Tag Archives: Koji Uehara

No decision for Sasaki

Roki Sasaki announced Wednesday that he has registered for Nippon Professional Baseball’s amateur draft, displaying no interest in being a trailblazer in the ways of how amateur players deal with NPB teams.

The Ofunato High School pitcher was clocked (by one Chunichi Dragons scout) at 163 kph in April at a tryout camp for prospective national Under-18 players. The other scouts in attendance had him at 161, which is still just over 100 mph. He hit just under 100 mph in August’s Iwate-prefectural tournament.

Over a third of MLB’s 30 teams have been following the lanky right-hander with interest in hopes perhaps that he would bypass the NPB draft and sign directly with an MLB team in the 2020-2021 international signing window starting next June.

“I can’t even think of the major leagues now,” Sasaki said. “I want to do my best in Japan first.”

Because of his talent, Sasaki could have told the 80 or so members of the media what NPB teams were most frightened of: that he would only sign with a team that was willing to post him or that whoever drafted him would have to speak to his agent.

Those things could still come to pass, but don’t hold your breath. Japanese youth baseball teaches a lot of things that are not very useful, but it also teaches humility. When you go to the baseball ground, players doff their caps to every adult they pass and greet them.

It would have been a huge shock for Sasaki–even with a former pro ballplayer as his high school manager–to break with that tradition of subservience by assuming he had any right to sit at the same table with the teams that are now lining up to exploit him.

“There are 12 (Japanese) teams, and I desire to do my best wherever I go,” the 1.90-meter Sasaki said. “I want to become the kind of player who inspires children to dream and hope.”

That’s the script he’s been learning since he was a boy.

If he does sign with the Hawks or the Giants, he has to know what Koji Uehara didn’t realize when he turned pro with Yomiuri after turning down a huge offer from the Angels.

“Nine years (to free agency) is an awfully long time,” he said 10 years ago in an interview with the Daily Yomiuri. “But when you’re young you don’t think about that. You only think about the next step.”

One would hope that before he signs he gets a chance to sit down and chat with star Hawks pitcher Kodai Senga. One of Japan’s premier pitchers for the past four years, Senga is now 26. Because he was shuttled in and out of the Hawks roster for four years, he has only amassed five years of service time, although he turned pro out of high school.

At this pace, Senga will be eligible to file for international free agency after the 2023 season. He has asked SoftBank to post him and they’ve said, “We appreciate your concern, but we own you.”

Ideally, Sasaki would sign with a club that would promise to post him when he’s 25, so he can learn how to pitch in an extremely competitive environment, enter MLB as an international professional free agent, and reap his club a rich reward.

If he signs with the Hawks or Giants it will be another case of a pitcher spinning his gears, waiting for a chance that won’t come until he’s too old to learn some of the lessons he needs to realize his maximum potential. There’s no place better in the world to learn how to pitch than Japan, but there are things you can’t learn here.

Maverick Uehara runs his course

Former Yomiuri Giants ace and Boston Red Sox closer Koji Uehara announced his retirement Monday in Tokyo, bringing an end to an entertaining and dynamic career in which he became the first Japanese player to register 100 wins, saves and holds.

At a press conference in which the 44-year-old worked in vain to hold back tears, saying he came into the season knowing it would be his last. Three months after the start of camp and unable to get batters out on the farm despite feeling fit, Uehara said he wanted to call it quits sooner rather than later – when a retirement press conference might be a distraction during the pennant race.

Read a transcript of Uehara’s retirement press conference in Tokyo HERE.

Uehara burst on the scene in 1999, going 20-4 for the Giants after he turned down the Angels, who were said to have offered a deal worth $9 million – about seven times what an NPB team could officially offer an amateur.

In 2005, he told Japan’s Daily Yomiuri (now the Japan News) the Giants guaranteed he would start on the first team, while the Angels would only go as far as handing him a Double-A opening. Between that, not having to be deal with a language barrier and whatever the Giants were offering under the table, Uehara signed his future away to Yomiuri.

Within a few years, however, Uehara was pushing the Giants for an early exit so he could play in the majors.

