The left-handed pilgrim

Brandon Mann

Back in the day, there was a left-handed pitcher on the BayStars’ farm team. He didn’t walk guys and didn’t allow home runs, which is saying something in the high-scoring Eastern League. The BayStars, however, decided they had other options. That was the end of the 2012 season. Six and a half years later, Brandon Mann is back in Japan with the Pacific League’s Lotte Marines, having completed a pilgram’s progress of independent minor leagues on two continents, the minors in the United States, and finally — in 2018 — the major leagues.

Because the BayStars were a terrible team in 2011, and Mann had done well on the farm team, it was a mystery why he didn’t get more opportunities to pitch with the first team in Yokohama.

Too young to know

“When I was here last time, I was just young and I inexperienced. I got here at 26 and I’d only played a little bit of Double-A time when I originally came,” Mann said at Zozo Marine Stadium on March 30.

“After 2012, then indie ball and I just couldn’t get picked up. A lot of minor leagues and indie ball and then the Rangers finally gave me a shot in Triple-A and I put up good numbers there, and they called me up. Nobody else was doing well, and they said, ‘We’ll take a shot on this guy.’ I threw well my first few times up there. For me it was about I want to get back to Japan. Honestly, that was my thought process.”

“That (Japan) experience, when I got to the big leagues in the States, the stadiums, the crowds, I thought back to my first start at Tokyo Dome and there were like 35-40,000 people, and I won that game. But I remember how nervous I was. When I got called up to the big leagues, my debut was in Houston. It was mother’s day and it was a full stadium. I came on with the bases loaded and got out of it, but I used my Japanese experience to get me through a lot of that. Now that I’m back here, I’m very comfortable and I feel like I can just go out and pitch. And I know how to pitch now.”

But if he couldn’t persuade people to take a shot on him six years earlier, what happened between Point A and B to make the Rangers and Marines give him a second look?

Grinding it out in the minors

“I played in the BC league for an entire season, and I got crushed. It was shocking and it made me work harder. I finished the year really well and actually got a workout with SoftBank. I went back to the States, I signed with the Pirates. I had a great year. I had a 2.90 ERA and they released me. They told me I was too old and I didn’t throw hard enough.”

“So I finished the year in indie ball and did well. Nobody signed me, so I went home, and that’s when I started going to Driveline, started training there. I did an entire year of indie ball. I broke the strikeout record in indie ball and Oakland finally gave me a shot. I spent two years in Doube-A with Oakland, then they told me, ‘I think we’re going to pass on you.’ So then I worked out for a ton of teams again, and finally Texas gave me that opportunity.”

With increased velocity from his new offseason regime and – for once – good timing, Mann made the Rangers’ Triple-A team out of spring camp, where he’d been warned he likely wouldn’t get any contract whatsoever. Being told he was too old or too this or too that, he said, only motivated him more.

“I think that fueled me, the ‘You’re good but we’ve got younger guys,’ or he’s a fringe guy,” Mann said. “But I got to the big leagues. I’m very grateful and blessed. I was gone from Japan for six years and it took five full years before I got to the big leagues. That’s the even crazier thing.”

“There are going to be guys who make it to the big leagues fast. And then there are going to be guys here, young guys who make it to the ichi-gun (first team) fast. But then there are other guys that are late bloomers. I was definitely a late bloomer, 100 percent. Some guys mature differently.”

His journey made him an eye witness to minor league life, although by his own admission, having financially stable parents allowed him to hang in there and survive what can be a difficult existence.

Minority report

“Some people might say, ‘You only made it to the big leagues for 25 days,’ but those 25 days show a lot more heart than people who it’s just handed to them. It’s a story for the average person. I had to work really hard for it,” Mann said.

“It’s amazing that they don’t take care of their minor league players. It really is (criminal). I’ve seen so many crazy things in the minor leagues. After I played in NPB, people started actually paying me decently. “

There are 20-hour bus rides and then you get three hours of sleep, and then you go to a field and you’re there for eight or nine hours. You’re getting paid, what less than $4 an hour. I don’t know how MLB doesn’t take care of their players better.”

It extends to the balls

Another hurdle for minor league pitchers adjusting to the majors, according to Mann is the balls, which are radically different and act differently — at least in his case.

“The ball is completely different between the minors and the big leagues. To this day, I cannot understand why they do that. I have two different grips for my pitches for big league balls and minor league balls, because they do completely different things,” he said.

“And I’m really into analytics. I train at Driveline in the offseason. When I throw with major league balls and I throw with minor league balls, the spins and the trajectories of the balls are completely different with the two balls. It’s fascinating. When I signed with Chiba, I had them send me a few of the NPB balls, so I could focus on using that with the analytics.”

While it makes sense that Japan uses balls that suit its tastes, why MLB and the U.S. minors use different balls can — like minor league salaries — only be attributed to MLB stinginess.

Where have you gone, Sal Maglie?

Kennys Vargas” class=”wp-image-3391″/>

OK. It doesn’t quite have the same ring to it as Paul Simon’s iconic line from “Mrs. Robinson,” but how often does one come across a baseball player connected with hair cuts and shaves?

Maglie, of course, was known as “the barber” because he gave threw up and in, giving batters close shaves. In that respect, Maglie’s closest NPB comp was Hall of Famer Masaji “razor” Hiramatsu, known for buzzing batters with his “shoot” — a four-seam fastball that’s thrown slightly off center to give it arm-side run.

But from this year, NPB has a real barber, former Minnesota Twin Kennys Vargas, has joined the Lotte Marines and is open for business. In a story that ran in Sankei Sports, Vargas said he’s been cutting hair since he was 13 and has given haircuts to Puerto Rico compatriot Neftali Soto of the DeNA BayStars. In a video shared by the Marines, we get a look at the big man in action, giving Marines communications director Kajiwara a trim.

Japan jones

Vargas said he’d been trying to get to Japan for three years, and only got his opportunity after spending all of 2018 with the Twins’ Triple-A club. With his wife and two young children, a five-year-old daughter and a one-year-old son, set to join him, Vargas is keen to learn the game here so he can stick.

“Three years ago, they (Japanese teams) started looking for me. I was playing for the Minnesota Twins,” he said. “But the Twins wouldn’t let me go. Last year, I spent the whole year in Triple-A, so I decided to go to Japan because I didn’t want to spend be in Triple-A. I knew I had the talent to make some money in Japan for my family. That’s when the decision was made.”

