Tag Archives: NPB

Baseball’s Narcischism

Players in new countries often suffer a kind of culture shock when immersed in another country’s baseball culture. Latin American players sometimes comment on the lack of joy in Japan’s game, while many from North America find the endless meetings to discuss opponents’ tendencies and weaknesses mind-numbing.

Japanese describe western baseball as a game of speed and power. What sounds like praise is also an opaque slite that says Americans attempt to physically overpower baseball in a way that lacks the science, art and discipline revered in Japan.

Former Seibu Lions manager Haruki Ihara was fond of saying Japan had nothing to learn from MLB. This was an extreme example of the kind of misinformed nationalistic dogma that sports sometimes encourages, where it’s us versus them. Ihara is proud of the effort Japanese put into the game, and rightfully so. But to be dismissive of other styles and ways of thinking is to restrict what one can learn.

Baseball is parochial at heart. As much as sports can bring people together, it can also highlight minute differences in approaches, and to fans of the local game, that can mean a constant critique of the way others play. What are unwritten rules but an effort to assert that one set of behaviors is the “right way” to play the game and that conflicting views are “wrong?”

You see this as much off the field as on, where social Darwinism seems to steer much of the discussion of what baseball is towards those with the most influence and money.

Within any league you can name, because of owners’ wealth and their power to gift a region their brand of the game or take it elsewhere, they sometimes talk as if their businesses grant them a degree of ownership of what baseball is.

Owners and team executives are also sources for stories about policy, so it’s very easy for us in the media to be swayed by their point of view that baseball is a business. It’s one thing to explain why teams and leagues make decisions that adversely affect their customers, by using blackout rules or by manipulating service time. It’s another to argue that fans should accept that behavior.

Arguing that teams should manipulate service time to lengthen the time prospects need to reach arbitration is akin to arguing that political office holders should give sweetheart deals to big donors because “that’s how the system works.”

Although people make money off of baseball, it isn’t itself a business, it’s a game, and how it’s played, watched, and marketed as entertainment varies a lot. Just because Major League Baseball attracts more of the best players in the world, doesn’t make MLB synonymous with baseball or give its owners the power to decide what baseball is and isn’t even if they talk as if it does.

When people refer to “baseball” they so often mean “their baseball,” the game they grew up with and the way it is played by the teams they follow. For most modern American fans, social Darwinism is really part of their baseball, since MLB essentially lords it over its imperial colonies in the minor leagues. These people tend to see baseball as a kind of order of quality, with the quality of a league defined by its location in the world hierarchy.

With MLB nowhere near starting in the current coronavirus pandemic, Americans looked at other leagues and some desired to know where they fit in their stratified social Darwinism models. How good a league is CPBL? Is it better than Double-A? How about KBO? To answer that question, someone published a graphic that had MLB at the top followed in descending order by NPB, Triple-A, KBO, Double-A, CPBL, and so on down to rookie ball. I don’t remember if it had the Mexican league or not, which MLB has nominally labeled as “Triple-A.”

But Mexico, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan are different animals that aren’t organized by the same principles that govern talent within MLB’s imperial structure. In this regard, they are something like how minor league ball was in the United States, Canada, and Cuba before Branch Rickey and the Cardinals ruined it by spreading their tentacles across the continent much as the British Empire had around the globe in the preceding centuries.

By amassing resources, the Cardinals were able to compete at a high level and forced other teams to mimic them at a great cost to baseball across America. The creation of farm systems was a form of baseball eugenics to achieve efficiency at the cost of variety.

Pro leagues outside the majors’ imperial sphere aren’t “levels,” they are leagues, were like the majors, teams keep their top talent in order to win games. That makes their leagues vibrant sources of variation that enrich baseball as a whole. I believe baseball was better before MLB turned minor leagues and their teams into the baseball version of chicken houses, where poultry is grown to order in unhealthy conditions because they aren’t any part of a real ecosystem.

Baseball needs to grow and be part of places and cultures. And deciding where those cultures and their baseball ranks, as many baseball fans do around the world, is a vile, narcissistic exercise.

