For many players, leaving the game begs the huge question of what to do next, but for former big league reliever Takashi Saito, that period was remarkably brief.
A month after throwing his last pitch for his hometown Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, the former National League All-Star announced he would be joining the San Diego Padres as a front office intern, a job that took him to Nashville, Tennessee, this month for the baseball winter meetings.
At the time of the announcement, Saito said, “My premise is that for the future of Japanese baseball, people will be needed to enact change and this is my one chance.”
A month later Saito is still wide-eyed and excited by the possibilities.
“I was at the winter workouts for a few days for minor leaguers,” he said in Nashville. “We’ve been having meetings to discuss next year’s roster and I’ve been attending those.
“Since everything is a secret, I can’t express anything about them except to say they are amazing. I find myself in just amazing circumstances, 100 times more (amazing than I’m used to).”
For a guy whose playing career appeared dead and buried 10 years ago, that’s saying something.
In the autumn of 2005, after three seasons in which he went a combined 11-16 with a 4.65 ERA as a starter in Yokohama, Saito was released by the BayStars. In what appeared a move of the utmost optimism, the Los Angeles Dodgers offered him a minor league deal and a spring training invite.
Although Saito didn’t make the Dodgers straight out of camp, he made an impression. His major league debut came on April 9, 2006 and pitched 72 games for the NL club that season. After 84 saves over seven seasons with five different big league clubs, Saito returned to his hometown of Sendai in 2013.
Two years after Sendai and much of north eastern Japan was devastated by the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami, the Eagles, a team that began as an expansion outfit in 2005, won it all. Saito went 3-0 with four saves and four holds and a 2.36 earned run average. Behind a 24-0 season from ace Masahiro Tanaka, Japan’s newest franchise won its first Pacific League championship and Japan Series.
Another solid season in 2014 followed, but injuries and ineffectiveness limited Saito to three games this past season, and forced his hand. In his farewell game on Oct. 4, Saito’s last pitch, a 138 kilometer-per-hour (85 MPH) resulted in a swinging third strike.
“I’ve had to drag this worn-out body to the mound to pitch, but maybe that act in itself has given people courage,” Saito said afterward.
But while one door closed, another opened.
“This is absolutely my first step, and something that is completely different from all the experiences I’ve had up until now in my baseball career,” Saito said. “It’s still baseball, but it’s perceiving it from exactly the opposite side, and I’ve wanted to study that. I’ve felt a different kind of excitement from what one gets as a player.
“What I’m endeavoring to learn now is something my baseball career has not adequately prepared me for. In the context of raising my skill level, the things I learn while studying here are going to bring huge changes. But it’s not just baseball but rather organizational things that I am able to learn. I think this will have applications for sports other than baseball as well. I think various possibilities will arise.”
Andy Green, the Padres rookie manager, told Kyodo News he had met with Saito.
“He’s been around at the meetings and we’ve talked,” said Green, who played one season with the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters. “I told him that one of the last times I faced him he threw me a slider and I lined it over short for a single, one of my few hits in the big leagues. I remember it well.”
But Saito reiterated that what matters is being part of the future.
“Perhaps for the whole sports world, including baseball, if this is a big turning point, I want to be on the front line, be one of the participants,” he said. “How it might change — even if it doesn’t change at all — thinking about this is a plus for me.”