“Nine years needed for free agency in Japan is truly a long time, but as an amateur, you don’t think about that,” he told the Daily Yomiuri.

When the Giants’ windbag owner Tsuneo Watanabe told the media that he would fire any player who asked to be posted, Uehara demanded to be posted. When Watanabe threatened to release any player with the temerity to send an agent to contract negotiations, Uehara sent his agent, only for the Giants to deny that Uehara’s representative was in fact an agent.

When Japanese players aquire the service time needed to file for free agency, NPB alerts the media, and reporters descend on them, only to hear, “We’re in the middle of the season. My only focus is on winning a championship.”

Not Uehara.

“I’m going to the majors,” he said during the middle of the 2008 season, a mediocre year that went downhill after he broke the taboo of talking about free agency during the season.

In 1999, he won the Central League’s rookie of the year award and winning the Sawamura Award as Nippon Professional Baseball’s most impressive starting pitcher.

At the end of the season, with the Giants out of the pennant race, Uehara made a meme of himself by protesting a Japanese baseball custom of not competing in order to assist a teammate’s pursuit of an individual title.

With Hideki Matsui pursuing the CL home run title, Uehara was ordered to walk Yakult Swallows slugger Roberton Petagine. Uehara, showed his bent for idealism and tears by crying on the mound, and his distaste for the order by kicking the dirt on the mound after Petagine trotted to first base.

The following year Uehara began suffering the first of a long series of leg injuries but bounced back to be one of the league’s top pitchers from 2002 to 2004. For two years after that Uehara battled more injuries and in 2007 was sent to the bullpen, where he was dynamite as the Giants despite constantly lobbying for a return to the rotation that his fitness wouldn’t justify.

He got a brief shot at starting in 2008 but failed badly, and chose the Baltimore Orioles the following season because they promised him a chance to start in 2009. Traded to the Texas Rangers in 2011, the following season, he was in a pitching staff with two former NPB strikeout leaders, Colby Lewis and Yu Darvish, as well as his high school teammate, Yoshinori Tateyama.

In high school, Tateyama had been the ace, while Uehara who had run track in junior high, was an outfielder, whose principle mound role came as a senior as a batting practice pitcher. He didn’t begin pitching in earnest until he entered university, where he went to earn a teaching credential.

Uehara’s stay with the Rangers, however, was brief. He was cut loose after a poor run of results at the end of the 2012 season and available to the Red Sox at a bargain price and finished seventh in the American League’s Cy Young Award voting.

After one last season in the majors with the Chicago Cubs in 2017, Uehara, at 42 with 95 MLB saves under his belt said he would retire rather than return to NPB, but in March he admitted that he was not ready to give up the life of a pro ballplayer and signed with Yomiuri.

He pitched in 36 games last year for the Giants, going 0-5 with 14 holds and no saves. Last October, he had surgery to clean out his left knee. The Giants released him and re-signed him for 2019 after he was declared fit.

Although he said he was fit all spring, he was ineffective. Through April, he toiled with the Giants’ minor leaguers. He struck out 10 batters in nine innings in the Eastern League but allowed four runs. At his retirement press conference on Monday, he said he’d come into the 2019 season knowing it would be his last. That knowledge, he said, hindered his search for the extra gear he might have had that would turn his year around.

“If you have a next year, then you work even harder,” he said. “This year I was going to compete for a full season, but I had already told myself I didn’t have any more next years. As one would expect, I found it very hard to keep my body and mind in sync.”

Koji Uehara retirement presser

「本日をもちまして、21年間の現役生活を終えたいな、と思います。えー……(涙をぬぐう。約10秒言葉に詰まる)。これまで自分に関わってくれた人、方々に感謝したいと思います。ありがとうございました」

Uehara: “Today, I’m calling an end to my active career of 21 years. I would like to thank those who’ve been on this journey with me.”


-引退を決めた今の胸の内は

上原: まぁ、もうちょっとやりたかったなという、そういう思いです。

–Your feelings today, having decided to retire?

Uehara: “Well, what I think is that I wanted to keep going a little longer.”