It’s not all about money

After meeting with health experts and his counterpart from pro soccer’s J-League, NPB commissioner Atsushi Saito then met baseball team executives. And though Saito did not announce a date for Opening Day — in keeping with Japan’s current pandemic view of “It will be over when it’s over” — he did say that could come as early as next Monday.

For the last 30 years or so, I’ve studied the differences between MLB and NPB and spent an inordinate amount of that time researching the cost and benefits of sacrifice bunts. But at no time has the difference between the two institutions been more clear than in the way they’ve handled the COVID-19 crisis. It makes me proud to know that my favorite team for all its flaws and all of NPB’s, plays here and is not associated with MLB.

Although NPB greeted the news of a pandemic with one new official Opening Day after another and MLB owners sounded like the adults in the room, saying “Let’s see how this plays out.” The roles quickly reversed. Since the end of March, when Japan’s Prime Minister realized that ignoring the virus while praying at the Olympic alter would not keep the games in Tokyo this summer, Japan has dealt with the issue in a fairly straight-forward manner.

In my homeland, it’s been different.

MLB owners: “By staying safe at home, you people are costing me money. Let’s talk about furloughs and pay cuts because I have a right to protect the return on MY investment.”

NPB owners: “We’ll beat this thing together. Stay safe. Stay ready.”

Frankly, I consider the words of NPB commissioners to be next to useless, but that was because of Saito’s predecessor, Katsuhiko Kumazaki. A former prosecutor, Kumazaki seemed to understand little about the game and really couldn’t give a straight answer to any question. But I’m becoming a fan of Saito, who seems to understand when to be precise and when to show his humanity.

I’ve written before about how Japanese businesses are constrained to some extent by the social demand that they show some concern for their employees. And though Japanese companies will happily tread over talented individualists while promoting incompetent flatterers, they still spend on “company vacations” for the entire staff. It’s more about appearance than real caring but that’s what is expected of them.

In baseball, teams run brutal practices and used to tolerate physical abuse by coaches, but pennant winners always get vacations in December — these days a paid trip to Hawaii for virtually everyone in the organization and their families. It’s expected. It’s part of the cost of doing business.

And while MLB owners are clearly using the pandemic to tighten the screws on labor and on the bargaining rights of amateurs, NPB owners have been behaving as expected, calmly, as if the players and their families actually mattered.

In the final question of Monday’s press conference, a reporter asked Saito if the owners had considered pay cuts to the players.

“At this time, that is something that we are not thinking about,” he said with a slight chuckle that certainly sounded like he was envisioning an MLB owner being grilled for the answer to that question.

100 years and counting

Six years ago, Nippon Professional Baseball tooted its horn about the 80th anniversary of pro baseball in Japan, citing the December 1934 organization of the Greater Japan Tokyo Yakyu Club, the team that was to play visiting major leaguers and become the founding member of Japan’s first pro league.

All of that is true, except for the part about 2014 marking 80 years since the start of pro baseball in Japan. But when the Yomiuri Giants say there’s something to celebrate, NPB organizes a party.

And because Japan’s baseball media suck up so much to the Giants that they create a vacuum, one rarely hears anything to the contrary. Thus it was a great surprise recently when I saw a headline referring to this year as the 100th anniversary of pro ball in Japan, marking the 1920 founding of Japan’s first professional baseball team, the Japan Athletic Association, also known as the Shibaura Association.

Not surprisingly, the story came from outside the mainstream baseball media, on FNN Prime, the website of Fukuoka broadcaster TV Nishinihon. The station has been championing the campaign of Hawks chairman Sadaharu Oh to push for NPB to expand to 16 teams.

It’s said history is written by the winners but in this case, history was written by the survivors. The Shibaura club had no pro league to play in, although a second team was formed in 1921 in Seoul, the capital of Imperial Japan’s colonized Korean peninsula. On June 21, 1923, the Shibaura Association, while on tour on the continent, played the Tenkatsu Baseball Team in Seoul. The hosts won Japan’s first pro baseball game 6-5.

The Shibaura Association won the other two games played between the clubs, the last in Tokyo on Aug. 30. Two days later, the Seoul club lost its equipment in the Great Kanto Earthquake, when much of Tokyo was reduced to ashes. That was more or less the end of the Tenkatsu team, although a kind of Tenkatsu cover band toured the United States the following year.

