Getting a job in American pro baseball is an uphill battle, even more so for foreigners. But Naoto Masamoto is proof that the American dream is not an impossible one.
Masamoto, the video coordinator for the World Series champion Chicago Cubs, spoke little English after graduating from high school in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, and entered the University of Massachusetts Boston. Good timing and eagerness to help have opened doors, and Masamoto has taken full advantage.
“We did work together when he first came on staff with the Cubs. He was the minor league strength and conditioning coach,” former Hanshin Tigers star Matt Murton told Kyodo News by email. “It’s really cool to see how far he has come and grown during his time in the organization.”
Like many young Japanese who have been injured playing sports, Masamoto sought a career in sports medicine. That’s how he got into baseball in the United States.
“My dad was going to the States and I knew I wanted to be a trainer,” the 37-year-old Masamoto said at December’s winter meetings near Washington. “(It was better) studying training in the States compared to Japan at that time.”
UMass also offered a chance to continue his baseball career on the field after he walked into the coach’s office and asked to play. Masamoto shone as the Beacons’ shortstop and noticed differences in the way American players prepared.
“Japanese baseball, high school baseball, you could say there is a lot of overuse — if you want to use that term. There’s a lot of repetition, a lot of throwing, a lot of running. Some of the stuff makes sense and some of it doesn’t,” he said.
“From the mental side, I think it makes sense, because it makes you tougher. But on the physical side, I think it’s too much for the body. Some of the things . . . here in the States, they do too little.”
After graduating, Masamoto was hired for the 2002 season by the Colorado Rockies, but one obstacle loomed: A visa. For a lot of Japanese looking to work in America’s baseball business, the visa proves to be the hurdle they can’t clear.
“I’ve seen a lot of those guys,” said Masamoto, who added “interpreter” to his resume in 2004, when the Rockies signed Japanese pitcher Yusuke Arakawa to a minor league contract.
“So the Rockies said, ‘We’ll give you a full-time job: Translator/strength coach.’ It’s a win-win situation. The organization saves some money, I get the visa status and the player gets an interpreter,” Masamoto said.
After three years with Colorado, the Cubs offered a change. The Cubs’ and Rockies’ Triple-A outfits played in the same league, so Chicago’s minor league staff knew Masamoto from the ballpark and he’d made an impression.
“They knew me, they see me around. I’m throwing BPs and catching pens and coaching first base and I’m doing everything,” he said. “So their farm director called our guy and said, ‘Hey, we have an opening and if he wants it, it’s his.’ ”
His move coincided with an increased interest in strength and conditioning by big league clubs, and the Cubs put Masamoto in charge of their expanded minor league training program. After three years, Chicago offered him a promotion, to major league assistant strength coach. There he would oversee 15 players instead of 250 throughout the minors and being the boss, and he turned it down.
“The minor leagues are nice,” he said. “Once you go to the big league — which I didn’t know at that point — you’ve got this guy for this, this guy for that. You just focus on what you do.
“But in the minor leagues, you can do this, you can do that, you can throw BP, you can hit fungoes, you can catch bullpens, whatever you want to do to help the club. But in the big leagues you have BP throwers, you have fungo hitters, so you don’t have to do anything but focus on your job, which is not what I wanted to do.”
Eventually, they settled on a big league job in charge of video.
“It was a promotion. It was a new area, but it was still a baseball job,” Masamoto said. “We also talked about the future. It might be a way to go into the front office, rather than being a strength and conditioning coach, where if you get a big league job, where do you go after that? You stay in that department for 15 or 20 years. That could be it.”
Now his job means helping players and coaches examine performance — both their team’s and their opponents’.
“There are definitely a lot of eyes on players,” he said. “But whether or not a player is going to be able to make the adjustment is up to him. It’s not just young guys. Maybe a veteran is doing something different, and you’ve got to find out and then be able to make an adjustment.”
It’s not all that different for people working behind the scenes in professional sports, where fortunes can change in the blink of an eye and it’s up to the individual to choose the right path.
Asked what he’s learned from his American journey, Masamoto said, “I always try to do my best because people watch, not necessarily just within your organization.
“If people want to fire you, you’re going to get fired anyway. Whatever you do, it’s not going to keep somebody from getting rid of you. They’ll find something.
“So if that’s the case, why don’t you just do what you think is right, so you don’t have any regrets when you do get fired. If you do what you think is the right thing to do, then do it. If you get fired, so be it.”