The Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks, as you read here in these pages, will pay a whopping 525 million yen (almost $4.5 million) to buy out the second year of the contract of third baseman Tony Batista, ending the Japan career of “Mr. Nonchalant.”
I call him that because he is to me one of the most laid-back players I have ever seen. From his unorthodox wide-open batting stance to his scoop-and-lob fielding style, Batista is the ultimate cool, calm and collected infielder.
Eyebrows were raised when it was announced last winter the Hawks were going to sign Batista to a two-year deal worth, with incentives, $15 million, but the Fukuoka club had been sold by Daiei to SoftBank, and it now had the money to spend on a bona-fide major leaguer.
Tony was the best man available.
Batista had hit 32 homers and marked 110 RBIs for the Montreal Expos in 2004; good power stats, but he batted only .241.
He was a free agent and obviously took the best offer he got — the most generous one from the Hawks.
During spring training last February, and especially during the exhibition season in March, the 31-year-old hot corner man became one of the most conspicuous players in Japanese baseball.
He wore uniform No. 77 because the No. 7 he had with Montreal was already taken by another SoftBank player. Though his body was slim, he had a bit of a paunch you might not expect to see on a well-conditioned professional athlete.
Then there was that weird hitting stance and the grab-and-flip defense.
In the batter’s box, he squarely faced the pitcher. Then, as the ball was delivered, he would drag his front foot toward the plate, so he could reach the outside corner pitch. It sometimes appeared he was not ready, but he usually handled it well. It was not a bad batting stance; it was just — well — different.
In the field, his trademark was to snatch grounders quickly, then get rid of the ball right away without putting much on the throw to first base. Not that he was a bad fielder; he was just — well — different.
To his credit, Batista always showed up for work. He played in 135 of 136 regular season games, and his stats were not bad. His .263 average was 22 points better than his figure for 2004 in the majors, and 27 homers with 90 RBIs are good for a first-year player here, especially when the home park, Fukuoka’s Yahoo Dome, has the highest wall in Japanese baseball.
But when you’re getting as much as $7.5 million a season, you’re kind of expected to put up awesome numbers; at least team-leading totals.
According to Baseball Magazine’s list of player salaries for 2005, Batista was making 520 million yen, while slugger Nobuhiko Matsunaka took home 320 million yen, and fellow foreigner Julio Zuleta was paid 100 million yen.
Matsunaka, the 2004 Pacific League MVP and Triple Crown batting winner, also led the PL in home runs (46) and RBIs (121) this past season.
Zuleta in 2005 was runnerup in the league in all-three major hitting categories with 43 homers, 99 RBIs and a .319 average.
So, how do you justify to Matsunaka or Zuleta and his agent paying another guy a lot more money for that much less production?
That was SoftBank’s dilemma, solved (at the cost of the buyout) by releasing Mr. Cool.
Perhaps the first hint of Batista’s fate came in Game 3 of the 2005 Pacific League Stage 2 playoffs against the Chiba Lotte Marines last Oct. 25.
SoftBank manager Sadaharu Oh removed Tony from the starting lineup after the Hawks dropped the first two games of that series, and Batista went hitless.
In Japanese baseball, it is often the “What have you done for me lately?” theory that decides whether to retain or dismiss a foreign player, and that appears to be the case here.
Batista is a good guy, and not a bad player, but he was just a bit too cool and too highly paid for the SoftBank situation.
He will be back in the majors after agreeing to a one-year, $1.25 million deal with the Minnesota Twins on Thursday.
Meanwhile, right-hander Tom Davey, let go by the Hiroshima Carp and picked up by the Orix Buffaloes, says he is grateful to the Carp for giving him two chances to pitch but surprised they cut him.
Davey came to the Carp midway through the 2003 season and left halfway through 2004 with arm trouble. After undergoing reconstructive shoulder surgery, he was given a test in the Carp’s spring camp in 2005 and signed to another contract.
He responded with a 6-6 season for the last place team and posted a neat 2.98 ERA. Still, he was left out of Hiroshima’s plans for 2006, and the Buffaloes (wisely, I think) inked him to a reported one-year, $350,000 contract.
Davey said the agreement actually calls for a salary of $400,000.
T.D. wrote in an e-mail, “I was going to be free regardless but thought (Hiroshima) would at least make me an offer after the year and career I have had so far in Japan. It’s not like I was going to break the bank, as you can see with my deal with Orix. I would have taken that deal with the Carp.”
But he’s in the Pacific League now and, Davey says, “I really enjoyed my time in Hiroshima and thought I showed I regained my form and that I was one of the more consistent starters in the league. The Carp players and fans were great to me, and I will miss them, but it’s time to move on.”
Despite the Carp’s decision not to invite him back, Davey commented, “I think that organization is heading in the right direction and wish the best for them. I look forward to pitching against Hiroshima next year.”
Finally this week, a correction on last week’s column. We had Marty Brown’s Hiroshima Carp playing their 2006 home opener on April 4 against the “defending Japan Series champ Hanshin Tigers.”
That, of course, should have read “defending Central League champ Hanshin Tigers.”
Apologies to Bobby Valentine and the Chiba Lotte Marines, the real 2005 Japan Series winner.
Contact Wayne Graczyk at: Wayne@JapanBall.com
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