A beginning, a middle and sayonara
The three acts of a baseball career.
A baseball career is a lot like life: it begins full of promise and untapped potential. After that initial burst, fans come to expect a certain level of performance and with it comes the feeling of routine. Finally, after the ravages of time take hold, the player’s skills erode and they try vainly to recapture the abilities and talents of their youth. But, alas, Father Time comes for us all and eventually the player’s time must come to an end.
We can examine these stages of a ballplayer’s life through the following trio of Japanese players in the Major Leagues: Kenta Maeda, who is brimming with new hope; Nori Aoki as the steady veteran in the middle of his career; and Munenori Kawasaki, the aging player who is desperately fighting to hold on to his Major League career. Like all stories, though, this examination will start at the beginning.
It might seem odd to say that a 28-year-old and a veteran of eight NPB seasons is full of unknown potential but, for Kenta Maeda, this is truer than for most. The Los Angeles Dodgers paid $20 million to purchase him from the Hiroshima Carp but, due to irregularities found during his physical, he signed for only $25 million over eight years, far less than was expected. Maeda is not the strikeout artist that Yu Darvish was when he came over, nor as adept at preventing the longball as Masahiro Tanaka was, but Maeda does compare well with Daisuke Matsuzaka. Maeda doesn’t strike out as many batters but he does walk fewer hitters and give up fewer homers. I would expect him to be no worse than the third-best starter on the Dodgers. But Maeda is coming to a new country, away from his friends, family and culture, and having to deal with a language barrier (not to mention the problems from his physical). All this means that while Maeda looks like a good bet to succeed one must always keep in mind that no bet is a sure thing.
Nori Aoki is a perfectly cromulent player. He signed a contract for $5.5 million for 2015 with a mutual option for 2016 (at $6 million). He’s 34, entering his fifth season in the big leagues, and is expected to be a fine third outfielder. He’ll hit a little, field a little, run a little and just play smart baseball. And then, when the seasons change, fall comes and baseball ends for the year, Aoki will be expected to come back next year and do the exact same things all over again.
Munenori Kawasaki, while the same age as Nori Aoki, is worlds apart in terms of where he is in his professional career. Baseball is an unsentimental business and for players like Kawasaki—players who are beloved by fans and teammates alike, players who always give 100%, players who taught us to eat plenty of bananas because “monkeys never cramp”— if these players’ skills wane there is no hesitation on the part of management to pull the plug on their career. Munenori Kawasaki, for all the fun he brings to the game, was only given a minor league contract by the Chicago Cubs and has little chance of making the team out of spring training. Baseball, for the player whose bat has slowed or lost a step, can be cruel.
Three players facing three different expectations. One looking to fulfill unknown potential, another just trying to keep on doing what’s expected and the last just hoping to keep his career alive. The three acts of a baseball career. The three acts of life.
And then there’s Ichiro…
One of the best-known Japanese baseball players of all time is Ichiro, who is widely expected to be the first Japanese player elected to the Base- ball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.
Ichiro is now 42 and had by far the worst season of his career last year. He had career lows in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, stolen bases … But he’s being paid $2 million to be the Miami Marlins’ fourth outfielder. It’s a fair question to ask why, if baseball is an unsentimental game, is a past-his-prime player like Ichiro still getting contract offers to play? It’s a simple answer: Ichiro is only 65 hits away from having 3,000 in his Major League career. The Marlins believe that Ichiro’s race to 3,000 will bring more fans to the park so they can be a part of history. Sometimes having an older player, especially if it’s a Hall of Famer chasing history, pays off.
D’arcy Mulligan has written about video games for gaming websites, sports for his blog, and cats anywhere and everywhere he can. He once spent his entire life’s savings on beer at the ball game. It was a very good pint.