The Shibaura Association’s ground survived the earthquake but was mobilized for relief efforts after the earthquake and was never returned to the team, which officially folded the following January.

The news was not lost on Ichizo Kobayashi, the owner of the Osaka-based Hankyu railroad, which services the area between Osaka and Kobe. In 1923 he had proposed a league sponsored by private railroads in the region in order to attract riders to the lines serving the clubs’ ballparks. Perhaps with an eye on realizing that dream, Kobayashi formed a new team out of the remnants of the Shibaura Club and located them in Takarazuka, Hyogo Prefecture, a hot spring town near Osaka.

A financial panic in 1927 forced the Osaka Mainichi Newspaper to fold its corporate team, costing the Takarazuka Association its principal rival, and the Association folded for good two years later when the Great Depression hit Japan.

Although members of the Shibaura and Takarazuka teams played leading roles in the organization of the first league five years later, the Giants have nearly succeeded in erasing those teams from history.

During my time at the Daily Yomiuri, I frequently had to argue long and hard to edit out the phrase “Japan’s first pro team” in stories referring to the Giants and change the reference to the “oldest existing pro team,” which the editors could live with. The editors kept wondering why I couldn’t just get with the program and settle for the word “oldest” which our revered Japanese paper treated like a fact.

Asian baseball on American TV

My late pal Wayne Graczyk used to talk about the time he worked on the U.S. TV feed for the 1994 Japan Series alongside Ken Harrelson and Tom Paciorek when the major leagues were on strike, but otherwise Asian baseball on American TV has been a hit-and-miss affair.

On Thursday, Yonhap News reported that ESPN’s talks with the Korea Baseball Organization to air pro games from South Korea fell through. The report said the U.S. giant wanted the content for free, so that would seem like a non-starter.

South Korea suffered more severe early infections of COVID-19 than the United States. Despite Donald Trump’s boasts to the contrary, South Korea has done a vastly better job of controlling the coronavirus, and KBO is set to open its season, behind closed doors, on May 5.

Japan follows Trump’s lead

While Japan took some steps in February to stem the spread of infection by asking schools to close and event promoters not to attract crowds, the national government echoed Trump’s line that all was under control so that the Tokyo Olympics could go on as scheduled. Indeed, the biggest concern seems to have been suppressing the number of positive test results so as not to make people think Japan had a problem.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who seems to enjoy being in Trump’s orbit and who owes allegiance to the monied right-wing elites who fund his agenda, has said in essence, taking harsh measures to control the coronavirus is against the law and we lawmakers are helpless to change the law.

So it is that while Japan could have been in the same place as South Korea, with solid testing regimes and aggressive measures in place, it chose to test as few people as possible in order to keep published infection totals low. And while baseball might start here in June, it might not.

When it does, it will be very interesting if U.S. networks have any interest in broadcasting Japanese games. The Central League, where all teams hold exclusive broadcasting rights to their home games, is pretty much a no-go, but the Pacific League, whose clubs can market their rights jointly through Pacific League marketing, might have some attractive options available if baseball is being played here but not in the U.S.

Of course, there is always the chance that Japan, like ESPN, will boot its opportunity.

NPB and the fear of failure

In 2007, if I recall correctly, Bobby Valentine tried to introduce NPB to ESPN for the purpose of airing the Japan Series. The Series rights belong to NPB not to the individual clubs, although they have the right to select broadcasters for their home games in the postseason.

At the time, Valentine was the de facto general manager of the Lotte Marines, and team representative Ryuzo Setoyama — until he engineered Valentine’s ouster in a 2009 coup d’etat — sometimes cooperated with the skipper to pursue reforms. Setoyama broached the idea of having NPB sell the Japan Series broadcasting rights to ESPN, but according to Valentine, the other teams vetoed it.

“They said they were afraid that some kind of mistake might happen that would embarrass them,” Valentine told me at the time.

Of course, weird stuff has happened in the Series. Hall of Fame manager Toshiharu Ueda pulled his team off the field in 1978 to protest a home run he thought was foul. In 2004, accident-prone umpire Atsushi Kittaka’s poor execution of an out call at home plate caused Game 1 of the Japan Series to be delayed for 49 minutes.

