Chris Latham’s entrance to Japan and the world of Japanese pro baseball was supposed to go smoothly.
After arriving at Narita Airport on Sunday, May 11, he was to be introduced to the media and fans, then work out (but not be registered) with the Yomiuri Giants prior to their games against the Yokohama BayStars at Tokyo Dome on May 13-15.
Then, when the team went on the road to Osaka and Fukuoka, he was to play on the Giants Eastern League farm team, where day games would allow him to overcome jet lag and give him the at bats he so badly needed to get his hitting stroke and timing at the plate. It was expected he would be in top shape and on the varsity roster when the club played at Yokohama May 23-25.
However, the Giants were so short of outfielders with injuries to Takayuki Shimizu, Yoshinobu Takahashi, Koji Goto, Daisuke Motoki and Roberto Petagine, that manager Tatsunori Hara decided to place Latham’s name on the first team roster right away.
He was on the bench May 13 and was sent up to pinch hit late in the game. In the country barely 48 hours, he struck out during a mid-evening plate appearance when his body clock read about 3:30 a.m.
“The 140-kph fastball seemed about 160 to me,” said Latham of his first plate appearance. “I only had two at bats in April and had not faced live pitching in a month.”
He was playing for the New York Yankees when Yomiuri inquired about getting a utility player who could fill in for any of the Giants going out with injuries. Latham then found himself in limbo as he waited, first to clear waivers, then for a working visa.
“I am probably the only player ever released after batting a thousand,” said Latham, noting he had hits in both those chances with New York. “But I was anxious to get to Japan to start playing regularly.”
However, he was forced to sit home longer in Las Vegas because the visa process ran into Golden Week when Japanese government offices were closed for the holidays.
At last, Latham and his dad William arrived on Mother’s Day, and the effects of his accelerated indoctrination to the Giants and Japan have taken their toll. After beating the jet lag, Chris was still struggling with his timing, trying to learn the strike zone and keeping up with what’s happening on the bench without an English-speaking teammate position player to clue him.
In the May 20 game at Fukuoka against the Yakult Swallows, Latham was sent into the game on a double switch in the top of the sixth inning. He replaced Shimizu, who had been batting fifth, in left field, and Hara put new pitcher Yasuyuki Kawamoto in the fifth spot in the batting order and Latham in the ninth hole, so he would bat third in the bottom of the sixth.
But no one told Latham he was batting ninth, and he does not yet know the difference between kanji and katakana, so did not recognize his name on the scoreboard. He thought he was batting sixth in Shimizu’s slot, and there was a brief awkward moment, after the seventh and eighth hitters were retired. No one was going to the plate, and players began yelling, “Latham! You’re up!”
Then came May 21 and the most embarrassing moment in Latham’s baseball career. He was in left field with the Giants leading 1-0 in the top of sixth when the Swallows had runners on first and second with one out. Yakult’s Ken Suzuki lofted a fly to fairly deep left-center.
Latham caught what he thought was the third out and stunned the capacity crowd by turning and throwing the ball into the stands. Shinya Miyamoto, the runner on second, and Alex Ramirez, at first, tagged up and began sprinting to the next bases. The Giants could do nothing without the ball. By ground rule, Miyamoto scored to tie the game; Ramirez was sent to third.
Latham had to stay out there, in front of 48,000 fans, praying the inning would end soon, so he could run into the dugout and hide. Even worse, the Yakult fans to whom he’d thrown the ball were right behind him, cheering and raising those trademark blue-green vinyl umbrellas in celebration of the run he had just presented them.
Fortunately for the Giants and Latham, Takahashi homered to put the Giants back on top in the bottom of the inning, and they won 2-1. The following day, Latham said he had never done anything like that before and “I’ll never do it again.” He said he apologized to his manager, pitcher Hisanori Takahashi and his teammates, and they all seemed to take it OK.
By way of explanation, Latham said he had not seen any infielders remind him of the out count prior to the play, and at least one of the indicators on the scoreboard and above the stands behind home plate had both red lamps lit, denoting two outs.
“That’s not an excuse, though,” he admitted, saying, “It’s my job to know how many outs there are. I just made a mistake.”
William Latham, meanwhile, has become somewhat of an honorary Giant. The Ozzie Smith-look-alike says he expects to spend the remainder of the season here with his son and often appears on the field during pre-game practice in a Giants jump suit and cap, as if he were a trainer, PR guy or a part-time coach.
It remains to be seen if the father and son will still be here in late October for the Japan Series, but the first two weeks of Latham’s Kyojin career were interesting, to say the least. Through games of May 25, the switch-hitting Latham was 2-for-22, batting .091 and still trying to adjust.
Hang in there, Chris.
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