It's tough enough being an old star in a young man's game. If you're the oldest player on a club bent on a youth kick, and a journeyman on top of that, it might seem like a nerve-wracking test.
On the other hand, if one is Masao Kida, it might seem like just another tiny episode in an ironic career marked by promise, disappointment and resilience.
Until the end of August, Kida had been in Toda, Saitama Prefecture, the location of Tokyo Yakult's Eastern League gulag. Shortly after, the 22-year-veteran spoke to the Hot Corner in Yokohama.
"It wasn't because of injury. It was a number of different things," the Swallows right-hander said of his prolonged minor existence this season. "The new manager wants to develop the young guys, give them more chances, which is a great opportunity for them."
With the Swallows suddenly in the hunt for a playoff spot, skipper Shigeru Takada began calling up his Toda-based veterans in August.
"I had a lot of experience bouncing up and down between 3-A and the majors, so it doesn't matter much," said Kida, who turns 40 tomorrow. "You learn to adjust."
Indeed, Kida is back pitching the way he always has: alternating between spurts where he is untouchable and alarming spasms of forkballs that wind up in the seats.
"My fastball hit 148 kph the other day. And it still has some movement on it," Kida said of the heater that complements his double-edged sword of a forkball.
Kida has always had something. In 1990 at the age of 21, he went 12-8 for the Giants in a season split between the starting rotation and the bullpen. Kida threw 182-2/3 innings with 13 complete games and seven saves. The manager of the Giants at the time, Motoshi Fujita, predicted Kida's lower back would always give him trouble, and that has turned out to be the case.
It was not to be his only chronic trouble.
Until being traded to Orix after the 1997 season, Kida was infamous for gopher balls and for bearing down on the big fish only to get burned by the small fry at the bottom of the order.
Kida, however, said he learned the error of his careless ways in the majors. After signing with the Detroit Tigers in 1999 as a high-priced free agent, Kida saw one of the big hitters he'd faced in the Pacific League, Lee Stevens, batting seventh for the Texas Rangers.
"Stevens hit cleanup for Kintetsu. Here he's batting seventh, so you can't let up even against the bottom of the order," he told The Hot Corner in 1999.
Kida's American odyssey, however, proved to be fairly rocky. He pitched in 49 games for the Tigers in 1999, finishing 1-0 with one save and a hefty 6.26 ERA. But things would get worse quickly.
He was released in 2000 and returned to Orix. When his lower-back pain flared up again, the BlueWave canned him in 2001. But despite a year of job hunting, Kida caught an invitation to the Los Angeles Dodgers' spring camp in 2003.
That March, however, a car he was driving in Florida was hit head-on after someone going in the opposite direction crossed the center divider. His interpreter, Teppei Shiokawa, was nearly killed and Kida took months to recover. Kida bounced back--in time for another ironic twist.
With the Dodgers in need of bullpen help, they called him up from Triple-A Las Vegas. Instead of providing relief, Kida's first major league game in over three years became his first start since 1998. Kida took the loss in a 2-1 pitchers' duel only to get a return ticket to Las Vegas.
"The bullpen was still thin, and after starting, I was of no use there," Kida said. "So they sent me down and brought up someone who could help immediately.
"It was frustrating but there's not a lot you can do about it."
After all the ups and downs, Kida now has a chance to go to the postseason for the first time in over a decade. It would seem normal if Kida had felt like a graybeard several seasons ago, but not a lot about Kida or his career is normal. Asked at what point he first felt old, Kida said: "Two days ago.
"I was sprinting against [Masaru] Sato--our really fat pitcher--and he beat me," said Kida.
"I thought, 'Whoa. That's not supposed to happen.'"