Yakult Swallows catcher Atsuya Furuta, in my opinion, deserves a round of applause; in fact, a standing ovation, for the job he has done as head of the Nippon Professional Baseball Players Association. I believe he has tirelessly served the players here during the crisis that has gripped Japanese baseball since the Osaka Kintetsu Buffaloes and Orix BlueWave announced on June 13 they were planning to merge.
Furuta, with the support of a vast majority of fans, has stood up well to the owners of the teams here who sought to merge two more clubs and re-structure the system from two leagues to a one-league format, costing up to seventy players and many other support people their jobs. He should be recognized for a super-human effort.
In Major League Baseball, no player has to worry about adding a schedule of meetings with team owners and representatives to his already hectic daily routine of rat-race travel and ball games almost everyday. The MLB Players Association has executive Don Fehr to take care of business.
Here in Japan, there is no Don Fehr. It is an active player, Furuta, who sits at the negotiation table and attends post-meeting press conferences to speak for his side. As a catcher, the most demanding position on a baseball field, Furuta alternates the tools of the trade — mask, chest protector and shin guards — with the suit-and-tie wardrobe needed for his other work as head of the players union.
At 39 years of age, most heavy-hitting catchers have either retired or been moved to play other positions, so as to keep their bats in the lineup while reducing the risk of injury and saving the legs of these guys who squat all game long and are involved with every pitch.
You may recall Johnny Bench, the Cincinnati Reds power-hitting backstop in the 1970s, playing third base during the latter stages of his career. All-star catcher Mike Piazza has often been used at first base this season by the New York Mets, and old-timers might remember a then-35-year-old Yogi Berra playing left field for the New York Yankees and watching Bill Mazeroski’s “sayonara” home run clear the fence at Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field to win the 1960 World Series.
Furuta, however, is more like Carlton Fisk, the Hall of Fame catcher with the Boston Red Sox and Chicago White Sox who played only 72 games at first, third or in the outfield while catching 2,226 games during his stellar 25-year (1969-1993) big league career.
Besides being one of Japan’s best defensive catchers, Furuta has throughout his career been one of Japan’s most prolific hitters. He broke in, playing a little more than half a season, in 1990. In his first full year in 1991, he led the Central League in batting with a .340 average. In 1992, he slammed 30 homers while batting .316 for third best in the batting race, and that same year he hit for the cycle in an All-Star Game at Chiba Marine Stadium.
An all-star teammate that season was Yokohama Taiyo Whales first baseman Larry Sheets who called Furuta (Sheets pronounced the name “Fruta” as in Fruit o’ the Loom) the best batsman in Japan at the time.
Fruta — er, Furuta — helped his team win Central League pennants in 1992, 1993, 1995, 1997 and 2001, and four Japan Series titles.
I had the pleasure of sitting next to him on a flight from Tokyo to Matsuyama for an all-star game in 2002. We chatted sporadically during the 75-minute air trip to Shikoku, our conversation a mix of his language and mine, giving me the impression he’s more skillful in English than he lets on. He no doubt picked up a lot of American jargon from handling pitchers such as Terry Bross and Kevin Hodges.
In 1995, Furuta caught Bross’ 14 victories including a no-hitter against the Yomiuri Giants. In 2002, he was on the receiving end as Hodges led the CL with 17 wins, and Hodges and Furuta were to be batterymates for the start of that all-star contest at Matsuyama’s Botchan Stadium.
Furuta is being touted as the next manager of the Swallows, whenever current skipper Tsutomu Wakamatsu decides to step down or is fired. In fact, Furuta was asked about his own retirement and his future plans, at a Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan luncheon on Sept. 2. He replied that he does not know if he will be the next Yakult manager but said he has no intention of retiring as an active player any time soon.
That’s good for the NPBPA. I cannot think of a better man to head the union than Atsuya Furuta.
While we’re at it, let’s also hear it for the fans who have been collecting petition signatures from other fans opposed to merging teams and a one-league system. There was a group at JR Suidobashi Station after every Giants game at Tokyo Dome. One guy was hoarse from beckoning people to sign their support, and they were even out there in typhoon-like winds. That’s dedication.