FOREIGN BASEBALL PLAYERS AND MANAGERS IN JAPAN: BOBBY VALENTINE, ROBERTO BARBON AND POPULAR AND UNPOPULAR PLAYERS

FOREIGN BASEBALL PLAYERS IN JAPAN

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Giants' Alex Ramirez
American professional all-star teams have been making goodwill visits to Japan since the 1930s, and all professional baseball teams in Japan have foreign players on their rosters today. Japanese professional teams have scouted players from the United States, Republic of Korea, Taiwan, and several Latin American and Caribbean nations. Many of these players have enjoyed successful careers and set records; others failed to fulfill their promise or adjust to the different playing style, and left after one season.

More than 900 foreigners have played professional baseball in Japan since 1937, when the first one played, with about 40 to 60 of them playing in a given year and two thirds of them being Americas. Many of the best performing foreign players were little known journeyman in the Major Leagues who are signed for a few hundred thousand dollars.

Each Japanese team is allowed to have four gaijin (foreign) players. Some teams will fire one foreign player and replace them with another which is how you can end up with more than 50 players playing on Japan’s 12 teams in a season. The first two American players to play in the Japanese Major Leagues were Don Newcombe and Larry Doby, who came out of retirement in 1972 to play in Japan. Soon after arriving they were criticized for being over weight and lazy.

“Charlie Manuel, a former outfielder in Japan who is now the Phillies’ manager, is still affectionately referred to as Aka Oni, or Red Devil, for the color his face would turn when he became angry during his career with the Kintetsu Buffaloes and Yakult Swallows from 1976 to 1981,” Brad Lefton wrote in the New York Times. “Manuel wowed Japan with his power, smacking 37 or more homers in four straight seasons. He outhomered Sadaharu Oh, the career home run leader, 166 to 152, during those four years. Manuel found success in Japan after spending 13 seasons in the American major and minor leagues. He arrived when he was 32 and finished his career here.” [Source: Brad Lefton, New York Times, May 13, 2011]

In 2005, third basemen Tony Batista, who hit 32 homes runs with Montreal Expos the previous year, was paid $15 million to play with the Softbank Hawks. Other players that have come to Japan have included Red Sox outfielder Gabe Kapler and Astros reliever Dan Miceli. In December 2006, 38-year-old Sammy Sosa was seen practicing at a facility owned by the Hiroshima Carp.

The foreign players usually have interpreters. Once an American who played for the Nippon Ham Fighters was brushed back by consecutive beanballs in one game. He shouted to his interpreter to tell the pitcher "if he ever does that again I'll f-----ing kill him." The interpreter then told the pitcher, the American player “asks that you please don't throw at his head anymore because it makes his wife and children worry." On another occasion an American player told his interpreter to tell a television interviewer that he was no longer mad at an opposing player. The interpreter then explained before the television audience that the gaijin was no longer insane. [Source: Robert Whiting, Smithsonian magazine, September 1986]

Foreign players also play on company teams. Seventeen veteran Cuban players were once leased to Japans' industrial leagues baseball teams.

Discrimination Against Foreign Baseball Players in Japan

In a 1985 poll, Japanese fans were asked if foreigners were necessary 56 percent of the fans said yes, but only ten percent of the players and none of the managers agreed. After the Baltimore Orioles put in a dismal performance on a tour of Japan, one Japanese manager remarked, "They have nothing to offer us. They're just bigger, that's all." [Source: Robert Whiting, Smithsonian magazine, September 1986]

Randy Bass set the record for batting average (.389 in 1986) and helped Hanshin win the Japan Series that year. During the last game of the 1985 season---when Bass was just one home run shy of breaking Oh's single season record of 54 home runs---Bass was thrown a string of unhitable pitches and Oh’s record remained intact. "The results might have been different if Bass were Japanese," one Japanese newspaper reported.