And since Japanese baseball is about not losing by making mistakes, there may be some here who would consider vetoing a deal that could expose NPB to ridicule a victory.

The road to 16 teams: the talent pool

This is the second part of a series on the possibility of NPB expanding from 12 to 16 teams. Part 1 is HERE.

Expanding Japanese pro baseball from 12 to 16 or more teams is a tricky operation for a number of reasons but let’s address one here: the talent pool.

Because expansion will dilute the existing talent pool, some will argue it would make Nippon Professional Baseball’s product unmarketable. There is some truth to that. Suddenly adding 280 players to the existing 840 would force many players into starting jobs who could not make that jump without expansion or a rash of injuries.

That would make the games more interesting and lower the quality of execution in each game.

But the other side of the equation is that new jobs will open the door to groups of players: Those teams know can play but can’t commit to, and those that teams don’t know can play but who can.

Take Ichiro Suzuki. He fell somewhere in between those two categories. For two years, manager Shozo Doi wanted him to be a pinch-running, bunting and infield-single hitting defensive replacement. The team knew he could play a little but his refusal to adopt an orthodox batting stance limited his value in the eyes of the organization’s eyes — despite his amazing minor league results.

Even managers who are really good at spotting talent miss guys. Former Chunichi Dragons skipper Hiromitsu Ochiai was one of the best in the business at spotting what players were capable of, but he missed the boat entirely with outfielder Teppei Tsuchiya, who became a Best Nine-winning regular with the Rakuten Eagles.

The point is that teams make decisions about players, and often those decisions are wrong. An increase in jobs means more opportunities for players whose only failing is working for a team that doesn’t believe in him.

A side benefit of adding four teams would be bringing an end to NPB’s ridiculous limitation on imported talent. The purpose of that limit is ostensibly to give job opportunities to Japanese players, but it also means intentionally marketing an inferior product to the paying customers. The fans aren’t paying to see players who are Japanese, they’re paying to see baseball, and NPB needs to remember that.

Next, a look at how to identify new teams and cities.

What Japan needs to grow its game

The talk of expanding Nippon Professional Baseball by one third and increasing from 12 to 16 teams raises many questions, especially if one only sees it as grafting four additional teams to the current system, where only four or five of the existing clubs have made serious efforts at player development beyond the bare minimum.

What’s needed is a new set of rules and a new vision that sees Japan’s game as the visionary founder of the current establishment, Matsutaro Shoriki, ostensibly did, not just as a rival to Major League Baseball, but a superior product.

There are several obstacles preventing Japan from achieving these goals.

  1. The small number of professional players 70 players per team with an additional 60 or so on developmental contracts.
  2. This issue is exacerbated by the lack of playing time for those not on the active roster.
  3. A youth baseball culture that culls many of the best athletes from the talent pool through elbow and shoulder injuries caused by overuse before they even reach high school.
  4. This issue runs parallel to a declining birth rate and an even sharper decline in youth baseball participation as parents and kids opt for less dangerous sports with a less burdensome practice culture — as NBA player Rui Hachimura did.
  5. Limiting imported players to four on the active roster, making it difficult to invest in overseas amateurs.

No. 1 cannot be solved by keeping the current system as it is. Teams are tackling No. 2 piecemeal: Some have been aggressively investing, while others have done precious little. No. 3 is one area where progress is being made, with youth organizing bodies beginning to implement limits to curb coaches’ excesses, while No. 5 offers a solution to No. 4.

Considering Japan’s population — even with its declining birthrate, the idea that 12 pro baseball teams in a country with minimal competition from other pro sports is in itself a stretch. What is lacking is not money or population but sports business know-how and desire to be bigger. It doesn’t help that the Yomiuri Giants hate when teams gobble up their share of Japan’s unclaimed markets — as happened when Nippon Ham moved to Hokkaido.

The importance of being No. 1

Although top major league stars earn more than any players in NPB, many Japanese players will go to the States knowing it will mean a pay cut. Yet they go because it is a chance to compete against the best and because it is something different. It’s not always about money after a point.

