Challenge of playing in Japan can be worthwhile
Adjustments can be many, but some Americans discover success
As Marc Kroon readied himself on May 3, 2005, to try for his second save in as many days -- his first attempt in front of his home crowd after taking over the Yokohama BayStars' closer's job from fan-favorite Kazuhiro Sasaki -- the stadium announcer excitedly belted out his introduction.
"Now pitching, Marc Kroon!"
The response from the 40,000 or so fans?
"They were like, 'Excuse me?'" Kroon recalled. "It was the most awkward thing I've ever gone through in baseball."
As uncomfortable as the moment was, Kroon converted the save. He experienced many more rewarding moments during his six years with the BayStars and Yomiuri Giants, too.
That's the way it goes for the hundreds of Americans who have taken their baseball careers overseas: To reap the benefits of a fresh start, they must first overcome the challenges of being outsiders.
"I saw that guys who fought hard to make adjustments did well," said Orioles left-hander Tsuyoshi Wada, a four-time Nippon Professional Baseball All-Star. "And guys who didn't and just focused on what they wanted to do, they were not able to do that."
Kroon was approached after a game in Colorado Springs in 2004. A man walked up to him in the parking lot, said he'd been following Kroon's pitching for a while and offered him a chance to play professionally in Japan.
The opportunity does not always present itself so directly.
Japanese teams scout Triple-A games and monitor Major League Baseball's transactions, looking for players being shuttled between the Majors and Minors.
Giants pitcher Ryan Vogelsong was approached in 2005 after bouncing between Triple-A and the Majors, declined, then accepted the offer after a rough 2006 season.
He had to decide quickly, as the deadline to sign was before the Majors' free-agency period even began. The same was true for former Phillies reliever Scott Mathieson, now with the Yomiuri Giants.
"I'm not looking at it as a stepping stone back to [the] Major Leagues," Mathieson said via email from Japan. "More as a new chapter in my life."
Robert Whiting, an author and expert on Japanese baseball, said the trend has shifted from Japanese clubs signing older stars on the downside of their careers to the supposed "Quadruple-A" players who often provide one tool their homegrown players lack -- power -- while seeking a fresh start and a salary often twice as high as their Minor League pay.
That's not quite the case for former Major League starter Brad Penny, who signed a one-year, $4 million deal with the Softbank Hawks this past offseason. Penny enjoyed a mostly successful 12-year career in the Majors, most recently with the Tigers, yet he opted to pursue a career in Japan.
"I could have stayed over there and played," Penny said at his introductory news conference with the Hawks, "but I just thought, not too many times in my career am I going to get an opportunity like this, and I thought I might as well do it now."
Like many Americans, Kroon initially struggled with the transition off the field. He was ready to go home after two weeks. In that time, he lost about eight pounds because he didn't eat Japanese food -- he never did during his six years there, in fact.
He ate rice, but he had to get creative with it. He put vinegar on it -- tartar sauce, even -- to give it flavor. There was a McDonald's there -- a refuge for many Americans in the country -- but it was a $15 cab ride away.
"It cost me like $50 for a Big Mac, and I got tired of doing that," Kroon said. "I was miserable, man."
Kroon, Vogelsong and Mathieson didn't find the language to be a particularly big problem. It wasn't easy, but they found ways to communicate. Colby Lewis, on the other hand, said it was "probably the toughest thing of all," whether he was trying to get a point across or was asking for something at the grocery store.
But many Americans' problems with being outsiders -- gaijin -- don't occur at the grocery store. They come at the ballpark and with their new teams.
Vogelsong felt like he faced outrageously high expectations, like he needed to throw a two-hit shutout every time, because they paid him to come to Japan and pitch well. A manager once told Vogelsong he'd be removed from the game, no matter what, after he gave up his first run.
"They bring you over there to help that team get a little better, maybe take the next step. We're the help," Vogelsong said. "And I say that because they want you to be good, but they don't want you to be too good. That was hard for me to understand."
It forced him to become mentally stronger, but it wasn't ideal to feel like he was battling members of his own club while trying to pitch well to help them win. Other Americans who have played in Japan expressed similar feelings, saying the fans would rather see their homegrown players succeed.
Perhaps the worst part of Vogelsong's time in Japan, however, was the realization that he wasn't guaranteed a spot with the big league club.
He didn't end up going the first time he was told, but he couldn't avoid a trip to the farm -- few ever do. Only four foreigners are allowed to be on the big league club at the same time, but they can have as many as they want in the minors.
The Japanese farm system is much smaller than the American Minor League system, with each franchise having only one affiliate. It's not used specifically to humble Americans, Whiting wrote, but to make them work on their games rather than have them sit on the bench.
"It's basically like you're playing in the Gulf Coast League in Japan," Vogelsong said. "It's not fun."
Kroon was one of the few Americans to avoid the minors altogether in Japan; he says it's his proudest accomplishment from his time there. He admits he was fortunate, but he also put in the work.
He soaked up as much knowledge as possible from Sasaki, learning everything he could so he could be respectful of the culture. Sasaki was equally respectful of Kroon, publicly supporting him in a newspaper article the day after what Kroon called the most awkward moment of his career.
"Sasaki always told me, 'Kroon, if you want the people to like you here, you have to perform on the field first,'" he said. "'If you want the people to love you here, you have to know that you're not in America.'"
Kroon did his part on the field first.
He set the national record for fastest pitch at 162 kilometers per hour. He led the Central League in saves in 2008, was named an All-Star, won a championship in 2009 and became the leading foreigner in career saves.
He caught a first pitch from pop star Mariah Carey and met several other American celebrities he certainly wouldn't have had a chance to meet as a Triple-A reliever. By the time he left Japan, he found himself fully immersed in the Japanese culture.
"Once I realized that I could make a living over there," Kroon said, "it was a different ballgame."
The stories from Americans who have played in Japan run the gamut of experiences. There's success. There's failure. Happiness. Misery. Brotherhood. Loneliness.
So, with all that in mind, if a young player came to them saying he was considering taking his career to Japan, what would they say?
"Absolutely," Kroon said. "If you don't have any motivation to go over there because you already have the money, then you're going to be like, 'I don't have to deal with this.' But if you're hungry, if you still believe you can get people out, and you're getting guaranteed money, take it. That's what I did, and I ran with it."
"If you're going to play just for the money because the money's better, you're not going to succeed," added Vogelsong. "If you're going to play to get better and enjoy the experience while you're there, no matter how bad it gets, you're going to do fine. It really is about that."