Takeshi Yamasaki said this could be his last year in pro ball, but he says that every year. With 32 homers and 83 RBIs so far this season, don't expect to hear the 40-year-old Tohoku Rakuten DH announcing his retirement anytime soon.
"I entered this season expecting it to be my last. Ever since I joined the Eagles, I've thought, 'If I'm no good this season, it will be my last,'" he told The Hot Corner last week at Seibu Dome. "I never think, 'maybe another two or three years.'"
A colleague recently asked what player over the past 20 years had the best career after being discarded. Yamasaki, who has 356 career home runs--145 for the Eagles since being released by Orix in December 2004--is probably the best answer to that question.
Being released, sold for cash, or lost as compensation for a free agent is a common sign that your career is nearly over. For Yamasaki and a number of others, however, being a castoff represented a chance to be better.
The second-round pick of the Chunichi Dragons in 1986, Yamasaki entered the pros as a catcher after hitting 56 home runs for Nagoya powerhouse Aiko Meidai H.S. Despite his pedigree and some prodigious Western League production, Yamasaki took forever to earn a regular Central League job. Converted to the outfield after Hiroshima's Kozo Shoda stole five bases against him on Oct. 15, 1989, Yamasaki led the WL in homers and RBIs in 1990.
The planets finally aligned for him in 1995 at the age of 27. A red-hot preseason forced the Dragons to give him regular playing time. He responded with a CL-best 39 homers and a .322 average.
Never a defensive asset, Yamasaki's lack of speed became an issue after the Dragons moved into Nagoya Dome in 1997. Yamasaki's habit of taking lots of pitches also irritated his managers, and after hitting .238 in 2001, his days were numbered in Nagoya. In January 2003, he was traded to Orix for former closer Masafumi Hirai.
Nothing clicked in Kobe, however, and Yamasaki was bubbling over at expansion Tohoku Rakuten's first camp in Hyuga, Miyazaki Prefecture, in February 2005.
"We had so many young inexperienced players then, and I had been in the game the longest, perhaps," he said. "In that setting, people respected that. It was a good feeling."
It didn't bring a starting job, however.
"In April, manager [Yasushi] Tao wanted me to pinch-hit," Yamasaki said. "But the foreign batters they were counting on didn't hit. That was my chance.
"Of course I was determined not to be second-best to the foreign guys, so I worked really hard through April and into May. When they didn't hit, the team turned to me."
In November that year, he was joined by outfielder Teppei Tsuchiya. Like Yamasaki, Teppei put up major numbers on the Dragons' farm team that no one in the organization noticed. A month before his 23rd birthday, Tsuchiya was sold to the Eagles after 27 career CL at-bats.
"Chunichi didn't really have a place for him," Yamasaki said. "He was very conscious that this was his chance and that was huge for him.
"We're different kinds of players, but we share this feeling about Chunichi: kind of like 'What were they thinking? I'll show them.'"
Both men have done that and more. Tsuchiya, the PL's batting average leader, said there was no key to his success other than just getting games at the top level.
"What improvement I've achieved has largely a matter of opportunities, having lots of games at this level," he said.
There will always be players whose abilities are overlooked or underappreciated. Often the only difference between minor league success and quality performance at the top level is opportunity.
"That's the way baseball is," said Yamasaki, who has lately mellowed about his years in farm purgatory. "It's about chances. Sometimes you don't get them."
If anything accounts for his current success, it may be the awareness that the end can come at any time.
"I never think, 'What will I do if I'm out of baseball," he said. "I've been fired. I've had that experience of asking 'Now what?' Being out of baseball doesn't scare me. I just go and play for all I'm worth. When I'm done with this, I'll do something else."