If Japanese pro baseball were able to absorb a greater share of international amateur talent and develop it, and that is entirely possible, then that would put this country on a road that could lead to it having the best baseball in the world.

Of course, one of the benefits of having leagues on par with those in MLB is overseas revenue, something NPB has been blissfully ignorant of all these years. What’s the market in America when some of the best American players are in Japan? In Canada? In Mexico? You’ve got it.

Instead, the message has been: “Let’s keep it small. Let’s keep it Japanese. That’s enough.”

Starting small

My Japan Baseball Weekly Podcast partner, John E. Gibson, suggested that a development network be put in place first before expansion, and that’s a valid point. It’s also problematic.

Japan has pro teams in seven metropolitan areas, or eight if one wants to separate Yokohama and Kanagawa from the Tokyo megalopolis. The point is that until recently, pro baseball was about 12 first teams and farm teams. Independent minor leagues have been operating now for more than a decade but they are a new thing and are not really considered professional but exist in a kind of limbo world between the amateur and pro ranks.

The point is that unlike the United States, where every reasonably large city has a pro baseball team, either major or minor, Japan is either major or nothing. There is no tradition of local pro teams because pro baseball began in essence as a fully-formed league. Before then, there had been company teams and club teams and one independent pro team — the Shibaura Club.

Although the Yomiuri Giants tout themselves as Japan’s first pro team, they were, in fact, the second. If anything, the Hanshin Tigers have a better historical pedigree, as they were organized by former members of the original Shibaura Club.

The point is that the idea of most Japanese cities having their own pro ballclub may be kind of an alien idea. But having said that, when I lived in Hamamatsu, Shizuoka Prefecture, the people there talked about having an NPB franchise — instead of being a Chunichi Dragons satellite town.

The question is how does one get the locals to give their hearts to a hometown team that is professional but not NPB?

Pandemic causes WBC Déjà vu

The year 2020 has been so bad that NPB is ready to reset the clock to 2009, the last year its union threatened to boycott the WBC — partly over its March scheduling.

On Wednesday, Nippon Professional Baseball questioned whether it would be able to have the Olympic break in its schedule AND play in a March World Baseball Classic. So it may be no surprise that like it did in 2006, 2009 and 2012, NPB and its union are now preparing to hold their breaths until they either turn blue or get their way.

A March WBC in 2021 runs smack into two Japanese sporting obsessions: the volume of practice, and the primacy of the Olympics.

In 2017, when NPB announced Atsunori Inaba would be the national team manager on a four-year deal, everything, and I mean everything was about winning a gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics.

When a reporter asked about the 2021 WBC and if that was not also an important goal, everyone on the dais treated his question as shot as if he had jumped on a table, broken wind and shouted hallelujah!

In Japan, the WBC is a poor substitute for the Olympics, and NPB and its players would probably rather spend their time in March building up for the season and preparing for the Olympics than playing in the WBC.

Of course, the coronavirus, which forced the postponements of the first round of qualifiers in March may have something to say about whether there is a 20-team WBC next March or no WBC at all.

But if there is a WBC it’s going to come as a tug of war between Japan’s priority on the Olympics — which is forcing two teams out of their ballparks and messing big time with the schedule — and MLB’s complete and total lack of interest in the summer games.

NPB April start date springs leaks

Despite the teams’ chant of full-speed ahead toward an April 24 start to the season despite the coronavirus pandemic, Sports Nippon on Tuesday morning provided the first inkling that anyone in Nippon Professional Baseball is willing to consider anything else as they move forward.

Later in the day, the six Pacific League presidents met online and agreed that with infections on the rise, April 24 was probably out of the question, Sports Nippon reported.

“We started by setting an Opening Day target and teams have been counting backward from then to figure out when to resume practicing. But first of all, you wait until the epidemic settles down, then you resume practice and then you ask when Opening Day should be. That should be the normal order…”

Pacific League official cited by Sports Nippon.

NPB has now met three times with Japan’s J-League pro soccer executives to discuss how to proceed with their season and after meeting with a panel of experts, have twice pushed back the start of their season.

