Retired athletes learn to survive life after sport

by Tomoko Otake

While all workers in Japan feel pressure to perform at the top of their game, that’s probably more true for professional athletes than anyone else.

It’s thanks to their ceaseless pursuit of improvement that the rest of us can enjoy those miraculous moments in sports history — like the fence-banging catches by the Seattle Mariners outfielder Ichiro Suzuki and that last-minute goal Masashi Oguro scored for Japan in a World Cup qualifying match last month. What is conspicuously lacking from all the excitement, however, is the talk of what happens when athletes fall out of the competition. Yet it’s an inseparable part of an athlete’s career; no one can stay in the games forever.

Athletes dedicate their whole lives to honing a craft, and when it comes time to retire, many realize they’re not just making a career change — they’re walking away from a whole way of life.

Nippon Ham Fighter pitcher Masaru Imazeki is a good example of how tough it is to hang up the uniform. Imazeki says he still has a hard time shaking off his passion for baseball, even years after he was released from the team in 2000.

Inspired by legendary home run slugger Sadaharu Oh, Imazeki started playing baseball when he was 5 years old, rose to stardom at high school and played for a corporate team before joining Nippon Ham in 1993. His career peaked in 1996 when he made the All-Star team. At that time, Imazeki was feared for his “skinhead” look and occasional bout of screaming on the mound.

“I was such a chicken,” Imazeki, now a 34-year-old smiley man with a bit of a pot belly, recalled during a recent interview.

“Pitchers have to play a mind game. The more enigmatic you are, the better. I (acted like a tough guy), thinking that I could do better by creating a fearsome image for myself. But that was to overcome my inner fear. I was scared . . . and mediocre.”

After Nippon Ham let him go, he says he kept looking for chances to play more, both in Japan and abroad. In 2001, he flew to Connecticut in the United States to play for the Bridgeport Bluefish in an independent league — earning the grand sum of about 300,000 yen per month for four months per season, peanuts compared to what he had earned in Japan. He returned home three years later after failing to achieve his dream of playing in the major leagues.

Today, the Kanagawa native is making a different kind of pitch — selling gloves for Fitness Apollo Japan, a fitness equipment importer that deals in treadmills, weight lifting machines, body fat scales and others. Imazeki, sporting the company uniform — a red polo shirt and khaki pants — did his best at a recent fitness gear expo at the Tokyo Big Sight convention center, as one tanned middle-aged man in a flashy striped suit swung by his company’s booth.

Imazeki leaned over and delivered a pitch about the gloves on display. The man didn’t seem to be too impressed, and left in less than a minute.

“Well, I make mistakes all the time,” he said cheerfully, with drops of perspiration on his forehead.

While Imazeki is carving out a second career for himself, other professional athletes have not adapted so well.

In recent years, Japanese professional baseball has seen a string of unseemly events involving retired players, including the arrest in May of former Yomiuri Giants pitcher Masaki Matsuoka on robbery charges, and the revelation last week that former Yokohama BayStars player Yoshinobu Yamane has been arrested for allegedly forcing a 23-year-old woman into prostitution.

According to a 2004 survey of retired professional players conducted by the All Japan Baseball Foundation, the average retirement age for professional ball players was 29, with the average career spanning just 9.2 years.

“At 29, most salaried workers start to feel they are in the prime of their professional career,” instead of having to start again as retired baseball players must do, said Kenji Sakata, an official in charge of business planning at the foundation. Moreover, the ex-players are steps behind most company workers in terms of basic business and administrative skills.

What makes the career transition even more difficult for baseball players is that, while on the payroll of their teams, they receive a level of salary unparalleled by most other professionals. According to the Japan Professional Baseball Players Association, the average an- pay as of 2005 was 37.43 million yen for all players, and 67.70 million yen for players registered to play in the first team on the opening day of the season.

Some of the better players are contracted for 100 million yen to 500 million yen. Even farm team players who don’t play once at all are still guaranteed minimum salary of 4.4 million yen per year — about what the average full-time salaryman earns, Sakata said.

But the other side of the coin is that about 80 players are released every year, and it is only then that most of them realize they will have to find a new career, he noted.

