Many NPB veterans hanging on too long


Staff Writer

How does a professional baseball player know when it is time to retire?

Pitcher Tim Wakefield, at the age of 45 and with 19 years in the major leagues behind him, announced last week he was leaving the Boston Red Sox and putting away his trademark knuckleball.

Wakefield had a productive career that saw him win 200 games and two World Series championships with the BoSox but, when Father Time catches up with you, it is time to go, and Wakefield realized that.

There are still a handful of players in Japan, born before 1970, who will be trying to play in 2012 and, as the season goes along, we will know if they should have preceded Wakefield in retirement following the 2011 campaign.

Take Chunichi Dragons pitcher Masahiro Yamamoto. He’s the oldest active player in Japanese baseball this season, born Aug. 11, 1965, listed as 47 years of age (more on that later) and in his 27th year, but will he play?

Yamamoto made no contribution to his team’s Central League pennant winner a year ago. He did not play at all; not on the Dragons first team or the farm team, but his 2012 salary is listed as ¥40 million.

Yamamoto’s teammate, infielder Takeshi Yamasaki, returns to the Dragons after nine years in the Pacific League with the Orix BlueWave and Rakuten Eagles. Yamasaki was born Nov. 7, 1968, is listed as 44 and in his 26th season. In 2011, he hit just .229 with 11 homers and 48 RBIs in Tohoku, mostly as a DH.

No longer able to assume the role of designated hitter except in interleague games, Yamasaki has been quoted as saying he is competing with Tony Blanco, 12 years his junior and the 2010 CL home run king, for the job as Chunichi’s regular first baseman and cleanup batter this year.

If he can’t make it, Yamasaki will be relegated to the bench as a pinch hitter. Either way, he will be paid ¥30 million for his efforts.

Another player born in the 1960s is Hanshin Tigers outfielder Tomoaki Kanemoto who turns 44 on April 3. An ironman who played every inning of every game in 1,492 consecutive games, 1999-2010, Kanemoto was a part-time left-fielder last season and is most likely to be a Tigers bench player this year. Though he played in 122 games in 2011, Kanemoto managed to hit only 12 homers with just 31 RBIs while compiling a .218 batting average. Still, he will be paid ¥220 million in 2012.

Current Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters and former major league right-handed pitcher Masao Kida will also turn 44 on Sept. 28 and will try to extend his career for a 21st season, despite the fact he only made three varsity appearances in 2011 with no won-lost record. His remuneration will be ¥12 million.

The name of Hiroshima Carp player Tomonori Maeda appears on the team roster as an outfielder, but practically all his appearances the past three seasons have been as a pinch hitter. Maeda will turn 41 on June 14 and is coming off a year in which he went to the plate just 51 times in as many games. He did manage 13 RBIs with some key hits but had no home runs while batting .250, and he will be paid ¥56 million this season.

Don’t get me wrong. I am all for older players succeeding and keeping their careers going for as long as they can, but each of these guys has to take a hard look and know when they are no longer contributing to their teams’ efforts.

Every player at some point after the age of 35 will lose his effectiveness. The great Shigeo “Mr. Giants” Nagashima quit at age 38 following the 1974 season, saying, “I felt my limitations.” Nagashima’s teammate, world home run king Sadaharu Oh, stepped down after the 1980 campaign at the age of 40 after he too felt his skills were gone.

There are two factors that contribute to the timing of the retirement of players in Japan — natives and foreigners — with which Wakefield and other major leaguers do not have to deal with.

For the foreigners, it does not help any the Japanese system makes many players a year older. Rather than listing ages as of Opening Day as is done by major league teams, the Central and Pacific League rosters put each guy at the age he will become during the calendar year, even if his birthday comes in the later months.

Fukuoka Softbank Hawks first baseman Alex Cabrera, for example, born on Dec. 24, 1971, is listed as 41 this season, even though the entire schedule, including the Japan Series, will be concluded before he reaches that birthday.

When deciding whether to retain a foreign player for the following season, a Japanese team might use age as an excuse to drop the guy and, in the minds of the team’s front office personnel, he is a year older than his actual age.

For the Japanese players, it’s the sayonara retirement game, prior to which a fan favorite announces he’ll be hanging up his spikes, and his team publicizes that fact to draw a big crowd to watch his final pitch or at-bat.

Usually, these are held at the end of a season at an otherwise meaningless game, if the pennant race and league standings have already been decided.

However, sometimes it is done at an exhibition game prior to the following season, as in the case of former Dragons infielder Kazuyoshi Tatsunami who announced his retirement at age 41 during the winter of 2009-10. Chunichi scheduled Tatsunami’s last appearance at a preseason game at Nagoya Dome on Feb. 27, 2010, and pulled in a sellout crowd of nearly 40,000.

If Yamamoto, Yamasaki, Kanemoto, Kida and Maeda cannot do a decent job this year, it should be time for that one last hurrah at a sayonara game.

Contact Wayne Graczyk at: Wayne@JapanBall.com