Job security for foreign players is tenuous. They can be let go at the drop of a hat for a long slump, a breach of etiquette and unbecoming behavior. Mark Smith, who played for the Pittsburgh Pirates in the U.S., said, "You're the hired help, You always have to put up big numbers, and you always have to play at the best of your game, or you're gone...They look for you to produce more than anyone lese. And they look for reasons to get ride of you rather than to keep you." Smith often didn't participate in the exhausting fly-ball sessions. When one television commentator commented that he "should take more fielding practice in the interest of team harmony? he said "I have my own system and it's the game that's important. Besides, I already know how to catch the ball. [Source: Robert Whiting, Smithsonian magazine, September 1986]

After 6-foot-3 Luis Medina joined Hiroshima Carp he towered over his team mates and often complained about hitting his head on the dugout ceiling.

Japan’s First Latin Baseball Player and the American Negro Leagues

Roberto Barbon was Japan’s first Latin player. He stole 49 bases and hit 13 triples in his debut season and continued to do well after that. In 2010 at the age of 76 he was still in Japan. Fluent in Japanese, he now conducts youth clinics for the team that originally signed him and is a fixture at its home games. No one is certain, but he may be the longest continuously serving figure in Japanese baseball.” [Source: Brad Lefton. New York Times, March 4, 2010

Brad Lefton wrote in the New York Times: “The man commonly called Chico San grew up imagining quite a different life. The youngest of 11 children from Matanzas, Cuba, Barbon came to Japan in 1955 at the age of 21. He planned to spend a few seasons sharpening his skills so that he could gain interest from a Major League team in the United States. His life changed drastically when the Cuban revolution led by Fidel Castro broke out on Jan. 1, 1959. Diplomatic ties with the free world were severed, and Barbon was stranded in Japan. The security of a job made him appreciate what he had. He married a Japanese woman and has lived in Japan since.” [Ibid]

“Barbon’s unlikely journey has its roots in the relationship between Minoru Murakami, a longtime executive of the Hankyu Braves, and Abe Saperstein, the owner of the Harlem Globetrotters, who was also active in the Negro leagues. Through his friendship with Saperstein, Murakami pioneered the signing of black players in Japan. He signed the Birmingham Black Barons teammates John Britton and Jimmy Newberry for Hankyu in 1952 and several more black players in the ensuing years.” [Ibid]

“In 1954, Barbon was an infielder with the Brooklyn Dodgers’ Class C team in Bakersfield, Calif., where he remembered playing with Larry Sherry and Don Demeter, members of the Dodgers’ 1959 World Series champion team. Barbon was released after the 1954 season, and when Murakami was looking for another black player, Saperstein hooked him up with a Cuban connection who recommended Barbon.” [Ibid]

Japan’s First Latin Baseball Player, Happy in Japan

Brad Lefton wrote in the New York Times: “Barbon laughed heartily as he recalled the plight of a young, naïve Cuban stepping off a three-day, seven-leg flight from Havana to Tokyo in February 1955. “When I got over to the ballpark, it was snowing and everyone was practicing,” he said. “The Japanese were practicing baseball in the snow. I thought, no, it couldn’t be. I never seen snow in my life. Man, it was cold out there. I wanted to go back to Cuba already.” But he did not. Like his Japanese teammates, Barbon warmed his hands over hot coals placed around the field and slept on a tatami mat with a hot water bottle stuffed inside his futon to warm his feet.” [Source: Brad Lefton. New York Times, March 4, 2010]

“Barbon was unusual among the early foreign players; he adapted to the Japanese way so easily that he lasted 11 seasons. Most left after a season or two. Barbon became the first foreigner to reach 1,000 hits in Japan, and until recently his 1,353 games played was tops among foreigners. Barbon, a second baseman, batted .241 and hit only 33 home runs, clearly a different kind of foreigner from the slugger Japan craves today. But Barbon possessed the desired skills of the day: agility in the field and speed. He stole 308 bases, the most of any Westerner in Japan, and led the league in steals for three straight seasons beginning in 1958. He is the last foreigner to steal 50 bases in a season.” [Ibid]

