Baseball | BASEBALL BULLET-IN

Gomes left Eagles before opportunity to turn season around

by Wayne Graczyk

“Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye.” The title of a 19th century anti-war song.

Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye. The title of a book about John F. Kennedy, 35th president of the United States.

Jonny (no “H”), we hardly knew ye. What we can say to Jonny Gomes who left the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles just one month into the 2016 Japan pro baseball season, after he was told he was being sent to the team’s Eastern League farm team to fix what might be wrong with his batting form.

Gomes played in just 18 games, mostly batting as a DH in the No. 7 slot in the Eagles’ lineup. Batting, but not hitting. He managed only 11 safeties in 65 at-bats, with one home run and seven RBIs. His lifetime batting average in Japan will be recorded at .169. The Eagles on Friday announced Gomes has been released.There was also word another reason Gomes left is because of a family illness, but the demotion to the “minor leagues” never does sit well with proud major league veterans, and the result is something Pacific and Central League clubs need to consider when they opt to sign a long-time player from the majors.

I got to see and speak with Gomes once — when the Eagles played an exhibition game against the Yomiuri Giants at Tokyo Dome on March 19. He seemed to have a fine character and the right attitude about playing in Japan and gave no indication he would be quitting a month into the season.

To be sure, Gomes is not the first high-profile, big-name major league veteran who came to Japan, then left early when something unexpected happened or the necessary adjustment to Japanese baseball could not be made.

Don Money left the Kintetsu Buffaloes a month into the 1984 season, despite leading the Pacific League in home runs, after he became disgruntled with playing and living conditions in the Kansai area.

Slugger Kevin Mitchell quit the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks after playing only 37 games in 1995, and more recently pitcher Brad Penny went home to the U.S. after pitching only one game for the SoftBank Hawks in 2012.

Though Gomes was only a .242 hitter during his 13-year big league career, he was expected to be a key player in manager Masataka Nashida’s lineup as the Rakuten team tries to shake off consecutive 2014-15 last-place finishes in the Pacific League. It was not to be.

Perhaps being the designated hitter contributed to his inability to break out of the slump as well. There was too much time to think about it. Had he played a defensive position, Gomes would have had to concentrate more on playing full time instead of sitting on the bench while his teammates were in the field.

Another factor is how a player may define the terms “minor league” club and the “farm team.” In North America, there are levels of minor leagues below the major league standard. You have your AAA, AA, A and rookie leagues, whereas in Japan, there is only the farm team, sometimes referred to as the “second team,” translating from the Japanese term, “ni-gun.”

There have been foreign players in Japanese baseball who refused to be sent down from the first team, saying, “I did not come to Japan to play in the minor leagues.” Some have even had a clause included in their contracts that stipulates they will not be dropped to the farm team without their approval.

Hiroshima power hitter Brad Eldred recalls when he was sent to the Carp’s Western League farm club in August of 2014. It was during the season he wound up winning the Central League home run title with 37, even when he missed 10 games of varsity action while away.

Eldred, of course, was not happy when he was dropped to the farm but never thought about walking away, knowing his slump would end.

“I would always stick it out. I knew I just needed to play and work it out and think I could have done it just as easily (on the first team),” he said last week at Tokyo Dome.

Had Gomes looked on his being sent to the Eagles farm team as an opportunity to work with batting coaches, identify what he might have been doing wrong and fix the problem, he could have come back after 10 days and gone on to enjoy a productive season in Tohoku.

Two years ago, Eldred returned from his stint on the farm, clinched the homer crown and helped the Carp into the Climax Series. This season, as of May 5, “Big Country” Brad was leading the Central League in batting at .378 and with11 homers. It’s all in the attitude.

Hopefully, Gomes’ family member will be OK, and he can resume his career, if not in Japan, then with another MLB club. Japanese baseball is not for everyone, and this episode proves there is no guarantee even a long-time major leaguer can find success here.

Diamond Dust: According to the Yokohama DeNA BayStars website, 1990s-era cleanup hitter Glenn Braggs will visit Yokohama Stadium during the BayStars interleague series with the Chiba Lotte Marines June 3-5. Braggs played with the ‘Stars from 1993-96, compiling a .300 batting average over the four years and had a 35-home run season in 1994.

Contact Wayne Graczyk at: Wayne@JapanBall.com

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