There are 66 foreign players currently registered in Japanese pro baseball, along with two foreign managers, a farm team manager and three coaches. But, 25 years ago this month, the commissioner of Japanese baseball wanted to ban non-Japanese from playing in the Central and Pacific Leagues.
Trouble began just three days into the 1984 season, when American outfielder Jim Tracy, then of the Yokohama Taiyo Whales, suddenly quit his team after going through spring training and preparing for his second season in Japan.
Yes, he’s the same Jim Tracy who served major league tenures as manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Pittsburgh Pirates. The country-style Tracy had enjoyed a better-than-halfway-decent first year in Japan in 1983, hitting .303 with 19 home runs and 66 RBIs, good enough to earn him a second season in Yokohama.
At 29 years of age, Tracy could have been one of those long-term foreign players in Japan with a career extended over five or six seasons. He had played briefly in the majors with the Chicago Cubs in 1980-81 and appeared to be one who had found his niche playing in Japan.
However, on Sunday of opening weekend in 1984, he suddenly announced he was leaving the team and the country. He was upset about being taken out of that third game of the year after he walked in the ninth inning of a tie game and was removed for a pinch runner by Whales manager Junzo Sekine.
Tracy later said he could not agree with the decision. His thinking was that his bat might be needed should the game go into extra innings, whereas Sekine was obviously trying to win the game in the ninth. Over that seemingly trivial difference of opinion, the player took his pride and went home.
The backbreaker came, however, right after Golden Week when two more American players — one a high-profile type — retired from their club and also flew back to the United States.
Kintetsu Buffaloes Don Money and Rich Duran quit the team six weeks into the schedule, citing all sorts of complaints and dissatisfaction with the game known here as yakyu. There was the language barrier, of course, and the rigorous Japanese spring training regimen, the strike zone, the umpires, and blah, blah, blah.
Most difficult was the fact the players lived in Kobe, put there by the Osaka-based Buffaloes because Kobe was a great place to live for foreigners, and the travel was not as bad when Kintetsu played most of its home games at Nissei Stadium in the heart of Osaka.
However, the Buffaloes had, prior to that 1984 campaign, refurbished Fujiidera Stadium in Fujiidera City on the other side of Osaka from Kobe and were by that time playing most home games there.
Money was not happy he was sometimes getting home at 1 a.m. after long night games in Fujiidera, having to carry his own bag on crowded trains and making three connections. Moreover, he was returning to an apartment he said was “filthy, with cockroaches all over the place.”
In addition, Money said his bedroom smelled of tobacco juice, the stains of which were visible on the ceiling, apparently having been propelled there by the Buffaloes player who occupied the apartment in 1983.
He decided he could not take any more. Despite his status as the Pacific League home run leader (he had eight with 23 RBIs and a .260 average), he announced his departure from Japan and retirement from baseball.
He could afford to leave, at age 36 and after 16 major league seasons; five with the Philadelphia Phillies (1968-72) and 11 with the Milwaukee Brewers (1973-83). Money had already made his money and was headed home to spend time with his family and tend his farm in New Jersey.
Duran was a different story. Only 26 and a minor leaguer with no MLB experience, he should have been thinking Japan was his last chance to make it as a pro ballplayer. He, too, had shown some power with the Buffaloes, hitting seven homers with 14 RBIs. Duran was batting just .188, but the season was young, and he could have raised his average considerably.
But, when Money decided to pull out, his younger teammate decided to do the same, and the Kintetsu club was suddenly left with no foreigners on its roster, as those were the days when each team was allowed only two imported players.
The Buffaloes were stunned, Japan’s sports papers were plastered with gaudy colored banner headlines reporting the news, and the Japanese baseball commissioner, Takezo Shimoda, called the Americans “spoiled,” criticizing them severely for not being able to adapt to the game as played here.
Pointing to the “trouble” caused by Tracy, Money and Duran, the commissioner threatened to ban foreigners from playing in Japanese baseball.
“We should get rid of them,” he said.
Then, a year later, Randy Bass went on to have arguably the greatest season ever enjoyed by a foreign player in Japan, winning the Triple Crown with 54 homers, 134 RBIs and a .350 average, and leading his Hanshin Tigers to the team’s first championship in 21 years, He was named MVP of the regular CL season and the Japan Series.
Shimoda’s idea to scrap foreign help was all but forgotten, and the two-player import limit was raised to three in 1994 and four in 2002.
Money is back in baseball as manager of the Nashville Sounds, the Triple-A affiliate of the Brewers.
Duran played the 1985 season in Mexico and retired again.
Former commissioner Shimoda died in 1995 at the age of 87, and foreign baseball players continue to do their thing in Japan, 25 years later.
Contact Wayne Graczyk at: wayne@JapanBall.com
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