“Barbon’s career is an example of Japan’s transformation to a fascination with home runs. He became expendable when the former Major League infielder Daryl Spencer became the first foreign player with back-to-back seasons of 35 home runs or more, in 1964-65 for Hankyu. Barbon played one final season with the Kintetsu Buffaloes before retiring to a career as an interpreter, coach and front office official for his original franchise, today’s Orix Buffaloes.” [Ibid]

“No matter the role, Barbon has felt at home in Japan (although he says he does not like sushi). He was so comfortable, in fact, that one of his vices once got him in hot water. Certain that afternoon rain would wash out that evening’s game in Tokyo, Barbon ventured to the indoor site of his favorite spectator sport, sumo wrestling.” “Around 4, they announced on the loudspeaker in front of everyone: “Mr. Barbon, there’s a game today at Tokyo Stadium. You must go back,” he said. “I ran outside and there was no rain. When I got to the stadium, my manager was really mad.” But no one stayed mad at him for long, and he has outlasted all other Westerners who have come here to play baseball. “I get along with everybody here,” Barbon said. “I’m so happy here. Every place I go, from Hokkaido to Okinawa, I have friends. I love it here.” [Ibid]

No-Good Foreign Players in Japanese Baseball

Some of foreign players do well, other don't. Among the most notorious dame gaijin (“no-good foreigners”) were former Milwaukee Brewers Bob Deer, who was signed for $2.5 millon with the Hanshin Tigers and had a .151 batting average; former Philadelphia Pete Incaviglia, who returned home after one $2 million season of batting .181 for the Lotte Mariners; and former Baltimore Oriole Jeff Manto, who earned $1 million for three hits in 10 games. [Source: Robert Whiting, Smithsonian magazine, September 1986]

Kevin Mitchell, a former American League home run champion who signed a one-year, $4.5 million deal with the Fukuoka Daieu Hawks, the richest contract in the history of Japanese baseball. He pounded a grand slam home run in his first at bat, but later missed games, complaining of a knee injury, returned to the United States, came back and then returned home gain before the season was finished.

Former Baltimore Oriole Davey Johnson is still known as No Good Johnson because he was signed for a record contract in 1975 to play for the Tokyo Giants and only managed a .197 batting average and set a Japanese record for striking out 12 times in a row. When the Giants finished in last place for the first time ever, Johnson was sent hate mail and death threats.

Former Major League coach Bobby Valentine, who managed the Chiba Lotte Mariners, told Newsweek, "Many major league players have...basically, I am sorry to say, taken the money and run."

Good Foreign Players in Japanese Baseball

Not all Major League players are no good. Former Minnesota Twin Shane Make, who earned $8.1 million of two years in 1996 and 97, was a key player for the Yomiuru Giants. The Venezuelan player Roberto Petagine was the MVP in the Central League.

Tuffy Rhodes, who played with the Houston Astros, Chicago Cubs and Boston Red Sox during six years in the Major League in the early 1990s, was voted Most Valuable Player in the Pacific League and led the Kintensu Buffalos to the Japan Series. In 2003 Rhodes hit .298, had 53 home runs and 110 RBIs. As of 2003, he had played in Japan for eight years and had a .325 average, .380 on base percentage and 288 home runs, In 2004 he switched toe Yomiuri Giants.

In 2001 Rhodes tied Oh's record with 55 home runs. He hit his 55th home run with several games to go and probably would have broken the record were he not walked so many times at the end of the season. In 2002, Robert Cabrera, another foreign player, had 55 home runs and he too was walked a lot at the end of the season, keeping Oh’s record intact.

Alex Ramirez

Giant slugger Alex Ramirez was voted the MVP of the Central League in 2008 and 2009, making him the first player to take the award in consecutive seasons since Sadaharu Oh did it in the 1960s. In 2009, he won the batting championship for the first time with an batting average of .322 and .544 slugging percentage and hit over 100 RBIs for the seventh straight season and helped the Giants win their second straight World Series.