It will not be easy making the grade in a six-team league for a player who struck out in nearly a third of his Triple-A at-bats. Few players have succeeded here having done that, with Wily Mo Pena being about the best, and even then it was a tough slog.

“You have to forget about the United States,” Vargas said. “You’re in Japan. You have to deal with the situation in Japan. Forget about the States. As soon as my family gets here, I’ll concentrate 100 percent on what I’m doing. I’ll see America in October.”

“They study a lot, the hitters, the pitching, so you need to be mentally strong to try and produce at this level. ‘He can’t hit inside, so let’s throw him inside. Or throw him offspeed. They’re always trying to figure out, and you figure them out.”

In addition to having a few friends playing ball in Japan and an experienced teammate in Brandon Laird, Vargas admitted to having a mentor in former Hawks outfielder and Puerto Rican compatriot Pedro Valdes.

“My friend,” Vargas said of Valdes. “He helped me a lot. He’s like my secret hitting coach. When he saw me, and he saw me doing something wrong, he called me right away. He said, ‘Don’t lower your hands too much.’ He’s always there for me.”

“There are a lot of opportunities for guys here. There used to be just two foreigners on the major league level, but it’s way better. This is a great show in Japan. The stadiums are good. The fans are great. Coming to Japan is going to be a good decision, as soon as you start hitting.”

Ichiro from start to finish, part 4

Ichiro Suzuki announced his retirement at a press conference after midnight in Tokyo on Friday, March 22. I have translated the entire press conference from start to finish to give you a sense of how it went down. I hope you enjoy. I have included the original Japanese text. The questions have been mercilessly shortened, however.

He made two curtain calls, once after he left the game at the start of the bottom of the eighth inning, and again after the Mariners’ extra-inning win over the Athletics. What follows is the Japanese and English text of his retirement press conference early on the morning of March 22 in Tokyo.

Ichiro Suzuki tips his cap to fans at Tokyo Dome as he leaves his last big league game. on March 21 ,2019. Photo by Seito Takamizawa



–(After an extremely long buildup) do you have any memories from the games in your first year to today?

“I’m sorry to be rude in answer to such a long question, but no.”




–You succeeded in realizing your dream of becoming a pro baseball player. What have you gained?

“I don’t really know if I succeeded or not. Where do you measure it from? Because if you can’t do that, then I’m unable to judge. I dislike that word, “success.” Trying the major leagues, or any other world, I think requires great courage because you are taking on the challenge of a world that’s new for you. In that sense I would use the word “success,” but that’s because you go because you think you’ll succeed. If you don’t go because you think you can’t be successful, I think that will become a source of regret. Basically, I try things because I want to do them. But what have I gained? I guess that’s how I feel about it. I wanted to get about 200 hits, and I thought I could. My first year our team won 116 games, 93 the next two. So in those three years I didn’t think winning was such a difficult thing. It is in fact extremely hard. That realization might be the big thing I took away.”



–You do your offseason training in Kobe. Now that you’ve retired do you have some emotion to want to repay a debt of gratitude to the city?

“Kobe’s streets are special to me. As for repaying, I wonder what that might be. From my standpoint as a player, I thought of nothing but continuing my career and playing as long as I could. Kobe? Repay a debt of gratitude? I suppose I can do my best to pay them some taxes.”





–(Japanese) players who go to the majors now follow a path from playing  (in the high school tournaments) at Koshien Stadium, and from there to Japanese pro ball and then the majors. Based on your own experiences if there was a different a system, that would make it easier for Japanese to go to the majors, what would that be? This is hypothetical, but could there be some kind of developmental system or is playing in Nippon Professional Baseball still the best way?

“I really don’t know in much detail about systems as such. My baseball foundations were laid in Japan for my future of playing in MLB. But in the case of building the necessary foundation in order to play in MLB, I know that the sooner you go the better, but Japanese baseball still has much to teach, so it’s really not fair to look just at the different systems.”

–What did you Japanese baseball teach you?

“One could argue that from the standpoint of fundamentals, how to play the game, Japanese junior high school-level players may be better than major leaguers because of the focus on teamwork through things like relay plays. We (Japanese) can execute those things without being told. That’s Japanese baseball, but over there, well… the players used to be athletic and have high individual potential, and I think that is still the case, but (my hope that teammates would become better fundamentally) it was so frustrating. Eventually, it became so frustrating I just put it out of my mind.”




「なっていくかどうか? そこは占い師に聞いてもらわないとわからないけどねぇ。まぁでも、投げることも、打つこともやるのであれば、僕は1シーズンごとに、1シーズンはピッチャー、次のシーズンは打者として、それでサイ・ヤング(賞)とホームラン王を取ったら……だってそんなこと考えることすらできないですよ。翔平はその想像をさせるじゃないですか、人に。この時点でもう明らかに人とは違う選手であると思うんですけど。その二刀流は面白いなと思うんですよね。(記者に向かって)納得いっていない感じの表情ですけど。ピッチャーとして20勝するシーズンがあって、その翌年には50本打ってMVP獲ったら、これ化け物ですよね。でも、それが想像できなくないですからね。そんな風に思っています」

–We were looking forward to facing the Angels’ Shohei Ohtani, but it didn’t come to pass. Did you want to face him?

“I think I answered that already, but my thinking is he is a guy who has to be No. 1 in the world. It’s unfortunate about a matchup against each other. I wanted to pitch against Shohei if that had been possible. Please don’t misunderstand that. ”

–What kind of player do you think Shohei Ohtani will become?

“What will he be? I think that’s something only a fortune teller can explain. If one was capable of pitching and hitting, what I would like to do is pitch one season and bat the next. In that way one could win the Cy Young Award one year and win the home run title the next. That’s because it’s something I can’t even consider. After all, Shohei is the kind of player who invites that kind of impression. He’s already proved he’s a player who is different from others. I think that playing two ways is pretty cool. You don’t look like that answer is going to satisfy you.”

“OK. Let’s say he wins 20 games in one year as a pitcher, and hits 50 home runs the next and is MVP. That’s a monster, but it’s not something you can exclude as a possibility. That’s kind of how I look at him.”




