Every ballplayer, Tony Barnette figures, has a story. He shares this opinion in front of the home dugout, over the din of the crowd, at Tokyo Dome prior to Game 1 of the NPB All-Star Series this past weekend.
Barnette has already got a pretty good story to tell. The latest chapter saw him recognized as one of the top players in the Central League and honored as an All-Star.
Through the years he’s gone from Thomas Jefferson High School in Auburn, Washington, where he played baseball and rooted for the Seattle SuperSonics, to taking selfies with fans in Tokyo and Hiroshima during the All-Star Series.
In between, there was a stint in the Arizona Diamondbacks organization and the experience of being signed by the Tokyo Yakult Swallows for 2010 — and then having the team decide to cut him loose at the end of the year.
Yakult quickly reversed course, and Barnette has made the most of his second chance, with a move to the bullpen that’s been a resounding success and has led to a pair of All-Star appearances.
The path hasn’t always been smooth, but the 31-year-old should have an interesting story to share with his young daughter one day.
“This game, whether it’s MLB, NPB, Korea, wherever it is, it’s chock full of dudes who have just been through the grind, been through so much to be where they are,” Barnette said during the All-Star Series. “I’m blessed. It’s a humbling experience to get released, to get kicked to the bottom, and work your way back up and be back around the top.
“It’s hard not to let doubt slip into your mind, but I think I did a good job over the years of not letting it slip in. Believing in myself, trusting myself, having confidence and just working through the hard times. At the end of the day, whether I succeeded or whether I didn’t, I was going to be able to look at myself in the mirror and say I gave it my all, I tried and I never gave up.”
Barnette is currently in his sixth year in Japan. In 2012, his other All-Star season, he finished tied for the most saves in the Central League with 33. His selection to this year’s All-Star squad was well warranted.
The right-hander compiled 21 saves in 33 appearances (he was also 1-0 with five holds) prior to the All-Star break. He allowed just two earned runs in 36⅔ innings over that span, the fewest allowed by any CL pitcher with at least 21 appearances, and entered the second half with a 0.49 ERA.
“A lot’s working,” Barnette said. “My defense is working. Those guys have been great behind me making pretty good plays. They’ve been picking me up at certain times. Execution is a big part. Earlier, a lot of it had to do with just picking my spots better. Who am I going to be brave against today, who am I feeling brave against right now? It’s just execution, keeping the ball out of the middle of the plate.
“As I get older and keep working, it’s just perfecting my craft. If you’re not working to better yourself, then you’re going in the wrong direction.”
Barnette’s health has also been a contributing factor.
“I haven’t had to miss any time on the mound,” he said. “I think that’s the biggest thing. As long as I’m out there consistently, I think the stats and the results are going to speak for themselves.”
Barnette threw a scoreless eighth inning for the Central League All-Stars in Game 2 of the All-Star Series. The two games, both won by the CL, offered a brief but welcome respite from the seriousness of the regular season.
Barnette was able to let his hair down a bit, and rub shoulders with many of the players he’ll be trying to strike out again after the break, which ended Monday.
“It’s completely different when you’re in a clubhouse as opposed to competing on the field,” Barnette said. “When you’re on the field, everyone’s showing their guts pose, everyone’s trying to be serious.
“In the clubhouse, you start joking around with guys, seeing guys actually smile. Usually, if I see the other guys smiling, that means I gave up runs and that means I’m gonna be upset. So it’s neat to goof around with some of the guys you normally wouldn’t. It’s just fun to be around the best players in the NPB.”