Baseball | BASEBALL BULLET-IN

Keys to success as a foreign ballplayer in Japan

by Wayne Graczyk

The Hanshin Tigers are apparently going to sign a new foreign player who will be facing one of the most difficult adjustments in the pro baseball world. Japanese sports newspaper reports have indicated the Tigers are talking to Matt Hague, a third baseman with the Toronto Blue Jays organization.

Whether it is Hague or someone else, a new gaikokujin position player would replace six-year Hanshin veteran Matt Murton, who will not be returning to the team in 2016. The adjustment is always tough for first-year guys putting on the Osaka pinstripes because of the popularity of the club and the expectations of the fans who fill Koshien Stadium.

It is important for newbies to realize exactly what they are getting into. The majime, or serious-type, players with no sense of humor are the ones who are not going to make it. The loose, shake-it-off personalities are the ones with the best chance of success in the Hanshin uniform as well as those of other teams.

Murton fit right in because of his positive attitude. He learned some Japanese and was well-liked by Kansai fans who have expressed their admiration and appreciation on social media for his efforts since he broke Ichiro Suzuki’s single-season Japanese baseball hit record his first year in 2010. He won the Central League batting title in 2014 and leaves the Tigers with a six-year batting average of .310.

In recent years, Hanshin players such as Mike Kinkade in 2004 and Kevin Mench in 2009 did not make the adjustment and played less than a year in Japan.

Outfielder Kinkade was a teammate of George Arias, a third baseman playing his fifth season in this country; his third with the Tigers after two years with the Orix BlueWave. During batting practice prior to an exhibition game with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays (in Tokyo to open the ’04 major league season against the New York Yankees), Arias could be seen smiling, waving to the Tigers fans and engaging in small talk with the Japanese and foreign media.

Kinkade, on the other hand, seemed tight and did not observe and copy Arias’ gestures. He was quiet, kept to himself and seemed to be wondering what the heck he was doing here. He wound up playing only 26 games, hitting .233 with three home runs.

Mench, during the ’09 spring exhibition season, told his interpreter he wanted whatever he said during the season to be translated exactly as he said it, even if he was telling his own manager where to go. That would never happen in Japan, as both the interpreter and the player would be fired on the spot for showing such a lack of respect. Mench played 15 games, hitting .148 with no home runs.

Tigers players who had success also had some quirky habits while displaying a smiling face and a friendly demeanor. Australian relief pitcher Jeff Williams befriended a Japanese beat writer whose bald head Williams would rub for good luck prior to each game. Williams played seven years for Hanshin (2003-09) and sometimes gets invited back to play in old-timers games.

First baseman Craig Brazell played four seasons for the Tigers (2009-12), including a 47-home run year in 2010. With a happy-go-lucky attitude, his habit was to be the first one from Hanshin on the field at road games, especially when the team was playing the archrival Yomiuri Giants at Tokyo Dome.

He would be out there in shorts during the Giants batting practice, shooting the breeze, laughing and joking with then-Yomiuri manager Tatsunori Hara and the Giants coaches behind the batting cage.

Over the years, foreign players on other teams as well engaged in out-of-the-ordinary, fan-entertaining activities. Slugger Alex Ramirez was well known for his home run “performances” with team mascots during his days with the Tokyo Yakult Swallows and the Giants, 2001-12.

Brad “The Animal” Lesley, the 1986-87 Hankyu Braves reliever, used to grab an unsuspecting media member and playfully put him in a headlock to simulate pro wrestling.

During a rain delay in a game at Tokyo’s Jingu Stadium in 1986, Yakult players Leon Lee and Mark Brouhard donned the team mascots’ oversized bird heads and had the fans rolling with laughter as they took the field, simulated hitting home runs and slid belly-flopping across the wet canvas field covers.

Nippon Ham Fighters fun-loving outfielder Matt Winters (1990-94) cracked up the crowd when he put on a girl’s wig and grass skirt and joined a group of hula dancers in a pre-game performance on Hawaii night at Tokyo Dome.

Then there was Marc Kroon, six-year (2005-10) closer with the Yokohama BayStars and Giants, who signed as many as 500 autographs prior to games.

A new foreigner with Hanshin will need to adjust not only to the new country, language, food, strike zone, practice regimen and teammates, but also Koshien Stadium with its skin infield, the boisterous fans, the seventh-inning balloon launch, hero interview and the importance of the rivalry with the Giants.

Advice to all new foreign players in Japan: Stay loose, go with the flow, stop for a moment and chat with the media. (We don’t bite, but no headlocks, please.) Learn a little of the language, sign some autographs for the fans and adhere to the three-point philosophy that allowed Ramirez to enjoy a successful 13-year playing career in Japan.

It is: 1) Wakaranai. 2) Shi o ga nai. 3) Daijobu. That is, I don’t understand why we do this, but there is nothing I can do to change it, so it is OK. I will conform.

You don’t have to be a mascot head or a hula dancer; just keep a smile and a sense of humor.

Contact Wayne Graczyk at Wayne@JapanBall.com