bump in salary a player who’s been in the states realizes. Usually they’re making six to 10 times what they made in MLB! That’s quite a payday. After Japan, Merloni came back to the Red Sox and played for them and the AAA team for the next three seasons before going to various other major league clubs. He seemed like he might have found a starting role with San Diego part way through the 2003 season, but after 65 games, they dealt him back to the BoSox.

Gabe Kapler was offered a similar opportunity in 2005, and like Merloni, he took it. With a contract valued at approximately $2 million, the utility outfielder was excited about getting to play every day and experience an entirely different culture. But after being a part of Boston’s first World Series winning team in 86 years, Japanese ball seemed to lack the spark of the game played in his homeland.

Missing were the overly expressive fans, the rich heritage, and the knock ‘em down rivalries. Kapler also didn’t perform up to expectations and found himself sitting on the bench by the second-half of the season. When he got back to the states and was signed by Boston for the rest of the 2005 season, he was overjoyed as were many Red Sox fans, who always admired Kapler’s hustle, work ethic and intelligent play.

In a strange twist of fate, the outfielder, who was on first base when Tony Graffanino hit a homer, ruptured his Achilles tendon after rounding second. As Kapler lay in the base path unable to get up and in agonizing pain, it was clear that his 2005 season was over.

In 2006, he was no longer on a major league roster and neither was Merloni, who had played a utility role with Cleveland in 2004. For both players, Japan never panned out, while Alex Cabrera has achieved more than most Japanese players. The irony for Cabrera is that despite his winning ways, the Japanese League will never accept him. That non-acceptance, which seems to affect every foreign player, is one thing that definitely separates baseball in Japan from baseball in America.

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