「いやだから、違う野球選手に多分なってますよ。あれ? この話さっきしましたよね。お腹減ってきて集中力が切れてきちゃって、さっき何話したのかもちょっと記憶に……。草野球の話しましたよね? そっちでいずれ……それは楽しくやっていると思うんですけど。そうするときっと草野球を極めたいと思うんでしょうね。真剣に草野球をやるという野球選手になるんじゃないですか、結局。聞いてます?」

「お腹減ってきたもうー。結構やっていないですか、これ。今時間どれくらい? 1時間? 20分? あらー。今日はとことんお付き合いしようかなと思ったんですけどね。お腹減ってきちゃった」

–It is said you agreed with the sentiment that you would hate the idea of yourself as a retired player.

“I don’t think I would say, ‘I hate that.’ I don’t believe I said I dislike the idea of myself as someone who isn’t a player.”

–So can you imagine yourself as something other than a baseball player?

“Since you don’t like that (answer), do you mean seeing myself playing a different kind of baseball? I already talked about that. I’m kind of hungry and my concentration is fading. My recollection of what I said before is…Did I talk about “kusayakyu” (backlot baseball)? In any case, I think that would be fun. I would be the kind of player who masters kusayakyu. In that case, I’d be really serious at it. Are you listening?”
“I am so hungry. Is this not enough? How long have we been going at this? An hour? 1 hour, 20 minutes? Oh my. I was kind of hoping to be out with people until late, and now I’m starving.”


「これ、先ほどお話しましたよね。小林君もちょっと集中力切れてるんじゃないの? 完全にその話したよね。ほらそれで1問減ってしまうんだから」

–When you look back on your career, what are you proud of (from Mr. Kobayashi of the Daily Sports)?

“Hold on. I think I answered that already. Mr. Kobayashi is your concentration also wavering? I absolutely definitely answered that, so that’s one less question for me.”



「こんな終わり方でいいのかな? なんかきゅっとしたいよね、最後は」

–When you were in elementary school, you wrote in your graduation essay ‘My dream is to be a top-level baseball player.’ What would you like to say to that boy that was you?

“Listen kid. You’re not going to get a 100 million yen ($900,000) signing bonus. Yes, that’s right. No, we say to have big dreams, but they are also hard. I also wrote that I wanted to be a No. 1 draft pick with a bonus of 100 million, but that proved beyond my grasp. So in a sense, is that not frustration, too? Is that a good place to end this? I really want to polish this off properly, so OK one last question.”




–During your first time with the Mariners, you said a number of times that ‘I feel lonely when I play.’ But with the Yankees and Marlins, your role changed. Then you had that situation last year, and now you’ve retired. Did you continue to play with that feeling of loneliness? Or did the nature of the loneliness you felt change?

“I don’t feel that anymore. At this stage, not at all. This might be a little different (from what you meant), but when I arrived in America, when I came to the majors, I became a foreigner, because I was in America and that made me a foreigner there. Through this thing of becoming a foreigner I began to consider other people, began to imagine things like the pain of others.”

Popping NPB’s 2019 cork

Lots to see on Opening Day in Japan as Nippon Professional Baseball gets underway on Friday, March 29. Fourteen hours after Masahiro Tanaka became the first Japanese pitcher to make four Opening Day starts, Randy Messenger made his fifth straight for the Central League’s Hanshin Tigers.

In Chiba, former Chicago White Sox player Tadahito Iguchi, opened his second season as skipper of the Pacific League’s Lotte Marines by starting 18-year-old Kyota Fujiwara in center field and led him off, marking the first time in NPB that a player started Opening Day straight out of high school since Shohei Ohtani opened the 2013 season in right field and batting eighth for the Nippon Ham Fighters — or in tribute to Susan Slusser, the porcine pugilists.

Like Ohtani, Fujiwara began his career against veteran right-hander Takayuki Kishi, who retired both in their first pro at-bats. Kishi, however, left with leg issues, and the Marines came from behind to win at home.

At Sapporo Dome, Orix Buffaloes rookie Yuma Tongu singled in two runs in his first at-bat against the Fighters, who came back to win on Sho Nakata‘s 10th-inning grand slam.

In the Tigers-Swallows game, despite the presence of Messenger and the rest of Hanshin’s over-the-hill gang, the offensive action was highlighted by rookies. Yakult’s 19-year-old third baseman Munetaka Nakamura, who dominated the Eastern League last year, delivered a sacrifice fly to open the scoring. The Tigers, however, broke through against Yasuhiro Ogawa when rookie Seiya Kinami (3rd pick in 2018) reached on an error and scored on a triple by Koji Chikamoto (1st pick).

In Hiroshima, new Yomiuri Giant Yoshihiro Maru returned to the park where he won two MVP awards for the Carp, and went 0-for-4 with four strikeouts for the second time in his career. Carp starter Daichi Osera made it look easy, locating his fastball and breaking ball and throwing some cutters that would make Mariano Rivera take notice as he struck out 11 in a 5-0 win.

Ichiro from start to finish, part 3

Ichiro Suzuki announced his retirement at a press conference after midnight in Tokyo on Friday, March 22. I have translated the entire press conference from start to finish to give you a sense of how it went down. I hope you enjoy. I have included the original Japanese text. The questions have been mercilessly shortened, however.

He made two curtain calls, once after he left the game at the start of the bottom of the eighth inning, and again after the Mariners’ extra-inning win over the Athletics. What follows is the Japanese and English text of his retirement press conference early on the morning of March 22 in Tokyo.

Ichiro Suzuki tips his cap to fans at Tokyo Dome as he leaves his last big league game. on March 21 ,2019. Photo by Seito Takamizawa

――ユニークなTシャツを着ていたが、何か心情を表していたのか? 全く関係なくただ好きで着ているのか?






–In camp you wear some unique T-shirts. Was that to express some feelings, or are you just wearing them for fun without any special meaning?

“Well, if I said, then it would come out sounding pretty crude, so it’s better if I don’t. I think it’s up to the interpretation of the viewer. If you think you get the meaning, then you can take something from it, although you might get nothing at all from it. Maybe it’s best if I leave it that way.”

–So it’s up to us to enjoy it as we like?

“That’s the kind of thing it is. If I sit here and explain them one by one, it’s going to get crude.”

–So not saying it is the tasteful way?

“I’m refined so I wouldn’t say it. If you do say it, you’ll come across as boorish.”




— What are your thoughts for Yumiko, who has had your back all this time?

