It was Sunday, April 16. The Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks and Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters were playing in Kyushu. Hawks slugger Julio Zuleta was at the plate when Fighters right-hander Satoru Kanemura delivered a pitch that sailed inside and nailed Zuleta in the middle of his 197-cm frame.
The ticked-off Panamanian charged the mound, tackled the pitcher and got in a few punches before other players broke up the melee. Zuleta was ejected, and a visibly shaken Kanemura also came out of the game.
Both players went out of action for 10 days; Kanemura to the disabled list to recover from the incident, while Zuleta was handed a 10-day suspension from the Pacific League and fined 300,000 yen.
What got into Zuleta?
He’s normally mild-mannered and one of the nicest players you’ll ever meet, one who loves Japan and has become somewhat fluent in Japanese.
He gets along well with his teammates, is cooperative with the media and great with the fans, especially kids.
Julio says the problem started in 2005 and had been building up.
“Last year, Kanemura hit me in the throat, and I was spitting up blood.”
He was hit again this year by the Fighters at Tokyo Dome early in April and, when he got plunked in the ribs on the 16th, he’d had enough. That’s when he charged the mound and Kanemura.
But did he think the pitcher was throwing at his head or trying to hit him?
“I don’t think it was intentional,” Zuleta says. “But if I don’t do something, everybody thinks it is fine. I’ve got to make them stop because, if I don’t do anything, sooner or later, I’m going to get hurt.
“If you get hit in the head, even if you’re wearing a helmet, you could get a concussion, lose your memory; a lot of things can happen.
“The ball’s coming in at 90 miles per hour (145 kph), it’s in the air less than three seconds, and you have to get out of the way,” he said. “I have to think of my family. What about my family, my kids and their future?”
Zuleta was the 2005 runnerup in the PL in all three Triple Crown batting categories with 43 home runs, 99 RBIs and a .319 average. Even missing the 10 games while suspended, he leads this season with 10 homers.
“I realize I’m a good hitter, and the opponents have to try to stop me, but that’s not the way. It’s OK to pitch inside, but we’re all professionals, so the pitcher should know where the ball is going when he throws it,” Zuleta reasoned.
One of his biggest concerns is where the catcher sets his target.
“I don’t like it when the catchers stand up behind my head. Obviously, when they do it, that’s where the pitcher is going to throw the ball,” Zuleta said, adding he knows they are doing that, because he’s seen the video replays.
That technique, by the way, is nothing new in Japanese baseball. Catchers have been known to set up behind the ears of foreign batters probably as long as imported hitters have played here.
In 1981, American Pete LaCock was the first baseman for the Yokohama Taiyo Whales and, while batting, he noticed Hanshin Tigers backstop Yoshiharu Wakana (who LaCock called “Wanaka”) often straightened up and called for a high-inside one after the count went to two strikes.
After a while, it got to the point where, on a two-strike, no-ball count, LaCock would step out of the batter’s box, look at the catcher and warn him, “Don’t you stand up, Wanaka!”
Then LaCock would not get back in until he was sure Wanaka — er, Wakana — was in his crouch and the target was not neck-high.
Zuleta, formerly with the Chicago Cubs, defends his action of going after Kanemura by saying he was taught in the U.S. to play baseball aggressively.
For example, sliding hard into second base to break up a double play.
“If you don’t slide hard into second, you get fined (by your team). If you don’t back up your teammates, you get fined. When I slide hard, it’s not that I’m a bad guy. I’m not trying to hurt the fielder; I’m just trying to prevent him from turning the double play,” he said.
Following the April 16 incident and his suspension, Zuleta heard people called the Hawks office to complain and say that was bad for kids to see.
“I realize that,” he said. “But if you watch major league games on TV, you see it. That’s the way baseball is. When the kids grow up, they will understand why that happened.”
Zuleta met with Fighters manager Trey Hillman when his suspension was lifted while the Hawks, coincidentally, were playing in Sapporo April 30 and said, “I talked to Hillman and apologized to him. He said he’s trying to pitch me inside, but they have to pitch me inside the right way.”
In addition to the punishment meted out by the league, Zuleta was fined 1 million yen by the Hawks and will be asked to perform community service, something he does anyway. “I go to hospitals, visit orphanages — on my own — and I donate money to charities and other organizations,” he said.
But is all the trouble in the past, or will there be more problems?
Long-timers here may recall in 1978 when John Sipin joined the Yomiuri Giants after having played six seasons with the Taiyo Whales. He was hit twice by Japanese pitchers and charged the mound to fight both times, then was told by his team he would be cut if he went after a pitcher a third time.
Sports papers here have pointed out Zuleta has been thrown out of games six times since joining the Hawks in 2003, leading many to believe he fought a half-dozen times.
“No,” he said. “I was ejected twice for fighting, the other four times were for arguing a call with an umpire.”
We’ll see what — if anything — happens when the Hawks and Fighters play again July 15-16 at Fukuoka.
In the meantime, Zuleta’s message to the Fighters and the other Japanese clubs is this: “If you don’t want to pitch to me, walk me.”
Contact Wayne Graczyk at: wayne@JapanBall.com