Baseball / Japanese Baseball | Sac Bunts

Playing in Japan means sacrificing family time for many NPB players

by Jason Coskrey

David Huff, a left-handed reliever for the Tokyo Yakult Swallows, is the pro athlete in the Huff household.

But his wife Lisa, he says, is the real MVP.

“Not only dealing with me, with the ups and downs of a season, but dealing with kids (two of them now), she’s like Superwoman when it comes to the season,” Huff told The Japan Times. “She just grinds it out. It’s similar to like a single mother. I’m traveling, I’m playing and she’s taking care of the family. For her, it’s tough. Mentally, it’s really strenuous.”

Foreign players face a lot adjustments when they come to Japan, such as the language, the culture and baseball itself in many cases. But one of the biggest, and the one fans don’t really see, is how much time they spend away from their families, and how hard their significant others work.

Time away from home, which might be counted in weeks in North America, can balloon to months when there’s literally an ocean between players and their loved ones. Huff dealt with that during his two years in Korea with the LG Twins of the Korea Baseball Organization. Now he’s in his second year in Japan with the Swallows.

“Being in Korea, being in Japan, we’re awake when they’re asleep and they’re awake when we’re asleep,” he said. “It’s really hard. I’ll wake up and say good morning and they’ll go about their day. It’s usually right after 2 p.m. when I wake up in their time (in California). Then they go to bed right when I’m at the field about to go stretch. At night, I try to stay up a little longer, so I can wish them a good morning. I’m tired, but it makes my day.

“You never realize how much you miss someone until they’re gone.”

It’s a reality many players and their spouses face, even back home.

Huff played for five teams across eight seasons in MLB and a few more teams in the minors. In 2013, he was the winning pitcher for the New York Yankees in the same game Ichiro Suzuki reached 4,000 professional hits.

“It was awesome. Everybody just embraced him, he was happy, smiling from ear to ear,” Huff said. “He’s a very quiet guy, very humble guy, doesn’t really say much.”

Huff met his wife during the 2013 offseason, and even then dealt with long periods of separation.

“It’s straining on relationships when you’re gone for eight months out of the year, traveling the States, traveling the world now,” he said.

Getting through one season of that was a big step for the pair.

When they met, he said, Lisa didn’t know much about baseball.

“Now, I can carry on a conversation as if I’m talking to one of my teammates,” he said. “Like, ‘that 1-1 pitch, I threw a cutter in, I probably should’ve gone fastball.’ She’s like, ‘yeah the cutter was kind of hung out over the plate, you should’ve gotten it further in.’ I’m just like, ‘God, I love you.’ “

They’re a team at home and parents to 4-year-old Ethan and Dylan, who was born just over 4 months ago. But with the spring comes the separation. This year, Huff left for Japan on Jan. 27. It was only earlier this month that his family was scheduled to join him and make the Huff team whole again.

“First couple of days, you’re getting through it,” he said. “But for me it’s like Day 3. It hits me and it’s just like, man, I miss my family, I miss the routines, I miss playing with my kids. I just miss all the little things.”

Unlike those who came before, current players have an assortment of technology they use stay in touch. That, though, can also remind them what they’re missing.

“Lisa’s on Instagram, she posted something when Dylan was born, our youngest was born this past offseason, and he’d just been born,” Huff said. “I think I was changing him or something and she wrote a post saying this was the last time Dave held Dylan.

“And it kind of tore me up a little bit. I was happy because they were coming out soon, but I kind of started tearing up a little bit.”

Some families are able to stay together all season with kids attending school in Japan, and others make it work in other ways. For the players, it’s hard, but also necessary.

“That’s part of the job,” Huff said. “People classify us as athletes, entertainers. When we show up to the field, you’ve gotta check all that emotion and everything that’s going on in your personal life, you’ve gotta leave it in the locker room.

“You’ve gotta come right back out here and do your job. Because if you’re not doing your job, because you’re thinking about something off the field, you’re not going to do your job well.”