Dennis Sarfate did more than just blossom as a baseball player in Japan, he turned his life around.
On Saturday, the SoftBank Hawks right-hander announced on his Facebook page that he is headed for a career-ending hip-replacement surgery. He achieved great things in Japan, won awards, set records and earned the respect of Japanese people in the game–which is no easy accomplishment.
But he is more than that.
Sarfate once said how after making it to the majors, he had everything he’d wanted., but despite a beautiful loving wife and a dream job, he was extremely unhappy and admitted he went through a time when he didn’t want to live.
Coming to Japan, he said, coincided with his finding his Christian faith, and this changed him. He learned as I assume most people do at some point, that life isn’t about you, but what you can do for others, what you can build with others.
When Sarfate arrived, he thought he was at the end. It turned out to be another beginning.
Like a lot of hard-throwing imported pitchers, his team expected him to blow fastballs past hitters. But Japanese baseball is more about execution than sheer physical strength, and Sarfate took that side to heart, and like a lot of others who have come here and had success, he embraced the opportunity to learn and grow.
He rediscovered his curveball, mastered throwing it for strikes, learned to command a splitter.
Sarfate will talk about how others have changed him, his wife, his father-in-law, a pastor who influenced his spirituality, his teammates. One of those was catcher Toru Hosokawa, another former Seibu Lion, whom he worked with during his first three seasons in Fukuoka with the Hawks.
Hosokawa was always challenging him, making him be the best version of the pitcher he could be. Sarfate doesn’t say it, but his teammates tend to say the same about him. In Japan where complex is often misconstrued to be a synonym for quality, Sarfate helped other Hawks pitchers identify those things they needed to simplify their thought process on the mound.
He spent his first two seasons in Hiroshima pitching for the Carp, and I rarely had a chance to speak with him until 2013, when he pitched for the Seibu Lions, who play west of Tokyo, just across the border in Tokorozawa, Saitama Prefecture.
I found him to be straight forward and someone who will go out of his way to help others. He has always been happy to share his insight into Japan’s game and how he fit into it, and where he didn’t:”They don’t let me attend meetings.”
My favorite memory of Sarfate came on a scorching afternoon in Chiba, before a day game. I saw him and asked for yet another interview for the Japan Weekly Baseball Podcast, where he probably should be listed on the credits as a guest star considering the number of times he consented to be interviewed by John E. Gibson and myself.
He said he’d do it after he finished practicing, I had to do triple duty that morning, file a story on Masahiro Tanaka’s start for the New York Yankees, cover the Marines-Hawks game and grab an interview for our podcast that weekend.
I tried to finish my Tanaka story while watching the field to see when Sarfate was finished practicing so I could catch him. But as I concentrated more on the story, I focused less on the field. When I realized I had blown it, I went out to look for Sarfate against hope I might still catch him.
Just as I came out, I saw him disappear into the visiting locker room at what is now known as Zozo Marine Stadium. Then to my surprise, he came out, explaining he needed more water. He’d been getting dehydrated waiting in the sun for me to come out and start the interview. It was a small thing, but it told me a lot.
In 2017, Sarfate set Japan’s single-season save record, was named the Pacific League and Japan Series MVP and was awarded the Matsutaro Shoriki Award, an honor intended for the person who contributes the most to Japanese pro baseball.
The Shoriki Award is voted not by writers like most of Japan’s awards, but by a small panel commissioned by the award’s sponsor, the Yomiuri Shimbun. Non-Japanese had won it–the award was first created to honor Sadaharu Oh, a citizen of Taiwan, for hitting more home runs in Japan than Hank Aaron did in the majors.
Although Oh’s father was from China, he was born in Japan, and was always considered a domestic player. No imported player had ever won the Shoriki Award. In fact, in 2001, when Tuffy Rhodes tied Oh’s single-season home run record of 55, he would have been a perfect choice to win the award. He had the kind of season that went with that award.
Rhodes won the PL pennant with the Kintetsu Buffaloes and had learned to speak Japanese, and honored the game with his work ethic. He could be fiery, but he respected Japan’s game. But instead of Rhodes, the Shoriki voters opted not to select an imported player. Perhaps it was because Rhodes is black. I don’t know. But for the next 15 years, an award that had often gone to players, became the automatic award given to the Japan Series champion’s manager.
There were exceptions. In 2003, both Japan Series skippers earned a joint award. In 2006, Nippon Ham Fighters manager Trey Hillman was passed over in favor of Japan’s WBC skipper Sadaharu Oh. In 2012, Yomiuri Giants catcher Shinnosuke Abe was named in tandem with his manager, Tatsunori Hara.
But basically, it was for managers, until Sarfate. He set a record, he won a pennant, he was the league’s MVP, and then in Game 6 of the Japan Series against the DeNA BayStars, he came out in relief in a losing effort.
After 66 regular-season games and 54 saves, another three games and two saves in the playoffs, and two games and two saves in the series, Sarfate came out again.
With the Hawks trailing by a run, Sarfate worked a scoreless ninth. He worked two more innings until SoftBank won on a walk-off in the 11th to clinch the championship. With the exception of a lack of bloodshed, it was a samurai drama come to life, where the hero, spent and exhausted, summons every drop of strength to survive and conquer.
Maybe that was what it took. Because when the Shoriki Award committee, chaired now by Oh, the SoftBank Hawks chairman, they broke with precedent.
I would like to say it is because times have changed, and I suppose they have. Few players have had heroic finishes like Sarfate’s but I also have to think that the respect he earned from his teammates and those in Japan’s game was also a key.