Today's Japanese word of the day is bari bari. In a baseball context, bari bari is frequently used to describe a big star, like this: "a bari bari Major Leaguer came to our restaurant today!" In English we might translate that by saying "a real Major Leaguer," but that doesn't feel quite right. The very useful Jisho.org has a definition that doesn't quite capture this context; maybe some of the more skilled linguists in the audience can help me find a better English equivalent.
The Softbank Hawks imported a bari bari Major Leaguer this offseason, when they signed Cubs first baseman Bryan LaHair to a two-year deal. LaHair was coveted by NPB teams last winter, but the Cubs gave him a chance to be their starting first baseman, and he responded with a great first half and an All-Star appearance. Unfortunately, he cooled off in the second half and lost his job to prospect Anthony Rizzo, and wound up moving to Japan anyway. But as an All-Star, he commanded a higher salary than he otherwise would have, and crosses the Pacific with the feel of an established Major Leaguer.
LaHair's move inspired me to write about some of the other players that have moved to NPB after strong performances in MLB. Japan has a long history with MLB veterans, so I didn't attempt to include all of them (this is the longest thing I've written in quite some time as it is). For whatever reason most of the guys I've chosen to include were busts. I didn't set out to make it that way, I guess those just seemed like the more interesting stories.
This isn't an attempt to compare LaHair with any of these players. Most of these guys were well passed their prime years by the time they went to Japan. LaHair is only 30 years old and fits the mold of being a consistent 3A performer with some upside left to explore.
So with those disclaimers out of the way, let's take a look back at some of the bari bari Major Leaguers from the years gone by.
2012 Brad Penny: Looking to replenish a rotation depleted by the departures of starters Tsuyoshi Wada, Toshiya Sugiuchi,and DJ Houlton, Softbank signed Penny to lucrative (by NPB standards) one-year deal. Penny started one game, then put himself in the injured list and eventually requested his release, which was granted.
2011 Chan Ho Park: Park was well passed his prime years as a starter, but in the midst of somewhat of a late-career revival as a reliever when Orix signed him for 2011. Park was a starter in Japan, and looked a bit better than his 4.15 ERA implies, but got hurt after 42 innings and was never heard from again. He moved on to the Hanwha Eagles of the KBO for 2012, where he retired after posting a poor season.
2005 Tony Batista: In late 2004, the troubled Daiei supermarket group sold the Hawks baseball team to Softbank as part of a large reorganization. On their way out the door, Daiei's management weakened the team by sending 3B Hiroki Kokubo to Yomiuri in a musho (uncompensated) trade, and releasing 2B Tadahito Iguchi so that he could pursue a career in MLB. Softbank made a splash in replacing them, signing Big Leaguers Batista and Jolbert Cabrera to replace them. Despite his on-base flaws, Batista was an established 30 home run hitter in MLB, and signed for a massive $14m over two years. Batista spent 2005 as the Hawks' number three hitter, and his .263/.294/.463 line in 2005 was about in line with his MLB career norms. Apparently this wasn't enough for Softbank, as they released him prior to the second year of his contract.
2003 Kevin Millar: Millar was coming off two very good offensive seasons for the Marlins when his contract was sold to the Chunichi Dragons for $1.2m, with whom he provisionally agreed to play for at about $3m a year. But when the Marlins put Millar on waivers, a procedural move so he could sign his contract with Chunichi, the Red Sox violated protocol and put in a claim on him. After the Red Sox claim, Millar had a change of heart and refused to complete his contract with the Dragons. Chunichi put up some opposition at first, but eventually relented and let him go to Boston, where he continued to hit well and became a clubhouse fixture. In his place, Chunichi signed Alex Ochoa, who spent four years in Nagoya and contributed to two Central League winners.
2000 Tony Fernandez: Unlike many of the players on this list, Fernandez's move to Japan was unmarred by contract or performance problems. Fernandez had put up strong seasons for Toronto in 1998 and 1999, didn't miss a beat with Seibu in 2000, posting a .905 OPS. After his season with the Lions he returned to MLB for 2001, closing out his excellent career with a curtain call in Toronto. Coincidentally, 2000 was my first year in Japan, and my reaction to seeing him on TV was "oh cool! Tony Fernandez is here!" I was less excited to see Tony Tarasco playing right field for Hanshin.