-引退を決めてからの心境の変化は

上原 自分が決めた以上、もうユニホームを着ることはないわけですから。気持ちを切り替えていかなければと今は思っています。

–How has your state of mind changed since your decision to retire?

Uehara: “Having made my decision, I won’t be putting on that uniform again. I believe now I need to change my mindset.”

-引退の決断のきっかけは

上原 もう今年で辞めることは最初から決めていたことなんで。3カ月が僕の中では勝負と思っていた。2月、3月、4月と練習する中で、1度も1軍に上がることなく、2軍で試合に投げさせてもらっても、抑えていないという葛藤もありましたし、8月、9月になるとチームが首位争いするという状況の中で、自分がこういう会見をするのは違うという思いがあったので、早く終わろうと思った。

–What was the impetus behind your decision to retire?

Uehara: “I had already decided that I would quit this year, and in my mind I felt three months would be make or break. February, March, April I trained, but was never called up to the top team. And when I was given opportunities to pitch on the farm, even then I couldn’t get guys out. I thought it would be best to do it earlier rather than later. In August or September, with the team embroiled in the pennant race, calling a press conference like this would be quite a different thing from this.”

-心と体のズレはあったか?

上原 手術して、体自体は良い調子というかね、全然投げられる状態ですけど。その状態の中で2軍戦で通用していなかったというのが、自分の中で気持ち的に後ろ向きになったのかなと思ってます。

–Did you feel there was a gap between your mental image and your physical condition?

Uehara: “After surgery (left knee cleaning in October), my physical condition was good and I was able to throw fine. But even in that condition, it didn’t play in the minor league games. In my mind I thought I was going backwards.

-後ろ向きになった瞬間はこれまであったか

上原 何回かありましたけど。来年があるのであれば、もうちょっと頑張ろうと、今年1年やろうという気持ちになりましたけど、来年はもうないというのは自分の中で決めてましたから、うーん、やっぱり気持ちと体がなかなか一致しませんでしたというところですね。

–Have you had that feeling before that you were going backwards?

Uehara: “A number of times. If you have a next year, then you work even harder. This year I was going to compete for a full season, but I had already told myself I didn’t have any more next years. And as one would expect, I found it very hard to keep my body and mind in sync.

-同学年の福浦との対戦もあった。あれもきっかけ?

上原 福浦と対戦できたというのは僕の中で、すごくうれしかったこと。あと西武戦で稼頭央監督の目の前で投げられたのというのは、僕の中ではいい思い出と言ったらおかしいですけど、僕の中でこれでいいのかなと思いましたね。

–Last year you pitched against (Lotte’s) Kazuya Fukuura, who’s the same age as you. Did that trigger anything?

Uehara: “I was so thrilled to be able to face him. I also pitched against Seibu in front of Kazuo Matsui. It may sound strange to say those were good memories, but those things made me really happy.”

-どんな道のりだった

上原 まぁ、ケガばっかりの、中途半端だったかなと思いますね。

–How would you describe the path you took?

Uehara: “Well, it seems like I was always injured, so I think I only went halfway.”

-雑草魂で貫いた姿に感動したファンは多い

上原 手を抜いて投げたことはないですし、今年に限っても、若い選手と一緒に練習しましたし、抜いて練習してたことは自分のなかで一切無かったんで。そういう姿を見て、励みになってくれたらすごくうれしいことですね。

–A lot of fans were inspired by your tough, gritty attitude.

Uehara: “I never cut corners when I pitched. As far as this year, I trained alongside the young players, and never took shortcuts in practice. I’m really happy if others were encouraged by that.”

-「トリプル100」の記録はどう受け止める。

上原 それに関しては、中途半端かなと。どのポジションで全うしたわけでなく。中途半端に先発、中継ぎ、抑えとやっちゃったかなと思います。

— How is your triple-100 accomplishment received? (100 wins, 100 holds, 100 saves)

Uehara: “In regards to that, it’s kind of a mediocre achievement. I didn’t really succeed at any one thing. It’s mediocrity as a starter, as a middle reliever and as a closer.”

