The interleague season is finished, the All-Star ballots have been tallied and Japan’s blazing summer heat has begun to take hold.
Some of the underachieving Central and Pacific League teams are pushing the “reset” button, hoping to get on track, reverse their trend of lackluster spring play and move to enter the playoff races.
One way to do this is to bring in new foreigners prior to the deadline for signing non-Japanese players. The Chiba Lotte Marines and Yomiuri Giants have recently signed additional foreign help in an effort to give their offenses a boost as both clubs try to catch up with the leaders in their respective leagues.
The defending Japan Series champion Marines, in desperate need of some pop in their lineup, have gone to the recent trend of recycling foreign players who previously played in Japan. Lotte has contracted infielder Jose Castillo, expecting him to help get the team out of the Pacific League’s second division.
Yomiuri, playing sub-.500 ball as June ended, signed Josh Fields, a third baseman with no prior Japan experience but major league time with the White Sox and Kansas City. His career includes a 23-home run season with Chicago in 2007.
Castillo played in 2010 with the Yokohama BayStars and compiled some pretty good stats with 19 home runs, 55 RBIs and a .273 batting average. It seemed surprising when the ‘Stars let him go last autumn, apparently because his defensive play at second base was a little too sloppy.
How much of an impact Castillo and Fields will make for their respective clubs remains to be seen, but the hiring of new foreigners at mid-season occurs every year, and the results have ranged from spectacular to terrible.
One of the most memorable performances by a gaikokujin brought in by a Japanese team after the start of a season came in 1989, when the Seibu Lions got Orestes Destrade in June of that year. After winning four consecutive Pacific League pennants between 1985 and 1988, the Lions got off to a sluggish start in ’89 and acquired the “Big O,” a former marginal major leaguer with the Yankees and Pittsburgh.
In just 83 games, Destrade slammed 32 home runs and drove in 81. While the Lions could not recover in time to win the pennant, Destrade mixed well with fellow sluggers Kazuhiro Kiyohara and Koji Akiyama to form one of the most productive cleanup trios in Japanese baseball history.
They went on lead Seibu to Japan Series championships in 1990, 1991 and 1992, while Destrade led the Pacific League in homers those years with respective long ball totals of 42, 39 and 41.
Then there was the unforgettable episode involving major league star Bob Horner who joined the Yakult Swallows for Golden Week in 1987. Caught up in a no-contract situation where he had no place to play in the majors, Horner signed with the Tokyo club and moved to Japan a month into that season.
He hit five home runs in his first week of play and, while the Swallows did not win the Central League pennant, the excitement Horner generated caused the attendance figures at Yakult home and road games to skyrocket. Horner’s final stats in his only year in Japanese baseball included 31 homers, 73 RBIs and a .327 average in 80 games.
But, while a great first impression can lead to success in Japan, a bad one can set the tone for a poor season. The Yomiuri Giants in 1975 were in last place in the CL in mid-April, managed by Shigeo Nagashima, the “Mr. Giants” superstar who had retired from active play six months earlier and left a hole in the lineup and at third base on defense.
The team made big news by hiring its first American player since Wally Yonamine left the club in 1960. He was Davey Johnson (newly named manager of the Washington Nationals), a prominent major leaguer and the second baseman on those great Baltimore Orioles American League championship teams of 1966 and 1969-71. He had also hit 43 homers for the Atlanta Braves in 1973 and was expected to add a great deal of punch to the Kyojin batting order.
Hours after arriving in country, Johnson was on the Giants bench for a night game at Korakuen Stadium, and Nagashima sent him up to pinch hit late in a game at about 9:15 p.m. A jet-lagged Johnson, his body still on U.S. East Coast time, appeared to be half-asleep as he struck out, overwhelmed by a 145-kpm fastball.
Later inserted as a starter, Johnson did not play well defensively at third and was eventually moved to his regular position at second. He finished that season with a dismal .197 batting average, 13 homers and 38 RBIs in 91 games as the Giants finished last. He came back, though, to have a decent season in 1976, hitting .275 with 26 homers and 74 RBIs as Yomiuri rebounded to win the CL pennant.
Last year, late arrivals provided spark for their teams as summer began. Newcomers Josh Whitesell (.309 with 15 homers, 53 RBIs, in 68 games for the Yakult Swallows) and Brett Harper (.316, 19, 56, in 64 games with the Yokohama BayStars) caught on to Japanese baseball right away.
Also in 2010, recycled players Jose Fernandez (.339, 11, 45, in 57 games with the Seibu Lions) and pitcher Jason Standridge (11-5, 3.49 ERA in 23 games with the Hanshin Tigers) returned to Japan well into the season and helped their respective teams to playoff qualification.
Now we’ll see what kind of adjustment will be made by newcomer Fields with the Giants and if Japan returnee Castillo can come back and help the Marines return to respectability as they join their new teams on the fly.
Contact Wayne Graczyk at: Wayne@JapanBall.com