For many American players, Japan is the last stop in their professional baseball careers.
True, some go back to play in the major leagues, the minors or independent leagues in North America, and others move on to South Korea or Taiwan. For a good number, though, when they are done in Japan, they are finished. It is time to head home and go to work in dad’s construction business.
One individual, however-and this must be a record-played 18 seasons in the big leagues after his one year in the Japanese leagues. Matt Stairs announced his retirement from the game last week after having been released by the Washington Nationals at the age of 43.
The first baseman-outfielder played for 13 American and National League organizations and was a journeyman player in the true sense of the term. He should have been given a nickname similar to Harry “Suitcase” Simpson, an often-traded old-timer who saw action with several teams in the 1950s.
Actually, Simpson played for only five major league clubs and, according to his Wikipedia entry, he got the “Suitcase” identity before he was traded even once. It came from a cartoon character by the same name, but his later frequent transfers from one team to another certainly reinforced it.
Canadian native Stairs played in the big leagues with (stay with me, now) the Montreal Expos, Boston Red Sox, Oakland Athletics, Chicago Cubs, Milwaukee Brewers, Pittsburgh Pirates, Kansas City Royals, Texas Rangers, Detroit Tigers, Toronto Blue Jays, Philadelphia Phillies, San Diego Padres and the Nationals.
Stairs’ one (partial) season in Japan came way back in 1993 when he was a mere lad of 24, and it was sandwiched between his years with the Expos and Red Sox. His American teammate was Alonzo Powell, and he played in 58 games, batting .250 with six home runs and 22 RBIs after joining Chunichi in June of ’93.
Many baseball aficionados forget he even played in Japan, and his post-Chunichi years must be the most of anyone, both in terms of teams for which he played and the number of years he was on a major league team roster. The “Baseball Bullet-In” salutes Matt Stairs for his longevity in the game and for not giving up after his brief Japanese “career” in Nagoya.
Diamond Dust: Robert Kiyoshi Shadlow of Pacific Baseball International reports the Seattle Mariners and Sanyo will present their annual Salute to Japanese Baseball Night at Safeco Field on Aug. 29. The Mariners will be playing the Los Angeles Angels, and the game will be preceded by Japanese music, a taiko drum performance and dancing. Usually, a retired NPB player throws out the ceremonial first pitch.
Speaking of retired NPB players, yes, that is former Hiroshima Carp outfielder Rod Allen doing color commentary on telecasts of Detroit Tigers games. Allen played for the Carp in 1990-91, including an appearance in the 1991 Japan Series against the Seibu Lions.
Another American ex-Central Leaguer-a one-time MVP, in fact-was back in the country last week. Former Hanshin Tigers and Yakult Swallows first baseman Tom O’Malley visited Tokyo and Osaka rekindling old friendships. He is now working with player agent Arn Tellem and returned to check out what is happening in Japanese baseball.
O’Malley, now 50, was with Hanshin in 1991-94 and Yakult in 1995-96. He led the Central League in batting with a .329 average in 1993 with the Tigers and was the cleanup hitter for the Japan champion Swallows in 1995 when he batted .302 with 31 homers and 87 RBIs.
He was named the ’95 Central League Most Valuable Player and was also chosen as the MVP in Yakult’s Japan Series victory over the Ichiro Suzuki-led Orix BlueWave of Kobe.
O’Malley gained managerial experience as field boss of the independent Atlantic League Newark Bears in New Jersey and was a coach under manager Senichi Hoshino with Hanshin in 2002-03. He was also named manager of the Livedoor Phoenix, a team which never officially existed.
It was in 2004 when Japanese baseball went into crisis following the intended merger announcement by the PL’s Orix BlueWave and Kintetsu Buffaloes. In order to keep the two-league, 12-team system, it was decided a PL expansion team was to be created, and the Livedoor and Rakuten corporations vied for the new club.
As we know, Rakuten was awarded the franchise, and O’Malley never got his chance to manage in Japan but says he would love the opportunity and would say to any Central or Pacific League club owner looking for a manager with fresh ideas, “Here I am.”
Last column, we introduced new foreign players who joined Japanese teams after the start of the current season but omitted a few who signed since Opening Day. They are Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles first baseman Luis Garcia and relief pitcher Romulo Sanchez, and Chiba Lotte Marines bullpener Carlos Rosa.
Finally this week, broadcaster Bill Bickard reports bilingual play-by-play of Japanese baseball telecasts will resume this week on the BS-11 channel. Bickard and partner Taka Masatsugu are scheduled to provide the English commentary of the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters vs. Chiba Lotte Marines games on Aug. 16-17, at QVC Marine Field. Both games begin at 6:15 p.m.
BS-11, Channel 211 on the Broadcast Satellite system, telecasts a selection of Lotte and Rakuten Eagles games, and Bickard expects several of the games will be aired in English during the final two months of the pennant stretch run.
Contact Wayne Graczyk at Wayne@JapanBall.com