“She really gave her all. I think she did the most. I had 3,089 hits in the the U.S.. But my wife is, well, before home games I ate rice balls that she made and I took to the stadium. She got to about 2,800, and it seems she wanted to get to 3,000. She really did great. I am not one to take it easy, but I want her to.”

“Then there’s Ikkyu. Some of you may not know, but Ikkyu is our dog, a Shiba. Currently he’s 17 years old and 7 months old, 18 this year. He’s like a grandfather, wobbling around every day, but is still hanging in there. When I see him, I think I can’t let up. That may sound like a joke, but I really feel that way. He’s trying so hard to stay alive. He was born in 2001 and came to our home in Seattle in 2002. I would never have believed that he would be with us until I retired. I have strong emotions for him. Indeed, when I think of my wife and of Ikkyu, my heart is filled with gratitude toward them.


「いる? それここで。いる? 裏で話そう、後で。裏で」

–Has there been any change this year in the sensation when at bat?

“Do you need that here? Let’s talk, later. Somewhere private.”



–You have tackled many decisions so far, such as going to America in 2000, joining Japan for the 2006 WBC, 2007 signing an extension with the Mariners, and now retiring, but which one was the hardest to think through?

“I cannot rank them. I think different ones could be No. 1 in some way. However, to play in the U.S., although it was a different form of posting system back then, I could not get up and go on my own. I could not go without the team’s consent. At that time, I needed someone on my side… It is strange to say it like there were sides, friends and foes, but if no one within the team argued my case, they wouldn’t have understood and I wouldn’t have been able to go. The one who most comes to mind from that time was our manager, Ogi. I had been telling him I wanted to play in the U.S. for several years. In regards to manager Ogi, I took him out for good food and drink, when he drank I was able to say that, and if I think about it, that was what worked well. If it hadn’t been for that, nothing would have happened. I think the big thing was choosing manager Ogi as the person to persuade. He said over and over again, ‘It’s no good, no good.’ But that changed over alcohol. That clearly demonstrated how powerful a thing alcohol can be. He’s the one who taught me that, and for that reason I think the things manager Ogi taught me cannot be measured.”



–The date of yesterday’s game coincided with the date in Japan when you won the first WBC. Was that fate?

“When I hear that, I think it must be to some degree. I didn’t know that.”



–In your career, what was the thing you were able to endure the most?

“What a tough question. Actually, I’m not very patient. I’m not good at putting up with things, and tend to indulge in things I enjoy. Things I’m able to do, or want to do, I plug away at those things and I don’t feel it’s something I need to endure. But having said that, I really like exercising a lot, but sometimes working out so much is a problem, so I often have to stop. Nothing else stresses me out as much as that, because I’ve come this far thinking about avoiding stress. At home, my wife puts a lot of thought into cooking, and then when I’m on the road, anything is OK. What there is to eat on the road is actually pretty awful.”


「(元中日の)チェンが元気か知りたいですね。(マーリンズで)チームメートでしたから。チェンは元気にやってますかね? それが聞けて何よりです。今のところ(台湾に行く)予定はないけど、でも以前に行ったことがあるんですよ、一度。すごく優しい印象でしたね。心が優しくて、いいなあと思いました」

–You have so many fans in Taiwan. Is there something you would like to tell them?

“I’d like to know how Chen Wei-yin is doing. We were teammates (with the Marlins). Is he doing well? I would love to hear that. At the present, I don’t have a plan to visit Taiwan, but I’ve been there before once. I felt the people were nice, very kind hearted.”






–Yusei Kikuchi has joined the Mariners, and last year Shohei Ohtani joined the Angels. Is there a message you would like to impart to the guys who are following in your footsteps?

““I thought it might be good if I went into my retirement the same day Yusei made his debut. I wanted him to do a real good job. Although we were together only briefly, he’s a real good kid. I’ve seen a lot of players in my time, but I have to say, that there are a lot of weirdos among left-handed starting pitchers. I’m not kidding. I think you could also say that there are a lot of geniuses among them. Anyway, there’re a lot of them in America. That’s why I was thinking what a good kid he is.”

 “That being said, when we traveled to Japan from camp it was by plane and thus there was a dress code. You can wear either a black jacket setup or a black sweater setup. On a long trip, you take comfort into consideration. I said, ‘Yusei, what should we do?’ We agreed that when we left Arizona anything would be OK, but the sweater won’t do when we land in Japan.”

 “He said, ‘Ichiro-san, what’s best?’ I said, ‘I think I’ll go with a jacket and a T-shirt.’ So he said he’d probably do the same. When the team boarded the bus in Arizona, everyone was wearing the same black sweater setup. When Yusei approached my seat on the bus, I said, ‘Just as I expected, Yusei. You can’t wear that. You have to realize that what you’re wearing won’t do as a major leaguer arriving in Japan.’ He said, ‘Oh no. I suppose not.’”

“Anyway, when we arrived at Haneda Airport, (instead of the black jacket setup) he was wearing the (casual) black sweater setup.’ All I could think of was that this guy is the real thing. I haven’t really gotten a good sense of him yet, but it reminded me that so many left-handed pitchers are weird. You get a sense he is a big figure. I hope he gives it all he has.”

“Shohei has already finished his treatment, and physically he’s on such a large scale. In terms of size, he’s not inferior to American players in any way. But because he can move like a player that size shouldn’t be able to, he has to be the best player in the world.”



–You’ve invested your love in baseball. What is its appeal?

“It’s a team competition, but it’s also an individual sport. That’s why baseball is interesting. One could say that if your team wins, then that’s all that matters, but it’s not the case at all. If you don’t produce as an individual, you can’t survive. Also, if one team wins, one might say in general that team is better, and it’s OK to think so, but it’s not really true. I think maybe that difficulty is what makes it interesting. It’s attractive without a doubt. No two moments are the same. Every moment is different.”



–How should we enjoy baseball without Ichiro?

“The baseball played in America in 2019 has completely changed since I arrived in 2001,” he said. “It’s now in the process of becoming a game where you can now get by without using your head. A lot of active players see this, too, and wonder how this might change. I don’t see this trend stopping over the next five years, or 10 years or for the foreseeable future. Fundamentals mean nothing. Perhaps saying that might cause trouble. That (saying this) definitely looks like it will be a problem.”

“On a fundamental level, baseball is a game that requires thinking. That it’s losing that makes me sick. America is baseball’s birthplace, and I believe a lot of people have a sense of urgency over what the game is becoming. So I think there is no need for Japan’s game to follow America’s. The Japanese game should be a thinking, interesting brand of ball. As long as this trend in America does not stop, I hope Japanese ball doesn’t change and that we remember to cherish it.”

