Now-former Yomiuri Giants outfielder Gabe Kapler has cleared waivers after being released by the Tokyo team, and he appears headed back from where he came — Boston — and a shot at a second consecutive World Series championship ring.
You can expect to see Kapler back in the MLB wars soon, as press reports have indicated he will be re-signed by the team for which he played in 2004, the defending champion Boston Red Sox.
He had been expected to play the entire year as the Giants center fielder and contribute to a strong batting attack that would help the Kyojin to Central League pennant contention, but something went haywire.
Kapler said he decided to join the Giants because he knew he would be given the opportunity to play as a regular for a team with a chance to win.
He said he could have re-signed last autumn with the Red Sox or another strong American or National League team but would have been a bench player. Or he could have joined as a starter with a small market club not expected to contend for post-season play.
But, by Golden Week, he found himself neither starting nor winning in Japan.
He was riding the pine — er, plastic — in the Giants dugout, with his team in last place.
He lost his job to Takayuki Shimizu after hitting just two homers and compiling a .155 batting average during the first month of play.
Next came removal from the active roster to the disabled list because of lower back pain, the waivers and release, and now he’s apparently on the way back to Beantown.
The Giants made no misjudge of character in choosing Kapler to be one of their foreign players.
Personality-wise you won’t find a nicer guy or more dedicated ballplayer who always maintains an upbeat, optimistic manner, whether he’s hitting .155 or .355.
He also had the potential to be productive offensively and defensively; one who could have hit 25-30 homers with a decent average; maybe not .355, but a lot closer to that than .155.
So, what went wrong?
I think Kap was sucked in by one of the oldest tricks in the book of Japanese pitchers’ tactics.
He enjoyed a pretty good exhibition season, batting .325 with three homers and nine RBIs, and thought that performance would carry into the regular schedule. He may have figured, even subconsciously, Japanese baseball is easy, then was shocked when the bell rang for Opening Day, and he found something was strikingly different.
During the practice games in February and March, Kapler, as do all the hitters, faced a lot of young, inexperienced, second-line pitchers.
On occasion when the Giants were up against the better hurlers on opposing Central League clubs, the pitchers were not throwing their best stuff, but rather experimenting and “feeling out” new batters — especially foreigners.
The pitchers were trying to find, not the weaknesses of the new guys as you might expect, but their strong points, so as to avoid them once the games start to count.
I recall a conversation in 1978 with Charlie Manuel, now the manager of the Philadelphia Phillies, then a slugger with the Yakult Swallows.
Manuel had had a great exhibition season during his first spring in Japan in 1976, hitting something like eight homers with 21 RBIs in 20 games, along with an average close to .400. But his regular season was a disaster; he batted just .243 with 11 homers and 32 RBIs and missed the last two months with a broken foot.
The only reason he came back in 1977 was because he had a two-year contract with Yakult and, realizing what the pitchers had done to him the previous season, Manuel made an attitude adjustment, went up to the plate hacking away, hit .316 with 42 home runs and went on to play four more years here with the Swallows and Kintetsu Buffaloes, appearing in three consecutive (1978-1980) Japan Series and winning the 1979 Pacific League MVP prize.
Manuel said, “During the practice games, the pitchers are toying with you. They’re laying the ball in there because they want you to hit now while it doesn’t count. Then from Opening Day, they start throwing those 150-kph fastballs, snapping off their sharp sliders and dropping in some nasty fork balls.”
Another player who fell into this trap was a burly home run hitter named Jack Pierce who joined the then-Nankai Hawks in 1977, showing great promise and putting up good numbers during the exhibition games.
Manuel remembers meeting Pierce when the Swallows played the Hawks just prior to the official opener, and Pierce thought he had it made.
“This Japanese baseball is a piece of cake,” he told Manuel who laughed and told the new player he had it all wrong.
“You’ll see what happens when the regular games start,” said Manuel, and he was right.
Pierce wound up hitting just .227 with 13 homers and 39 RBIs for the entire year and found himself playing in Mexico the following summer.
Yet another victim of “false exhibition syndrome” was Joe Lis, a power-hitting first baseman who joined the Buffaloes in 1978 with a “can’t miss” label, especially after he too burned up the preseason.
He was set for the regular season but got shell-shocked when he realized he’d been duped.
Lis completed his only Japanese season with an embarrassing .206 average, hitting just six homers and marking 30 RBIs in 90 games.
“The pitching I saw after Opening Day was nothing like what I faced during the exhibition league,” Lis said.
Now, I can’t say for sure Kapler has met the same fate, but one of the highlights of his “open” game performance was a long home run hit against the Nippon Ham Fighters at Sapporo Dome in March.
He tomahawked a fastball that appeared to be up around his eyes, and opposing pitchers realized they had better spare the high, hard one.
Beginning with Hiroshima Carp ace Hiroki Kuroda on opening night, opposing hurlers fed Kapler a steady diet of out-and-away mostly breaking balls, and the rest is history.
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