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Rakuten reliever Frank Herrmann follows path from Harvard to Sendai

by Jason Coskrey

Staff Writer

Frank Herrmann is still putting his Harvard University education to good use. Just not in the way, and certainly not in the place, he expected.

Herrmann left the prestigious Ivy League college with a degree in economics, but it’s the lessons he learned on the baseball diamond for the Crimson that are serving him most as a reliever for the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles.

“I feel like trying to figure these things out is usually a fruitless task,” Herrmann joked to The Japan Times.

Herrmann is in his second year in Japan and the 34-year-old, who previously played for MLB’s Indians and Phillies, is part of an exclusive club. Players who went to Harvard are a rare breed in the pro ranks, with only 31 having reached MLB, per the database on Baseball Reference. When Herrmann debuted in 2010, he was the first since Jeff Musselman, who played from 1986-1990. Brewers pitcher Brent Suter is the only active major leaguer from the school.

Herrmann is only the second Harvard grad to play in Japan, following Jim Doole, who played for the Takahashi Unions in 1954.

Herrmann pitched parts of four seasons in MLB before joining the Eagles in 2017. With the team off to a slow start and stung by injuries, he’s moved around as needed in the bullpen. Most recently, he’s taken over for Yuki Matsui as the closer.

“I just kind of do whatever they need,” he said. “Last year, we were fortunate enough to get off to a good start. We had a lot of guys throwing the ball well, like (Hiroyuki) Fukuyama, we had (Kohei) Morihara, who was a rookie last year, he’s hurt now, Matsui was his normal self. So we could kind of go six-seven-eight-nine and come right at you.”

Herrmann didn’t see baseball in his future growing up. He was recruited more heavily for football coming out of high school and didn’t play much as a freshman at Harvard.

He found his place soon enough, and while he wasn’t drafted, he was eventually signed by the Indians.

“It’s rare to make it to the big leagues as a Harvard guy, it’s even more rare to make it as an undrafted free agent,” he said. “For me, it’s just all about constant progress.”

That’s been a theme this season, with the righty having recorded eight holds, five saves and a 1-1 record in his 21 appearances so far.

“I feel like I was good last year, but I’m starting to show what I can be and what I was before I had Tommy John in ’13, just with my secondary pitches getting to where I don’t have to go out there and just try to blow everybody away,” he said. “That’s a good feeling. It’s good for me mentally going out there knowing I can pitch. It’s more fun.”

Herrmann is having so much fun, he’s not sure he wants to leave baseball behind even after he eventually retires.

“I never thought I’d really play,” he said. “I certainly didn’t think I’d be playing 14 years now, and in Japan. If I had gotten knocked out of the game my first two years, I probably would’ve done something in finance. Then we had 2009, the financial crisis happened. I saw that as less of something I wanted to do. I think now, I want to stay in baseball in a front office capacity probably. That’s where I see myself.”

With so many Ivy League grads running baseball teams now, Herrmann might fit right in.

“I really like the player development aspect of things,” Herrmann said. “I was with the Cleveland Indians for nine years and they placed a strong emphasis on player development. Because they have to, they can’t compete with those big market teams. Like the Carp, how they do it here. There’s obviously a formula for doing it. I think if you can continue to develop talent, it’s important.”

One talent he’s seen continue to develop up close is teammate Takahiro Norimoto, a right-handed pitcher some think could pitch in MLB.

“I definitely think personality-wise he can,” Herrmann said. “He’s a bulldog. They have to rip the ball from his hands most times. That’s why you see him going so long, because sometimes they’re just like, ‘alright, we don’t feel like arguing with him, let him pitch.’

“You have to wanna pitch. Because there’s another deck there, there’s 10,000 more fans a night. As someone who went to a different country and had to deal with some of the other aspects outside the white lines, I think Nori has the head for that.

“Whether he wants to do it or not, where he’s at in two years from now — because he does throw a lot of pitches and he does pitch a lot of games — do I think he could do it? Yes. I absolutely do. I think he could be a good starter there.”

For now, the Eagles need Norimoto, Herrmann and the rest get going in the right direction if they hope to overcome a 19-38-1 start.

“We started off really well last year, and we had a patch like this in August and September,” he said. “If we can kind of just transpose that season a little bit and flip it, I think we can still make some noise.”