Ichiro from start to finish, part 2

Ichiro Suzuki announced his retirement at a press conference after midnight in Tokyo on Friday, March 22. I have translated the entire press conference from start to finish to give you a sense of how it went down. I hope you enjoy. I have included the original Japanese text. The questions have been mercilessly shortened, however.

He made two curtain calls, once after he left the game at the start of the bottom of the eighth inning, and again after the Mariners’ extra-inning win over the Athletics. What follows is the Japanese and English text of his retirement press conference early on the morning of March 22 in Tokyo.

Ichiro Suzuki tips his cap to fans at Tokyo Dome as he leaves his last big league game. on March 21 ,2019. Photo by Seito Takamizawa



–Because we could only see smiles rather than tears, isn’t it the case that you enjoyed this series?

“Even this was not purely joyful. After all, you’re carrying the weight of other people’s thoughts on your shoulders, so it was not a simple thing just to go up and bat each time. For that reason, it was extremely exhausting. I so wanted to get at least one hit. That’s a natural response.”

“It seems there are people who think I have no feelings, but I do. More than many people might imagine. So as I approached the very last (plate appearance) , I felt getting a hit would be the greatest, but it didn’t happen. Despite that, the fans stuck around for me. Don’t worry I’m not going to do it, but I thought at that instant what it means when someone says, ‘I could now die a happy man.’ I think that expression was made for a situation like that.”



–You had said you would play at least until you are 50. Was coming back to play pro ball in Japan an option for you?

“No. it wasn’t.”



–Why not?

“I don’t really want to get into that here. However, the ‘playing until 50,’ or until 50 at the least was really my intent. It didn’t come to pass and as a result I’ve been someone who can’t back up his words with actions, but had I not said it, I don’t think I would have made it this far. It may be difficult, but putting something into words is one way to get yourself closer to achieving your target.”



–You’ve spent most of your life playing ball. What are you going to do now?

“I don’t know right at this moment, but maybe I’ll be working out again tomorrow. That’s something that won’t change because I’m someone who can’t stay still, so I’ll be moving around. So I’m not going to be taking it easy. I’m going to stay in motion.”



――Would you like to tell fans about your philosophy of life

“I don’t know much about a philosophy of life, but when I think of it as the way I go through life … As I said earlier, I can’t work harder than everyone else. Right until the end, you are only measured against yourself. As you do that, as you see your limits, you try over and over to surpass yourself a tiny bit. That’s how I eventually become who I am. One can only do this in small increments, but that is the way to surpass yourself. If you try and change in leaps and bounds, that gap between where you are (and your target) becomes to large and I think unsustainable, so the only way is the steady way.”

“But progress is not the only result. There are setbacks, too. And it’s not like every path I choose is the right one, but I believe in myself and my decisions. Sometimes I get on the wrong track and keep at it. However, when I do find I’ve taken a detour, I feel like without it, I would not have come face to face with the real me.”

“The emotion of the fans after today’s game resulted from that body of work done in my own way. I thought that possibly, they were seeing that (work). That (thought) made me happy. If it were true, I’d be exceedingly happy, but even if it weren’t I’d still be happy.”




「何になるんだろうねぇ。そもそも、カタカナのイチローってどうなんですかね? いや、元カタカナの一朗みたいになるんですかね。あれ、どうなんだろう? どうなんだろうね、あれ。元イチローって変だね。イチローだし僕って思うもんねぇ。音はイチローだから。書くときにどうなるんだろうねぇ。どうしよっか。何になるか……。監督は絶対に無理ですよ。これは絶対が付きますよ。人望がない。本当に。人望がないですよ、僕。うん」

–This is a simple question, but now that your playing career is over, are you going to become a manager or a coach or perhaps take a completely different course and be a media celebrity?

“That’s not a very simple question.”

–So what is the player Ichiro going to become?

“I wonder what I’ll become.”

“In the first place what am I going to do with ‘katakana (phonetic script) Ichiro?’ I could become the player who formerly used katakana for the name ‘Ichiro.’ How would that be? I wonder. ‘The player formerly known as Ichiro’ would be weird, wouldn’t it? I think of myself as Ichiro, because that’s how it’s pronounced. How will I write it I wonder? I wonder what I’m going to do. Being a manager is impossible. You can add ‘absolutely’ to that. I’m not popular enough, truly. I lack the popularity for that. Yes. That’s It.”


「いやぁ、無理ですね。それくらいの判断能力は備えているので。ただ、どうでしょうねぇ。プロの選手とかプロの世界というよりも、アマチュアとプロの壁がどうしても日本の場合は特殊な形で存在しているので、今日をもって、どうなんですかね、そういうルールって。どうなんだろうか。今まではややこしいじゃないですか。例えば、極端に言えば、自分に子どもがいたとして、高校生であるとすると、教えられなかったりというルールですよね。確か。違います? そうだよね。だから、そういうのって変な感じじゃないですか。だから、今日をもって元イチローになるので、それが小さな子どもなのか、中学生なのか、高校生なのか、大学生なのか分からないですけど、そこには興味がありますね」

–I don’t think that’s really true.

“No. It’s beyond me. I think I have the decision making ability. But how should I say it? In Japan there is a peculiar situation, in that a wall exists between amateurs and pros. Even now, how is it, that rule? I wonder. Isn’t it still complicated? To take an extreme example, if I have a child in high school, there had been a rule that I couldn’t teach him. Am I wrong? That’s why it feels weird. Today as the former Ichiro, if it were small kids, or junior high school or high school or maybe even college students I would be interested (in managing).”



–Was there a time when the word “retirement” troubled you?

“More than the word ‘retirement,’ it has been getting released. That’s how it’s always been. Since I moved to New York, I’ve felt that every day. It was the same in Miami. I do not know if everyone here knows New York. It’s a special place. Miami is also special although in a different way, so I lived with that every day, that I could be fired and at that time it would mean (retirement), so it was constantly on my mind.”





–Why did you decide to retire now?

“I didn’t want to go anywhere except to the Mariners, so that was big. I was really happy to return to Seattle last year. I already mentioned how it was before that offer came during spring training, but then May came and I was unable to play anymore. It wouldn’t have been unusual if I had retired at that time. But I was told that there was still a possibility for this spring, so I had the chance to work hard and was able to come here. I’m sorry what was the question?”