Ramirez came to Japan in 2001 after three seasons and 86 hits in the major leagues with the Cleveland Indians and Pittsburgh Pirates. He won a Central League pennant and Japan Series title in his debut season with the Yakult Swallows. Instead of re-signing with Yakult after the 2007 season--when former teammate Atsuya Furuta left as skipper--Ramirez signed a big deal with the Giants. [Ibid]

Ramirez spent four seasons with the Yomiuri Giants. He was MVP in his first two seasons, both of which saw the team win the league and play in the Series. The Giants won the 2009 Series, but have finished third in the league the past two seasons and failed to advance past the playoffs both times. "The Giants treated me more than professionally--and not just me, but my family as well," he said. "It was a great honor to wear the Giants uniform. [Ibid]

In 2011, when the league batting average tumbled from .268 to .242, Ramirez batted a career-worst .279 with a career low 133 hits in 137 games. His 23 home runs were the most on the Giants and tied him for second in the league. After the 2011 season Ramirez left the Giants. "I have dreams, goals, that I want to accomplish," Ramirez told The Daily Yomiuri in a telephone interview four days after saying he would not negotiate a new contract with the club for 2012.

Jim Allen wrote on the Daily Yomiuri, “With 1,850 hits in Japan, Ramirez is on target to be the only foreign-born player to reach Japan's elite milestone of 2,000 in his career. The 37-year-old has had 159 or more hits in nine of his 11 seasons here."Two thousand hits is my No. 1 goal [for 2012]," said Ramirez, who also spoke of moving on as being a part of his long-term goal of managing here. "I want to learn to see the game from different angles, because my main goal is to be a manager in Japan." Having won the Japan Series with two teams, he also wants to see if he can go for a hat trick with a third.[Source: Jim Allen, Daily Yomiuri, November 5, 2011]

Matt Murton Breaks Ichiro’s Record

In 2010, Hanshin Tiger batter Matt Murton broke Ichiro’s single season hit record of 210. Murton broke the record in his 142nd game, Ichiro set his record in 1994 in a 130 game season. Murton, a noticeable red head Georgia who was 28 when he broke the record, set Japan’s single-season hits record with 214 in 144 games.

Brad Lefton wrote in the New York Times, “Murton, played five years in the majors, mostly part time. The Boston Red Sox selected him in the first round of the 2003 draft. A year later, he was part of the four-team, eight-player trade that sent him and Nomar Garciaparra to the Chicago Cubs and brought Orlando Cabrera and Dave Roberts to the Red Sox. He played 51 games for the Cubs in 2005 and batted .321. In 2006, he hit .297 in 144 games and drove in 62 runs with 13 homers. But he played less in 2007 and was traded to Oakland in the middle of 2008 and then to Colorado. In 2009, he split time between the Rockies and their Class AAA team in Colorado Springs, which was where Hanshin found him.[Source: Brad Lefton, New York Times, May 13, 2011]

“The sudden retirement of Hanshin’s leadoff hitter before the 2010 season led the Tigers to consider Murton for the top of the order. He became the rare foreigner to bat first in Japan and blossomed in the role. In fact, among the Murton-themed merchandise Hanshin sells is a button bearing the Japanese expression so-ko-shu, meaning complete player. Each sound is represented by a character for speed, offense and defense. The button also has Murton’s cartoon image, complete with his red locks protruding from his cap and a smattering of red stubble on his cheeks and chin.” [Ibid]

“Across the top are those three characters plus a fourth, which represents study. Murton is depicted holding open a notebook, pencil in hand, with the caption: “All good kids should take notice of his habits.” Indeed, Murton keeps a detailed notebook of pitchers and umpires, which he diligently updates. He said that to succeed, he needed to record what he was seeing.” “Last year was going to be my first year in Japan,” he told the New York Times in 2011. “There was going to be a language barrier. A sinker to me might mean something different to them. Their terminology might be slightly different than how my brain processes it.” Murton’s note-taking allowed him to minimize the language barrier and begin his march to Japan’s hits record and a .349 average.” [Ibid]

