Former Yokohama BayStars and Yomiuri Giants closer Marc Kroon is in the process of trying to earn a spot in the bullpen of the World Series champion San Francisco Giants.
That might be a tall order, considering the Giants are pitching-rich at the moment, but the 37-year-old reliever with a rocket-launcher for a right arm is turning a few heads in the Cactus League.
Kroon, who was originally drafted by his hometown New York Mets in 1991, would go on to save 177 games over six seasons in Japan and set an NPB speed record with a pitch that was clocked at 162 kph (101 mph).
After being cut by the Yomiuri Giants after last season, the colorful Kroon recently got his first career win and first save in an MLB uniform, albeit in spring training.
After picking up the save on March 2 against the Arizona Diamondbacks, Kroon was so pumped that his manager in San Francisco, Bruce Bochy, said he kept the ball.
Kroon and Bochy, it turns out, have a long and somewhat sordid history with each other. Here is Kroon's account of the first time he got the call from Bochy, who was his manager in San Diego when he made his major-league debut more than 10 years ago:
"On July 7, 1995, I was a 22-year-old kid with the San Diego Padres organization when I got the 'call,' the one that every young ballplayer dreams about," Kroon recalls. "The Padres were in Houston for a series with the Astros and my orders were to meet the team there. Seemed like all those years of hard work were about to pay off.
"So I get to the Astrodome and the next thing I know I'm in the same locker room with guys like Tony Gwynn and Ken Caminiti. I'm walking around with my jaw dropped open, taking it all in, just amazed at the whole scene.
"The game starts and I'm in La-La Land, checking out the stadium, the players, the lights, the fans. I skipped Triple-A and everything was just so much grander, faster, bigger, better than Double-A ball.
"Needless to say, I'm really enjoying my first day in the big leagues, chatting with the other pitchers and watching the game from the bullpen. I had been a starter up to this point but the Padres had other ideas, I guess. The eighth inning rolls around and we're ahead 2-1 when the bullpen phone rings. Our All-Star closer Trevor Hoffman takes this as his cue. He laces up his spikes and starts to limber up, does a little stretching.
"Our bullpen coach, Greg Booker, hangs up the phone, turns to me and says, 'Kroon, you got the ninth inning.'
"I thought he was joking at first. Hoffman, a future Hall of Famer who is MLB's all-time saves leader, shoots me a look like, 'What the hell--that's my job, rookie!'
"My heart starts pounding like crazy. I get on the mound in the bullpen, which is down the left-field line in foul territory. I start to toss with one of the bullpen catchers, but I'm so keyed up with nervous energy that my first warm-up pitch goes sailing over the catcher's head and into the field of play. Not cool.
"The umpire calls timeout, and I can feel 40,000 people staring down at me wondering who this nervous kid is warming up in the bullpen. I throw another pitch and, sure enough, same thing. Another timeout. Believe it or not, it happened a third time and all I could think to myself was, 'This is not good.' To this day, I still have trouble warming up in those bullpens down the lines.
"We get three outs and the guys in the bullpen all wish me luck. I still remember nothing about the walk from the bullpen to the mound that day or what the catcher told me when I got out there. All I remember is standing on the mound telling myself not to look up, not to look at all those people.
"I finish my warm-up pitches and the catcher throws the ball down to second base. The infielders toss it around and our third baseman, Caminiti, flips the ball back to me on the mound. There are 40,000 people watching me and I just said to myself, 'Oh my gosh, what the heck is gonna happen.'
"So I'm about to face the first batter of my career and the place is loud as they're trying to get a rally going. Over the stadium loudspeaker: 'Let's make some noise for your No. 4 hitter, Jeff Bagwell!'
"I thought, 'Wow, Jeff Bagwell--I was just watching him on TV the other day.' Bagwell steps in, I get my sign, and throw a 97-mph fastball right down the middle for strike one. All right, I'm thinking to myself, I can do this. Just calm down.
"After that it was ball one, ball two, ball three. Then I throw a fastball that gets up a little and almost hits him in the face for ball four. Bagwell glares at me, slams the bat down and takes a banana route to first, staring at me all the way like, 'That was close to my face, punk!' He gets to first and I just tell myself-again--to calm down, relax.
"Derek Bell comes up. I throw him a first-pitch slider and he hooks the ball to the left of Caminiti, who dives for it but the ball goes through for a base hit. Runners at first and second, none out. To make matters worse, as Caminiti was diving for it, he smashed his chin on the AstroTurf and now he's ticked off at me, too. He gets the ball back from the outfield and he just fires it back to me with a nasty look. Caminiti was an intimidating figure, to say the least.
"So I'm thinking great, I've got my teammate Ken Caminiti mad at me, Jeff Bagwell wants to kill me because I almost planted one in his jaw, I've got runners on first and second with none out. Great big-league debut this is turning out to be.
"After that, I walked Tony Eusebio to load the bases still with none out. Sure enough, here comes Padres skipper Bruce Bochy to make a pitching change. They brought in Doug Bochtler and I'm sitting in the dugout thinking, 'What just happened? Did I really wait my whole life for that?'
"Bochtler gave up a base hit on his second pitch, game over. Walk-off win for the home team. I'm on the bench, teammates I barely know filing past, and I'm the losing pitcher. I wanted to find a hole to crawl into.
"At the old Astrodome, when you leave the dugout to get to the locker room you have to walk under the stands, and when you get to a wall you have to turn left and go up the stairs. Walking right in front of me is Bruce Bochy, our skipper, and when he gets to that wall he yells 'Damn it!' and he puts his foot right through the drywall. As he tries to pull his foot out of the wall, he loses his balance and goes down. I'm right behind him, and when I see this I make an immediate U-turn and go back to the bench and just wait--and wait--and wait.
"Finally I go back to my locker and I'm just sitting there with tears in my eyes. All the guys came up to me--Tony Gwynn, Caminiti, Steve Finley, everyone--and said keep your head up, don't worry about it, you never should have been in that situation in the first place.
"I get back to the team hotel, just sitting there stunned by what happened, and the phone rings. I pick it up and some jerk starts in on me with the abuse. 'You suck, rookie. You'll be back down in the minors tomorrow.' I hang up on him and the phone rings again, same kind of stuff. This happens a couple more times, people just abusing me.
"Later that night, I got a knock on my hotel door. The guys on the team felt so bad about what happened that they sent a couple of people up to my room to try and cheer me up, but I was so bummed out that I said, 'No thanks,' and went back to my misery.
"Years later, in 2004, I was with the Colorado Rockies at their big-league camp and we were playing the Padres. I pitched the ninth inning against San Diego that night, and after the game their manager, still Bruce Bochy at the time, called me over when he saw me walking back toward the clubhouse. He told me he was sorry to have put me in that situation back in '95. He said it was wrong for him to have thrown me in there like that and he said he hoped that episode didn't ruin my confidence or hold me back in my MLB career. Even though it was nearly 10 years after the fact, I thought it was pretty cool of him to say that."