1997 Mike Greenwell: In what has become the standard bearer incident for gaijin busts in NPB, Greenwell signed a big ($3m or so) contract with Hanshin, broke his leg seven games into the season, and immediately retired, claiming he got a "message from God to quit baseball" (野球を辞めろという神のお告げ). That's the way it's told in the Japanese media anyway. The counterpoint that I'll offer is that he likely would have missed significant time anyway with his injury, and the "message from God" statement was probably not a great translation of what he actually said. I don't have the original English quote, but I'm going to assume it was something less literal, like a metaphoric "sign from God". Mike, if you're reading this and can clear that up, I would love to know what actually happened. Incidentally, Greenwell's $3m salary still stands as the most Hanshin has ever paid a foreign player.
1995 Shane Mack(Yomiuri), Kevin Mitchell (Daiei), Julio Franco (Lotte), Glenn Davis (Hanshin), Darrin Jackson (Seibu), Pete Incaviglia (Lotte): In the wake of the 1994-95 MLB player's strike, a number of big league free agents signed with teams in Japan. The notable moves for me as a teenager were Franco and Jackson, two players who helped my hometown White Sox to an excellent record in 1994. Aside from those two, the under-appreciated Mack was very good for Yomiuri, Mitchell couldn't adjust to Japan and bolted, and the other guys were mostly pretty good. Amazingly, Franco, despite being 37 in 1995, played another 12 seasons between NPB, KBO, MLB and Mexico.
1992 Jack Eliott: Okay, just kidding. For the real story, see the next paragraph.
1987 Bob Horner: In a season immortalized in text by Robert Whiting, Horner turned to Japan when he couldn't find an MLB team to meet his contractual demands. Japan Inc. was at the peak of it's bubble-driven economic powers, and the Yakult Swallows signed Horner for a year at about $2.6m, on par with what the top Major Leaguers were earning at the time. Horner got off to a hot start, hitting six home runs in his first four games, and despite being injury-limited to 93 games, slashed .327/.423/.683. Still, Horner was never comfortable in Japan and turned down a 3-year/$15m deal from Yakult, which would have made him the highest-paid baseball player in the world. Instead he replaced Jack Clark with the St. Louis Cardinals, where he lasted a year before retiring.
1984 Warren Cromartie: In the late 70′s and early 80′s, Cromartie played a very capable outfield in Montreal alongside future Hall of Famers Andre Dawson and Tim Raines (2013?). He left as a free agent for Yomiuri, where he played seven seasons and became one of the representative NPB players of the 1980′s. Cro slugged 30 or more home runs in each of his first three NPB seasons, and twice batted over .360. He remains revered by Kyojin fans, and still occasionally turns up in Japan for TV commentary and other media appearances.
1974 Frank Howard: Howard signed with the Taiheyo Club Lions (currently the Saitama Seibu Lions) to close out his venerable career. Unfortunately, he injured his back in his first at-bat in Japan and never played again.
1973 Joe Pepitone: Yakult, then known as the Atoms, signed Pepitone to much fanfare in 1973. It must have seemed like a good idea at the time, but Pepitone would up playing only 14 games in Japan. Pepitone now turns up in Shukan Baseball's annual foreign player issue, mainly as a source of ridicule for his hairpieces and habit of claiming to be injured, only to be spotted at nightclubs.
1962 Don Newcombe, Larry Doby: 1962 saw the first players with significant MLB careers move to NPB, with Doby and Newcombe both joining the Chunichi Dragons. Neither should need an introduction to baseball fans: Doby broke the color line in the American League and is a Hall of Famer; Newkcombe was among the first generation of black Major Leaguers, an ace pitcher and on a path to the Hall himself before alcoholism lead to a premature decline. Doby had retired from MLB in 1959, and hit .225/.302./.396; Newcombe played left field and hit .262/.316/.473. Neither player made a big impact on the field with the Dragons, but they started the trend of MLB veterans extending their careers in Japan, which still continues to limited extent today.
1953 Leo Kiely: The first Major Leaguer to play in NPB, Kiely was a pitcher for the Boston Red Sox who was drafted into the military and stationed in Yokosuka. The Mainichi Orions (currently the Chiba Lotte Marines) needed pitching help and, in August 1953, signed him to a "part-time" contract that allowed him to appear in games around his military schedule. Kiely went 6-0 with a 1.80 ERA in 45 innings over six games on the mound, and 10-19 at the plate. In September, Kiely's assignment to Yokosuka ended, and he returned to the US. Kiely resumed his career with the Red Sox the following year, and NPB's commissioner enacted a rule prohibiting teams from signing US servicemen as part-time players.
The late Cappy Harada said NPB of the early 50′s was around the level of an American Class C minor league (modern day 1A). The league has come a long way over the last 60 years.