Baseball / MLB

Hawks’ All-Star Pedraza leaves nest, vows to return

by Dan Latham

If Fukuoka Daiei Hawks slugger Nobuhiko Matsunaka appeared to be in a hurry to get home after Sunday’s game against the Chiba Lotte Marines, there was a simple explanation. He had to cook a farewell dinner for his buddy Rodney Pedraza, who was spending his last night in Japan after being told Friday he would be released by the Hawks.

Matsunaka wasn’t the only Daiei player Pedraza paid a visit to. Over the weekend, the Hawks’ relief ace made the rounds, saying goodbye to all the friends he had made over the last few years in Fukuoka. He went out for “sayonara” dinners with some of his teammates and met up with several others at a local karaoke bar.

Saying goodbye turned out to be difficult because there was no simple explanation for why Pedraza, one of the Pacific League’s most successful foreign players, was released along with starting pitcher Brady Raggio.

“I don’t think the other guys thought it was right,” Pedraza told The Japan Times before flying home Monday morning to Cuero, Texas. “You could tell by looking at them and talking to them that they were really sad and they didn’t want us to go.”

In addition to compiling a career 2.67 ERA in as the Hawks closer and leading the league in saves in 2000 and ’01, Pedraza was an All-Star each of his four years in Japan. He also holds the Japan record for saves by a foreign pitcher with 117. So it’s no wonder his teammates are reluctant to see him leave.

“It’s hard to believe you can have four solid years with a team and get released, but then again nothing surprises me over here any more,” Pedraza said. “The general manager told us Friday morning that they wanted to use younger pitchers from here on out and that we could go home and we wouldn’t be here next year.”

Younger also means cheaper, and the Hawks’ desire to save money appears to be one reason Pedraza was let go. Daiei’s financial troubles have been making headlines for years, and this season its efforts to make some quick cash reached new heights. In August, the Hawks said they wanted to sell second baseman Tadahito Iguchi to a major-league team through the posting system. Iguchi later said that he had no interest in following Ichiro Suzuki and Kazuhisa Ishii to the majors next year, a decision that prevented the Hawks from picking up a few million dollars in bid money — and which probably sealed Pedraza’s fate.

“I knew it was going to be hard coming back next season because of what I was making,” said Pedraza, who is earning 120 million yen this year. Pedraza also suffered a pulled hamstring in June that kept him out of action for two weeks and affected his performance prior to the All-Star break. This season, he has a 1-2 record, 21 saves and a 3.30 ERA in 34 games.

“In certain situations that called for the closer to come in the game, I wouldn’t be asked to do the job,” Pedraza said. “I never got an explanation but I could see the handwriting on the wall. And I had heard they were already looking for a new foreign closer.”

A Hawks team official said Monday, however, that nothing had been decided yet regarding next season.

“All we have officially announced so far is that both players are off the roster and will not be pitching for the rest of the year,” the official said. “We have not said anything about (signing or not signing contracts for) next season.”

When Pedraza arrived in Japan in 1999, few predicted he would make a name for himself with the Hawks. Unlike many foreign players, Pedraza had spent most of his career playing Double-A ball and working his way through the independent leagues after having reconstructive surgery on his right shoulder in 1995. He never reached the majors and only played a handful of games at the Triple-A level.

But he quickly became one of the most consistent players in the Pacific League and his cheerful personality played well with the fans. The last two seasons he received the most All-Star votes among PL relief pitchers.

“That’s probably the greatest thing that’s happened to me the last four years, the fans letting me know I was one of their favorite guys,” Pedraza said.

He also became a favorite among his teammates and, at age 32, he has the potential to play several more seasons and he wants to spend that time in Japan.

“I’m not interested in going back to the States and starting all over again,” Pedraza said. “I’ve had four good years here and I’m not ready to give up on coming back with another team.”