-野球を終えたこれからどうする

上原 正直、まだ何も考えてないです。明日からどうしようかなぁという感じです。

–Going forward, what comes after baseball?

Uehara: “Honestly, I haven’t thought of anything. I have a feeling that from tomorrow I’ll ask myself what I should do.”

-チームへのメッセージを

上原 今、首位争いしている中で、こんなことになって申し訳ないなと思います。でも、本当にチームは良い感じできているので、このままみんな頑張ってほしいなと思います。

–Do you have a message for your team?

Uehara: “Right now, we’re competing for the lead, so I apologize for doing this kind of thing. But having said that, the team has a really good feel to it. I hope they can keep doing well like this.”

Becoming a modern day Joshua

High school pitcher Roki Sasaki is in an unusual position.

Having pitched baseballs at 100 miles per hour, professional clubs in America and Japan may be more flexible than usual when it comes to negotiating with the Ofunato High School senior. Of course, whether he uses that leverage to break down barriers, or just goes with the flow is up to him.

The barriers

In my last post, I laid out the hurdles that stand in Sasaki’s way if he wants to play in the major leagues. A straight line may be the shortest geometric distance between two points, the quickest and easiest way for Sasaki to become a big leaguer might well be to play in Nippon Professional Baseball.

Ideally, he’d like to emulate fellow Iwate Prefecture native Shohei Ohtani and go to the majors as a 23-year-old as a veteran professional. Unfortunately, MLB closed that door before the 2018 season, by changing NPB teams’ posting fees to a percentage of a player’s contract and at the same time decided any overseas player under 25 can only sign a minor league contract and receive a case of catfood in exchange in lieu of a signing bonus. That worked for Ohtani because MLB exempted his NPB club, the Nippon Ham Fighters from the new rules and allowed them to request a $20 million posting fee.

So a 23-year-old posting is out of the question for Sasaki, who still might conceivably be drafted by a team that refuses to post players at all.

Ohtani had the option of going straight to a major league club out of high school as a pitcher but made the excellent choice of signing with the Fighters, a progressive organization that helped him nurture his unusual skill set and permitted him to go to the majors when he was ready. It seems unlikely an MLB club could have done as well.

The NPB advantage

If a teenager is really talented but not ready for the majors, NPB is a vastly better place to start than the U.S. minors. NPB’s two top leagues present a combination of world-class pitchers and hitters and a much lower floor for talent than in the majors. A really good youngster with confidence can test himself against some of the best in the world while still going up against players only a little better but more experienced than he is.

But having solved one problem by an NPB detour, only creates another for a major league aspirant: how to limit NPB’s nine-year indentured servitude and transition to MLB while young enough to make meaningful adjustments? The only meaningful way is to use his rare talent as a trumpet to bring down the barriers put in his way like Joshua and the Israelites were supposed to have done to the walls of Jericho.

Upsetting the applecart

In 2013, the wall of conventional wisdom that separated position players from pitchers — and said none shall ever do both – was broken because of Shohei Ohtani. In order to sign him and prevent the youngster from going to the U.S. as a pitcher, Fighters manager Hideki Kuriyama seized the moment, blew his trumpet and changed the world. Ohtani wouldn’t have gone that far on his own, but his talent, hard work — and his declared intent to play in America – brought Kuriyama and the Fighters to Jericho. The skipper didn’t bring down the wall but he created a breach big enough for Ohtani to step through and change baseball.

This autumn, Sasaki will be in the same position Ohtani was in late in 2012, and his choices will be difficult and fraught with anxiety and uncertainty. Assuming he wants to play in this year’s summer national high school tournament, and also hopes to play professionally in Japan, he will need to do what no one has ever done. He’ll have to announce he’ll only sign with a team that promises to post him on his terms.

That alone could generate as much negative press as Hideo Nomo’s announcement after the 1994 season that he was leaving Japan as a “retired player” to play in the majors. Nomo did the hard work, bore the brunt of the hostility, but he still needed help from agent Don Nomura and attorney Jean Afterman. And Sasaki, if he chooses to buck tradition and demand a posting promise before signing, is going to need some serious backup, too, and that will require him to break another taboo. Until now, no Japanese amateur — that I know of — has ever employed an agent to negotiate with the club that won his rights through the draft. And if the posting demand doesn’t force Japan’s ubiquitous sports dailies to exhaust their colored ink supplies, bringing in an agent – particularly one from the States — will.