American Managers in Japan

Eight Americans have managed in Japan since it split into two leagues in 1950. Brad Lefton wrote in the New York Times in 201, “Just three seasons ago, the Land of the Rising Sun seemed to be the land of opportunity for American baseball managers. Trey Hillman, Bobby Valentine, Marty Brown and Terry Collins piloted four of Nippon Professional Baseball’s 12 teams. Valentine, the former Mets and Rangers manager, had recently been hoisted in the air by his players as the first foreigner to manage a team to the Nippon Series championship and Hillman, a former Class AAA manager for the Yankees, became the second to do so a year later. The stature of the American manager in Japan seemed to be at a zenith, as did the opportunity for other Americans looking to become managers.” [Source: Brad Lefton, New York Times, August 24, 2010]

By 2010 Brown was the lone remaining American and there is little talk of Japanese teams courting others. Brown, a former Class AAA manager for the Cleveland Indians, said he believed American managers add value to the Japanese game. “It causes more openness, it offers a different way to think about things and do things,” he told the New York Times. “Sometimes things become stagnant in an organization here with just a Japanese manager.” [Ibid]

Some Japanese disagree. In a column headlined, “Just as I Suspected, There’s No Need for Foreign Managers,” Yutaka Enatsu, a former ace pitcher turned popular commentator, concluded that the previous cellar-dwelling Chiba Lotte Marines suddenly became competitive after replacing Valentine with a Japanese manager and the Pacific League runner-up Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles were floundering near the bottom after hiring Brown to replace their Japanese manager. [Ibid]

On what its like managing in Japan, Brown, an American who managed Japan League teams in Hiroshima and Sendai, told the New York Times, “I’m an American in Japan, but I’ve adapted to the Japanese game. I pick and choose my battles to fight. I still fight for what I believe, but I don’t demand. The front office knows that I believe in a chain of command, so they back me on my chain and I back them on theirs. If they really feel strongly about something, then I’m fine with that. I walk out of the door and I support.” [Ibid]

In 2010, 12 Japanese players returned home for another go in the domestic leagues after experiencing the American Major Leagues. Several of them are thought to have managerial aspirations. The next trend may be the implementation of American ideas by Japanese managers who learned them as players in America. [Ibid]

Bobby Valentine

Bobby Valentine was the first foreign-born manager to win the Japan Series. He managed the Chiba Lotte Marines in 1995 and from 2004 to 2009, which he said would be his last year. Under Valentine the Marines won the Japan Series in 2005, finished one game shy of a ply-off berth in 2006 and missed the play-off by a half game in 2004 and 2008. He also mange the Marine to a surprising second place finished in 1995 and was fired days after the end of the season.

Valentine coached the Mets in the Major Leagues. When returned to Japan to coach the Marines he was paid a salary of $4 million a year, more than other U.S. manager save the Yankees Joe Torres. The Marines didn’t do so well in 2004 but they won the Japan Series in 2005. Before that the Marines were known as perennial losers.

Bobby Valentine is well liked in Japan and he seems to enjoy being in Japan very much. He introduced American methods such as keep track of pitch counts and making practices and playing more fun. He had a hand in jazzing up the Marines uniforms and introducing promotions such as Camera Day and letting kids run the bases after games. Attendance doubled under his stewardship. Valentine speaks pretty good Japanese and has appears on Japanese cooking and eating television shows.

More than 50,000 Chiba Lotte Marines fans signed a petition to try to get the team to change its mind and allow Valentine to stay.

Valentine spent six years with the Marines, which historically had been the doormat of their league. In the final days of Valentine’s last season, one of his star young players, Toshiaki Imae, blogged a heartfelt tribute in Japanese to his outgoing manager: “It’s no exaggeration to say that Bobby made me the player I am today. When he first fixed his gaze upon me, I was merely half the player I am now and he painstakingly developed me. I’m forever grateful for being able to play baseball for this wonderful manager.” But not everyone felt that way. After Valentine left the teams’ front officer ordered that the teams usual English-language slogan be replaced with a Japanese-language one. [Source: Brad Lefton, New York Times, August 24, 2010]

Image Sources: Japan Zone

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Daily Yomiuri, Times of London, Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2009 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated January 2013

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