–What is your reason for retiring now?

“I see. I think I’ve already answered that.”







–When you returned to the dugout during the eighth inning, Kikuchi was sobbing.

“That was sobbing to end all sobbing. That really surprised me. I couldn’t help but laugh a little.”

–What did you say when you gave him a hug?

“That’s private. I don’t mind if Yusei tells you. I’m not going to.”

–Because it’s a secret?

“Of course it is. It’s private conversation between two people. Furthermore, it would be asinine if I were to tell him something (in private) and then come here and say ‘This is what I told him.’ No one would trust somebody like that. You can’t do that.”




–Do you have any thoughts about the fans in America or a message for them?

“The American fans were really harsh at first. During my first spring training in 2001 they often said, ‘Go back to Japan’, but there is respect once you produce. I don’t know if I should grade them on this or not. I guess you can say that they can change their opinion of you very quickly.”

“My take is that they respond with a powerful demonstration of respect to your deeds as opposed to what you say. So they don’t let you in easily, but once they do, you get the feeling that they are very close to you, making for a strong relationship. I think maybe I was able to achieve that in Seattle, though that’s just my impression.”

“Some things about New York are hard. But, if you do make a connection, you feel they are more passionate than anywhere else. Miami has a strong vibe of Latin culture and you don’t much pressure, but if you don’t produce, they won’t let you in either. Every place has its own character, it was really interesting, and I was able to build relationships in those different places. Because every place has some special feel to it, you get the feeling how big America is. Just seeing at the characteristics of the fans impresses you with America’s size. At the end I wore a Seattle uniform, but feel I owe an apology to those fans for not wearing it at it’s not Safeco Field anymore…”

Read Part 1 of the press conference HERE.

Ichiro from start to finish, part 1

Ichiro Suzuki announced his retirement at a press conference after midnight in Tokyo on Friday, March 22. I have translated the entire press conference from start to finish to give you a sense of how it went down. I hope you enjoy. I have included the original Japanese text. The questions have been mercilessly shortened, however.

He made two curtain calls, once after he left the game at the start of the bottom of the eighth inning, and again after the Mariners’ extra-inning win over the Athletics.

Ichiro Suzuki tips his cap to the Tokyo Dome crowd in what became his sayonara game. Photo by Seito Takamizawa.

「こんなにいるの? びっくりするわぁ。そうですか。いやぁ、この遅い時間にお集まりいただいて、ありがとうございます。


“So many people here. That’s a surprise, but I want to thank you for gathering at this late hour.”

“With today’s game, I brought my time as a pro, nine years in Japan, 19 years in America, to and end, as I have retired. I felt extremely blessed to wear this uniform approaching this day. These 28 years cover such a span that it’s hard to recall each and every detail. I am grateful to all those who have cheered me on. Also to the people in the organization, and to my teammates I want to express my gratitude. Now I want to answer each of your questions to the extent I can.”



–What was the reason behind the timing of your decision?

“As for when I knew, it was at the end of camp, a few days before I was to come back to Japan. I can’t exactly say how many days before that was, but just some point toward the end of camp. My contract stipulated I would be able to play this time at Tokyo Dome, but I couldn’t hide the fact that I wasn’t getting it done.



–Is there any lingering regret or remorse?

“After that response at the stadium tonight, what they showed me, no I don’t think there will be any remorse. Of course, I feel I could have done more, but all the things I did in order to get good results…I can’t say I worked more than anyone else, because that’s not the case. But what I can say clearly is that I did things my way as well as I could. If you keep grinding and grinding like that, then I have to think there’s no room for regret.”



–Do you have any message for the kids?

“It’s a simple message, although I’m not good at such things. If you find something you’re passionate about – it doesn’t matter whether it’s baseball or not – then you can pour your energy into that. The sooner you find that the better. If you find it, you can tackle the obstacles in your way. You can go beyond them. Because people give up when they get to an obstacle if it’s not (something they have discovered a passion for) . I think you should try different things, and chose something you like rather than chosing something based on whether it’s easy or not.”


「今日を除いてですよね? この後、時間が経ったら、今日のことが真っ先に浮かぶことは間違いないと思います。ただそれを除くとすれば、いろいろな記録に立ち向かってきた……ですけど、そういうものはたいしたことではないというか、自分にとって、それを目指してやってきたんですけど、いずれそれは僕ら後輩が先輩たちの記録を抜いていくというのはしなくてはいけないことでもあると思うんですけども、そのことにそれほど大きな意味はないというか。そういうふうに、今日の瞬間を体験すると、すごく小さく見えてしまうんですよね。

「その点で、例えば分かりやすい、10年200本続けてきたこととか、MVPを取ったとか、 オールスターで獲ったとかは本当に小さなことに過ぎないというふうに思います。今日のこの、あの舞台に立てたことというのは、去年の5月以降、ゲームに出られない状況になって、その後もチームと一緒に練習を続けてきたわけですけど、それを最後まで成し遂げられなければ今日のこの日はなかったと思うんですよね。今まで残してきた記録はいずれ誰かが抜いていくと思うんですけど、去年5月からシーズン最後の日まで、あの日々はひょっとしたら誰にもできないことかもしれないというような、ささやかな誇りを生んだ日々だったんですね。そのことが……去年の話だから近いということもあるんですけど、どの記録よりも自分の中では、ほんの少しだけ誇りを持てたことかなと思います」

–What scene stands out as the most impressive scene (in your career)?

“Excepting today? As time goes by, I think it will be clear that today was No. 1. If I exclude today, I’ve surpassed different records, but how special are those? For me, I aspired to achievement various things, but records of players from past generations are made to broken by future generations. So how meaningful are they in that sense? Having physically experienced that moment today makes those other things seem exceedingly small.”

“In that respect, 200 hits for 10 years, winning an MVP, being an All-Star Having physically experienced that moment today, makes those other things seem exceedingly small. To be standing where I was, after last May when I was unable to play. I was still, however, able to practice with the team. Had I not kept at it, today never happens. Someday, someone will eclipse my records. I’m sure of that. But what I was able to do last year from May until the final day of the season was an opportunity that perhaps no one else gets and I felt some measure of pride in that. More than my records, I think how things went last year (after May) is something for me to be a little proud of.”