Teams typically talk to a young draftee, his parents, his coach and perhaps a friendly advisor. But an agent? Not on your nelly. Perhaps they will and perhaps they won’t. Perhaps the team that drafts him will be the Yomiuri Giants or the SoftBank Hawks, who never post players and have no interest in opening that door for an 18-year-old. If so, they will wage a campaign through the media about the need to protect Japanese values and try to wait out the youngster. They won’t want to give up on him because NPB doesn’t hand out compensation draft picks the way MLB does.

The problem with that tactic, is that Sasaki, having gone to all the trouble of hiring an agent, will already have Plan B in place, which is to register with MLB in May for the next international signing period from July 2020 to June 2021. Perhaps that will light a fire under the NPB team in question and force them to deal fairly with Sasaki.

At the heart of the problem is the draft. It was implemented to keep amateurs from getting fair market value for their services and worked that way, until the top picks in America eventually started demanding something approaching fair value. The new CBA limits how much money teams can spend on signing bonuses, depriving the amateurs once more of their rights. In the same way, the new CBA allowed MLB clubs to pay Ohtani – an established star in a top-flight pro league– the same as an 18-year-old coming out of an American high school.

Japanese teams, too, have a signing bonus and contract limit on each sign newly signed draft pick, that apparently is now enforced. But they can offer more than money. They can offer — as the Fighters did with Ohtani —  a development plan and the right to choose his destiny. Baseball tradition, of course, weighs heavily against giving players options, but there are no rules restricting treating players like valued human beings.

Of course, there is no need to bend over backward for most players. This only applies to individuals who put themselves in prime position, as Ohtani did and Sasaki can. For those players with talent and options, walls can tumble, provided someone is willing to pick up that trumpet.

If young Mr. Sasaki really wants to play in the majors, there is no harm in playing Joshua and seeing what walls he can bring down.

The comic history of player agents in NPB

The story of agents negotiating for domestic players in Japan could have been written by Jerry Seinfeld. For years and years, owners would not negotiate with Japanese players’ agents. In short, the owners’ stance was “tradition.”

But as much as owners shout about traditions being inflexible, Japan’s loudest and most powerful owner over the past 40 years was also the most hypocritical. Enter former Yomiuri Shimbun president Tsuneo Watanabe, known far and wide as “Nabetsune.”

One of Japan’s most notable blowhards, then the “owner” of the Giants, Watanabe, was the leader in saying Japanese baseball relationships were unique and personal, where an agent had no place. Watanabe declared that any Giants player who hired an agent must be lacking in character and would be handed his release.

Then came pitcher Kimiyasu Kudo, now a Hall of Famer and the manager of the SoftBank Hawks. Kudo, who had joined the then-Daiei Hawks as a freee agent, tested the waters a second time after he’d helped the franchise to victory in the 1999 Japan Series. Kudo eventually signed with the Giants after sending his agent to negotiate. Other owners were livid that Nabetsune had broken ranks, but Watanabe said the attorney in question wasn’t acting as Kudo’s agent, and was only “meeting” with club officials – rather than negotiating.

The years went by and the owners continued to reject players’ agents, until the Giants did it again. This time, ace pitcher Koji Uehara sent his agent to talk with the club for his annual salary negotiation. Uehara had turned down a lucrative offer from the Angels to sign with the Giants out of university, and if Nabestsune would make good on his boast, the pitcher could go to the majors at his leisure. Unfortunately, as with Kudo, the Giants denied having talked with an agent, but rather with “a friend of the pitcher’s acting as an advisor.”

But that kind of newspaper fodder was bound to end, and did when the players union hired attorneys. Knowing “baseball tradition” has no legal weight regardless how many times their words appeared in the press, the owners accepted agents, but only for one year and only on a trial basis. That was 20 years ago,  and agents are now commonplace.