“Most players have very little knowledge about jobs after retirement,” Sakata said. “They most often rely on tips from someone they are close to, like family members. Many people also hope to stay in touch with the industry as coaches for professional or corporate teams. But the reality is, very few coaching positions are out there.”

People in other sports face similar problems. In the J. League, 100 soccer players from 30 clubs are replaced by newcomers every year, after playing for an average of three years, at an average age of 26. Since they retire relatively early, some of them go back to school or apply for jobs along with college graduates, according to J. League officials.

But no matter which career they choose to move to, the sense of loss is enormous for those who have grown up doing nothing but soccer, said Kozaburo Shigeno, an official at the organization’s Career Support Center, set up in April 2002. Shigeno himself played with two J. League teams for a total of three years until his contract expired in 1997.

“It was a huge shock to me when the team officials told me they were looking for my replacement,” Shigeno recalled. “I went into the meeting expecting a raise. My mind went blank, but at the same time, I was thinking to myself, ‘If I cry now and beg them to keep me on the team one more year, would they say yes?’ “

In the end, he didn’t beg. Instead, for the following four years, Shigeno felt so depressed about his failure that he couldn’t stand watching a soccer game.

“I didn’t want to put down on my resume that I used to be a J. League player,” he said. “I was worried that people might say, ‘Who the hell are you? You weren’t that famous.”‘

Shigeno eventually managed to find a second career, getting a master’s degree in sociology and getting his current job at the J. League.

These days, Shigeno, 34, is busy flying around the country coaching players how to prepare for post-retirement life. Shigeno says his first task is to make the players realize that they are playing soccer as a profession.

“Soccer players need to keep asking themselves what it means to play soccer for money,” he said. “Young people, in particular, don’t have the feeling that it’s incredible for them to be paid for playing soccer. They are secluded from the real world and are obsessed with themselves. But if they don’t have that feeling, they will suffer when their athletic careers end. They won’t be able to accept the fact that they are no longer needed. If they can’t accept that, they will find themselves incapable of making the next move.”

The J. League’s Career Support Center offers individual counseling to players and distributes a magazine full of interviews with ex-players and help-wanted ads in various fields.

Sakata of the baseball foundation is also trying to bring something similar to his field. But he acknowledged that the organization is having a hard time attracting interest, noting that, when the foundation organized a “career-building” seminar in November, only four people showed up. This is despite the foundation having about 1,700 retired players as members — 28 percent of all living former players in Japan.

The moves to support athletes are spreading to other sports as well. Japan Professional Sports Association, comprising groups of retired professional sports people in various sports, is trying to share knowhow among members, said Yukishige Isenoumi, a retired sumo wrestler and director at the Japan Sumo Association who is also director of the Career Support Center at the JPSA.

The Sumo association is now helping active wrestlers prepare for retirement by offering a correspondence course to gain a high school certificate, as about half of all sumo wrestlers become pros right after graduating from junior high school, he said.

The group will soon start training and issuing “sumo-teaching certificates” to active and retired wrestlers so they can be paid, however meagerly, for teaching sumo in local communities, Isenoumi added.

“Wrestlers at the Makuuchi level (the top division) are all like celebrities,” he said. “It’s fine for them to go out to the countryside and teach sumo to children. But there are an overwhelmingly larger number of wrestlers who don’t make it to that level. If we don’t support these (second-tier) players, we will never be able to really expand the sumo-wrestling population.”

As it is, many of the former wrestlers work for or run ramen shops and restaurants that feature “chanko,” according to Isenoumi. Chanko, a soup dish full of fish, meat and vegetables, was originally prepared for sumo wrestlers but is now offered widely to the public.

But what players need most might be just a pinch of self-confidence, said Sakata, who says he admires all players who were good enough to become pros. Sakata himself played baseball for years, before he gave up his dream of playing as a pro.

“If you were good enough to get into professional baseball, you must have a wide range of skills already,” he said. “You are goal-driven and have great self-control. You must also have strong analytical skills, because you need to remember the scores (of the players in other teams). But when we asked the retired players to point out the qualities they have earned through baseball, none of these came up.

“Having played baseball is not that negative. There are definitely certain skills they have acquired, yet they haven’t realized that. They act like armed soldiers putting down a set of swords they have.”