Here is a link to my coronavirus-NPB timeline

The story quoted secretary general Atsushi Ihara, as saying, “We are taking in the panel of experts’ evaluation, analysis and projection of the infection situation, and of course, we have to consider that.”

In addition to April 24, which NPB revealed in March was the last day their simulations suggested they could complete a full 143-game schedule, they have also run simulations for seasons that start on May 8 and May 15.

Reporting in a viral age

Colleagues from both sides of the Pacific had somethings to say about U.S. sports leagues closing their clubhouses to the media, ostensibly because of the coronavirus outbreak and not because Justin Verlander is angry with everyone.

Welcome to the club

Accredited media members in the U.S. are accustomed to getting structured access to the visiting and home clubhouses before and after games. They also ostensibly get pre-game access to the manager, and postgame press conferences with the home team manager and sometimes a player.

I’ve only covered a dozen or major league games in the States — including spring training — so that is more of a tourists’ impression rather than the word of real experience.

This is where the reporters get to interact on a frank level with players, and since I’m not a U.S. beat writer, I can’t speak of the value of talking to players in their sanctuary as opposed to on the field and in the dugout or on their way out of the clubhouse.

But it’s got to hurt reporters, suddenly having one of the key pillars of their daily reporting routine removed from the table.

The view from Japan

Baseball writers in Japan don’t get clubhouse access, period. We get what each team gives us in the time and fashion they choose to do so. Some managers speak to the media before games, some don’t. Everyone talks after games in a manner of their choosing.

Dan Orlowitz, who primarily writes about soccer in Japan, tweeted the following:

Wishing that were so in NPB

International baseball events in Japan, the Japan Rugby Top League and Japan’s pro soccer establishment, the J-League, all have scheduled press conferences and mixed zones, where players have to run the media gauntlet, NPB does things its way.

Pro baseball teams don’t generally offer wifi or LAN access, there is with the exception of Seibu’s MetLife Dome, no free coffee, and for damned sure they don’t have any structured methods for press access.

Because there is no clubhouse access in NPB, the first thing a reporter covering a team on the road has to do is find out where in that ballpark that team chooses to have its media availability. When Hiromitsu Ochiai managed the Chunichi Dragons, he didn’t stop to talk to reporters. They had to quiz him as he walked to the team bus, and sometimes he would stop at the bus.

Many managers, including most in the Central League, don’t have pregame media availability. For those guys, you can only hope they choose to listen to you as they walk by to take up their station behind the batting cage or on their way off the field.

Most teams now have manager availability after losses, something that didn’t used to be the case. Teams will make a player or two available after games at spots and times of their choosing. If the guy you want to talk to about the game isn’t on the list, then you have to wait for him to come out of the clubhouse and talk before he gets to the garage or gets on the visiting team bus.

Tuffy Rhodes: The beginning

On Tuesday, one of Japanese baseball’s all-time greats, Tuffy Rhodes, remained gathering dust in the middle of the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame players division voting results, omitted by more than 70 percent of the voters.

I spoke with Rhodes a year ago after Craig Calcattera wrote about Rhodes’ Hall of Fame slog, and Craig’s story sparked a small amount of outrage among Japanese fans. I expected to catch up with him in Phoenix last March and then write the interview but we never connected. Tuffy’s not a hermit, but he moves at his pace.

Here’s the first part of our interview — about how he got to Japan and what changed him. In 13 Japanese seasons, Rhodes’ 464 home runs are 13th most all time. He is 20th in career walks, 24th in runs.

“I’m the true definition of retired. I’m enjoying life,” he said, adding that the Hall of Fame debate doesn’t concern him.

“I try not to worry about things like that, that I don’t have control over. I would love to be in the Hall of Fame there. It would be a great honor. But you know, there are only two or three things in my life that outweigh the joy, the great time and the learning experience and the people I met in Japan. I can’t replace that.”

Rhodes said his parents encouraged everyone in their family to play sports and he played everything. His favorite was basketball, but baseball represented an opportunity the others didn’t.

There was more of an opportunity, a way to take care of my family,” he said. “I was highly drafted (3rd round) by the Houston Astros, and the bonus worked well. Your minor league pay is like $700 a month, and you’ve got to have four or five roommates just to survive.”