–How about the fans who have supported you?

 “I never imagined something like that might happen after the game. I was preparing for my 19th season in America, where one doesn’t normally sense the amount of heat Japanese fans generate. Playing for the first time at Tokyo Dome in such long time, the game proceded quietly in general. There’s a general impression that Japanese are not good at expressing themselves, and I had felt that, too, but the fans that whole image on its head.”

“We definitely have passion inside us, but when we express that passion the force of that was something I could never imagine until now. Because of that, that will always be the most special moment.”

“There was a time when I played only for myself and for my team. I kind of suspected that I could give joy to spectators, but that was something that really only took hold after I got to New York. My greatest joy became making other people happy. I think it’s fair to say that from that point, I could not generate my own energy without the fans.”

“OK that was kind of a weird thing for me to say.”



–Is there something you are really determined or were determined about?

“I’ve loved baseball, and that’s something that has never changed.”


「プロ野球生活の中ですか? ないですね。これはないです。ただ、子どもの頃からプロ野球選手になることが夢で、それが叶って、最初の2年、18、19の頃は1軍に行ったり来たり……。行ったり来たりっておかしい? 行ったり行かなかったり? え? 行ったり来たりっていつもいるみたいな感じだね。あれ、どうやって言ったらいいんだ? 1軍に行ったり、2軍に行ったり? そうか、それが正しいか。そういう状態でやっている野球は結構楽しかったんですよ。で、94年、3年目ですね。仰木監督と出会って、レギュラーで初めて使っていただいたわけですけども、この年まででしたね、楽しかったのは。あとは、その頃から急に番付を上げられてちゃって、一気に。それはしんどかったです。


–Ken Griffey Jr has said that when he was able to just unburden himself, he was able to see baseball differently, that it became fun again. Did you experience that kind of moment?

“As a pro? No. That has not been the case. When I was a boy, my dream was to become a pro. Then when I realized that, the first two years, when I was going to and coming back from the first team. Is ‘going and coming back’a strange way of saying it? How about ‘going and not going?’ It felt like I was always going and coming back. Hold on a second. How do you say that? ‘Going to the first team, and then going to the second team?’That sounds right. Is that right? In that context baseball was pretty fun. Then in 1994, my third season, having met manager (Akira) Ogi, I was used as a regular for the first time. Until that year, baseball was fun. After that, I shot up the ‘banzuke’ (sumo rankings). That was brutal. It’s very tough. ”

“You begin to be evaluated based on things that have nothing to do with how well you play. That is really hard. After that was it purely fun? Of course, it was worthwhile. I could derive a sense of accomplishment and a lot of satisfaction. But fun? No it was different. However, after having spent all this time (playing baseball), in the future I still have a notion about simply having fun playing ball. It’s somewhat ironic, but once I’d realized my dream of playing pro ball, I’d sometimes dream of baseball that wasn’t like in the pros.





–From now one what kind of gift are you going to give us?

“Please don’t ask those announcer-type questions.”

–You said this opening series was a great gift, but this feels like we’ve received a great gift.


“Please don’t say absurd things. But, still this (experience) was an amazing gift. In March of last year, I received an offer from the Mariners, and that has led me here today. Had my career ended there (in March), it wouldn’t have been unusual in any way. The same goes for the end of last spring. It would have been normal (to end it then). For things to turn out like this is unbelievable. I was thinking about it during the offseason (prior t o 2018), when I was preparing at the ballpark in Kobe to play in America. Practicing there in the cold was disheartening. My heart was broken.

“At that time, I was also supported by my friends, but at the end of the day I was thinking that my career would end quietly at the ballpark in Kobe, where I worked out by myself. Something like this is dreamlike. This is also a big gift for me. I’m not quite answering the question, but I have no gift for you.”

Thinking man’s game

When Ichiro Suzuki debuted in the majors in 2001, he was a joy to watch, a speedy highly-skilled, athletic antithesis to the performance-enhancing drug revolution, a player who bucked the trend and succeeded despite an aversion to honing his home-run hitting skill.

At his retirement press conference in the early morning hours of March 22 in Tokyo, Suzuki lamented American Baseball’s newest thing, an obsession with launch angle that has fueled home run and strikeout rates.

“The baseball played in America in 2019 has completely changed since I arrived in 2001,” he said. “It’s moving toward a game where you can now get by without using your head. I wonder how this might change. I don’t see this trend stopping over the next five years, or 10 years or for the forseeable future. Fundamentals mean nothing. Perhaps saying that might cause trouble. (Saying) that looks like it definitely will be a problem.”

“On a fundamental level, baseball is a game that requires thinking. That it’s losing that makes me sick. America is baseball’s birthplace, and I believer that a lot of people have a sense of urgency over what the game is becoming. So I think there is no need for Japan’s game to follow America’s. The Japanese game should be a thinking, interesting brand of ball. As long as this trend in America does not stop, I hope Japanese ball doesn’t change and that we remember to cherish it.”

This is hardly an unusual opinion from someone steeped in the Japanese game and the thread of Japan’s cultural narcicism that claims Japanese have unique attributes. Ask any Japanese baseball person about what defines major league baseball, they will say, “speed and power,” and if they don’t I’ll give you a dollar.

Japanese baseball, they’ll tell you, is “komakai” – detailed. Saying major leaguers have “power and speed” is at best a left-handed compliment, like saying black players are “natural athletes.” The implication is that American players don’t have to hone their craft the way less genetically blessed Japanese players do. In other words, our players work to get good, theirs are just bigger.

It perfectly suits an ideology that dictates every amateur game be treated as a war in itself. No amount of practice is too much, no concern for your best pitcher’s arm too great to prevent him from pitching when not doing so would increase the chances of losing.

While Ichiro is considered a paragon of Japan’s small game of “kowazara” or subtle techniques, and is a master of fundamentals, those things – as much as yakyu apologists would have you believe – are not the same as “thinking baseball.”

Indeed, Japanese amateur baseball activists will tell you that “thinking” is an endangerd concept in the Japanese game, because children are being taught not to think but to execute orders in order to minimize the risk of errors that could cost games.

Ryunosuke Seto, the chief executive of the Sakai Big Boys sports club in Osaka, said Japanese baseball programs kids to play according to fixed routines, instead of teaching them to adapt.

“Kids need learn to build their own software, but if you just give them the answers, they don’t learn to solve problems. When they get older, they can’t figure things out,” Seno said.

