Sometimes an open mind can be as valuable to a pitcher as a good fastball.
There’s been no shortage of talented former major leaguers to make the journey to Japan to pitch in NPB through the years.
All had the skills to be successful, but a large percentage found they couldn’t handle playing in Japan.
The reasons for their failures are as diverse as the players themselves.
Some came with a superiority complex, others saw Japan as just a brief stopover. Many entered Japan with an aversion to trying out new things and an unwillingness to accept the idiosyncrasies of a new culture.
Players who usually find success in Japan are those who are willing to adapt.
Among the first-year crop this year, pitchers Bryan Bullington and Dennis Sarfate of the Hirohima Carp are definitely two players in the latter category
The Carp hurlers have began their Japanese odyssey with clear heads and open minds.
More than the considerable talents both possess, their attitudes have played a large role in earning them spots on the Central League All-Star team.
“It feels great,” Bullington said of making the All-Star team in his first season. “It’s a great honor.”
Sarfate mostly feels the same way.
“It’s an honor to be able to represent Hiroshima and be a part of it and meet some of the guys on the other teams,” Sarfate said. “It’s a fun time to get together and enjoy baseball as a game.”
Bullington, the top pick in the 2002 MLB draft, is off to an 8-4 start to the season, and has a 2.23 ERA. Sarfate, meanwhile, has settled into the closer’s role and leads the CL with 18 saves and has a 1.65 ERA in 30 appearances.
A positive outlook seems to have helped make their transition to Japan fairly smooth.
“I’ve really enjoyed it so far,” Bullington said. “There’s some differences obviously, but I feel like I’ve made some adjustments on the field and off the field. So there have been some adjustments, but I feel like they’ve been good ones.”
Tuffy Rhodes, who starred in Japan for 14 seasons with the Kintetsu Buffaloes, Yomiuri Giants and Orix Buffaloes, once said he could tell early on which players would make it in Japan and which would be on the first flight back home.
Rhodes said mentally strong players are usually the ones who manage to last in Japan.
Hiroshima’s new duo seem to fit the bill. They’ve taken to Japan and have found ways to enjoy the experience.
“Really it’s just about adapting to the culture,” Sarfate said. “I have fun here. I go out and I explore the cities that we go to. Me and Bullington, we go out and eat different meals and stuff like that. It’s one of those things, you just have to adapt.”
A common thread between the two is being able to draw upon a wealth of experience prior to making the move to Japan.
“I know a few guys in the league with different teams,” Bullington said. “I asked their opinions of the league and Hiroshima and whatnot. Everything was very positive, and I came over here with, I think, a good mindset and I’ve enjoyed it.”
Sarfate got prior advice as well.
“When I got to play with (former Yomiuri Giants pitcher) Koji Uehara in 2009 in Baltimore, we talked a little bit about the differences in the game, not knowing that I was going to come over here,” he said.
“Jeff Williams (a former Hanshin Tigers star) lives by me in Arizona and I worked out with him a few times when he was still a player here.”
Sarfate is also friendly with former Kintetsu Buffaloes and Yomiuri Giants pitcher Jeremy Powell among others.
“I know those guys,” Sarfate said. “I’ve talked to them about coming here and I’ve had some other friends come over here. It’s hit or miss. Some of them like it, some of them love it.
“Obviously Williams and Powell loved it. Guys like Kevin Mench, he played over here for a few months, maybe his experience wasn’t as good as some others.
“I like it. I’m adapting well to the culture and I’m getting along with my teammates.
“I think that’s the biggest difference.”