“I made the major leagues at 21. I found it was easy to get to the major leagues but the hard thing was to stay. I didn’t work as hard as I should have. I tried to rely on or depend on natural ability when everyone there had ability that was incredible. I learned it the hard way.”

He’s famous for his three-home run Opening Day against Dwight Gooden on April 4, 1994. However, Rhodes was 23 years old and the plan that season was for him to be the Chicago Cubs’ fourth outfielder.

“Glenallen Hill was hurt to start the season,” Rhodes said. “We had Sammy Sosa in right field making $6 million, and Derrick May in left making about $2 million, and Glen was making three or four million. And I was making about $300,000, but Glen got hurt and that opened the door for me. When he got healthy, he just took his job back. The hard thing was I could not make the adjustment to coming off the bench.”

The year before, Rhodes had really bloomed in Triple-A for both the Astros and Royals. His failure with the Cubs in 1994, however, exposed his inability to learn the game and adjust. The Cubs waved him, and he was picked up by the Red Sox. There, Roy Poitevint, who had created a cottage industry of funneling players to Japan, could shop him to a Japanese team.

Rhodes caught the eye of the Kintetsu Buffaloes’ Minoru Ichihara, and the subsequent scene came straight out of the movie “Mr. Baseball,” when the Red Sox gave him the news.

“They said, ‘We’ve got good news and bad news,'” Rhodes said. “I said, ‘What’s the good news?’ He said, ‘We have a team that wants you to play every day.’ I said to myself, ‘Well, hell. There can’t be no bad news.’ He said it was in Japan and showed me the contract they were offering me, I didn’t think twice about it. I just said, ‘Where do I sign?’”

“I didn’t give 120 percent in America, the total commitment to baseball. I told myself, when I get to Japan I’m going to do whatever it takes to play as long as I can. I didn’t think it was going to be 13 years.”

“I got older, and I started developing. I started lifting weights. I never lifted weights in the States. Oh my goodness, no.”

So he entered a world where his willingness to learn and maximize his potential was matched only by the desire of his coaches to teach him their game. The result was some tough love and a lot of magic.

“In Japan, the spring trainings were totally different. It was work, work, work. And they teach you how to play tired. I was going to do whatever it took. I was going to do everything. I wasn’t going to complain about nothing. Was I shocked? Yes. Especially when I had to take an hour of batting practice by myself. My first year, Sasaki kantoku (manager) made me take batting practice for an hour by myself. Unbelievable.”

“Luckily the next day was a day off. I didn’t come out of the room. I didn’t eat dinner that night. I didn’t come out of my room the next day. I was done. But it taught me, how to use my hands and relax in situations when you’re tired. It worked out well.”

Like a lot of players who come to Japan, Rhodes did not start his first season on fire. But the Buffaloes gave him the time to figure things out.

“They were very accommodating each year, one other thing that was very good was that I was on the Kintetsu Buffaloes,” he said. “I wasn’t on the Hanshin Tigers, I wasn’t on the Tokyo Giants or the Chunichi Dragons. I was on a team like the Minnesota Twins or the Cincinnati Reds, so the spotlight wasn’t on our team so much.”

“I hit .240 or .250 until I figured out the baseball here. If I had hit .240 with the Hanshin Tigers or Tokyo Giants, I probably would have had a one-year experience in Japan.”

Were some things harder to get used to?

“The bunt in the first inning, the managers getting on the younger kids hard,” he said. “I’ve seen one of my managers smack one of the rookie players for missing the bunt sign in Tokyo Dome my first year and I could not believe it.”

“At the same time, there was the discipline part. You had no choice not to do it. I’m the kind of guy who needs somebody behind me. I need a personal trainer if I’m going to work out. I need a coach if I’m going to work out. I need a schedule, and I know I’m that type of person, so Japanese baseball was great for me. They taught me how to play chess instead of checkers.”

“They taught me to look for 2-0 curveballs and forkballs, to not always look for a fastball. In America, we look for the fastball and react to the breaking balls. They taught me to look for different pitches in different counts I had one pitcher, he threw 95 miles an hour, but 3-2 he threw me a changeup 95 percent of the time. I knew just because of my books and my notes.”