While Suzuki is an advocate of cultivating various different skills that Japanese doctrine says can be used to exploit opponents’ weaknesses, and being precise in execution, he was never one to play by the unwritten rules. While his slash-hitting and speed game is not far from Japan’s ideal, he succeeded with an unorthodox batting style that flouted convention.

As a left-handed hitter with speed, he would have been expected to not try and drive the ball, but to hit grounders to the left side of the infield and hope to beat them out, because that is what fast left-handed hitters are trained to do in Japan.

Smart, quick-thinking players like Ichiro are a huge advantage on the field. Equating Japanese baseball with quick thinking because of Ichiro, however, would be a mistake.

Spring break

I want to apologize for the lack of posts these past few weeks. I was just hyper busy since coming back from the States, finishing one assignment for Kyodo and two stories on Ichiro Suzuki. Then I caught one of my colds from the netherworld. The doctor didn’t believe my influenza test was negative until I’d had three of them, but after two days he ruled out the flu and pneumonia to account for my 39.2 C temperature and other symptoms.

After 72 hours and medication I was feeling fit enough to do a podcast, our PL prediction show, on Sunday night, my not so happy birthday — to be aired March 25.

I almost made it to the ballpark on Monday but my fever came back a little in the morning, as it did again this morning, and I’m back to the office after seven days off — the first four of which I could barely concentrate for 5 minutes at a stretch or eat or taste anything.

But enough about me. Since I returned to Japan on March 6, I’ve interviewed the head of Yoshitomo Tsutsugo’s youth baseball club in Sakai, Osaka, Ryunosuke Seno, the head of the Japan Rubber Baseball Association, Toyomi Munakata, as well as Lotte Marines manager Tadahito Iguchi. So, there is lots in the works that I need to get cracking on.

The months matter

A recent discussion in the “Hey Bill” feature in billjamesonline discussed why some players do better than others and brought up the topic of relative age effects. I did a study about 10 years ago about the effects of NPB players’ birth months that was published in the Daily Yomiuri, which means it’s disappeared from the web. The upshot of that study was that players born from April 2 to June 30 are over-represented in the NPB amateur draft and, on average, have less valuable careers than player born from July 1 to April 1–the cutoff date for school admissions.

Children born on April 1 will enter school in Japan a year before a child born the following day.


I replicated the study using every domestic player signed by an NPB team from the end of the 1965 season through the start of the 1997 season. Omitting four players I don’t have birth dates for, that remaining group of 2,160 players contains two active players, Ichiro Suzuki and Kazuya Fukuura. And whatever they produce in 2019 is not going to affect anything one way or another. The starting point of the study was set by the introduction of NPB’s first draft in 1965.

Breaking down each quarter of a year by birth month — with April 1 counting as March — and draft round. The most populous cell is the 127 signed first-round picks signed who were born from April to June. The second most is the 121 players born in those months taken in the second round. As expected, the 341 “haya umare” or early-born players whose birthdays go from Jan. 1 to April 1, make that quarter the least populous.

The table below gives the career win shares produced by players born in each quarter and the total number in each group, without reference to draft round.

The last thing that needs to be mentioned is the problem of value in the major leagues. Major League win shares are given 20 percent more weight in the calculations. It’s just a guess. They could be 50 percent more valuable for all I know.

Distribution of domestic players by birth-month quarters

Avg WS210.0230.5306.8223.0
Percent of total34.930.119.215.8

The favoritism in the draft show players born in the April-June quarter is exacerbated by an even higher share of those players taken in the first two rounds, and by the performance of those players.

Value rank of birth-month quarter by round

RoundQuarter starting Avg WS Best career
1stJuly68.8Kazuhiro Kiyohara, 1B
1stJanuary60.2Masaki Saito, P
1stOctober59.7Koji Yamamoto, CF
2ndOctober55.6Taira Fujita, SS
3rdOctober54.7Hiromitsu Ochiai, 1B
2nd January48.1Hiromitsu Kadota, DH
1stApril44.6Hideki Matsui, CF
2ndJuly44.5Keishi Suzuki, P
4thOctober39.0Ichiro Suzuki, RF
3rdJanuary38.8Yoshihiko Takahashi, SS


Another thing that needs to be mentioned is that the birth-month quarter starting in January is largely populated by pitchers and catchers. In my previous study, I found that more than a quarter of the players drafted as catchers were born between Jan. 1 and April 1.

When I first did this study, a number of people gave me what I’d snarkily call “baseball announcer explanations” for why players born from October to April 1 outperform the players who are chosen more often by pro teams. The most popular one of these was, “Oh, they’re used to overachieving, so they try harder.”

All these guys try hard. I think there are three things going on.

  1. Accessibility
  2. Age bias
  3. Burnout


Players who are born after April 1 are larger and physically more developed than players months younger than they are. This gives them more time to play, more time to stand out and be noticed by coaches, who select them to play so that they can be seen by scouts.

Age bias

Because players born from October to April 1 are less physically developed than the players they are competing against, they are less likely to dominate competitions when scouts are watching.


This is something that hadn’t occurred to me until recently. According to people who know a lot about how youth baseball functions in Japan, many of the players who eventually turn pro in Japan are not the best in their age groups when they are young. Amateur sports in Japan are intense, year-round, meat-grinding wars of attrition.

The best players typically become pitchers, and because competition (with the exception of university baseball) is in single-elimination tournaments, those aces throw game after game until their bodies break down. They are then surpassed by those who were a step behind them a year or two earlier.

Many of Japan’s best pitchers were not aces in elementary school or junior high. Masahiro Tanaka was a catcher until high school. Koji Uehara ran track in junior high and was an outfielder until his senior year in high school, when his school’s ace, Yoshinori Tateyama began to break down from injury.

It is not that much of a stretch, then, to see many of those players born from April to June as being at the end of their physical tethers by the time the pros call on them.

I know I’ve talked about this before

If we make a top-25 of players in NPB’s draft era, the best single draft round was the first round of the 1968 draft, Hall of Famers Hisashi Yamada, Koji Yamamoto, a player who has curiously been overlooked for the Hall, Michio Arito, and another who will eventually make it, Koichi Tabuchi.

The second best group are three from the Fab 4, the fourth round of the 1991 draft, Ichiro Suzuki, Tomoaki Kanemoto and Norihiro Nakamura.

writing & research on Japanese baseball