Baseball's Far Eastern Division

Strike accelerates exodus to Japan

"There was the strike," notes Valentine. "And it came down to money for most of them. Not many are worried anymore about dragons in the closet." People can say what they want about Bobby Valentine (who still lives here) as a manager. But in life he's a pretty smart guy--and not just because one of his favorite things in school was diagramming sentences.

Because Valentine knows PR. "The timing," he notes, "is perfect." Thinking ahead, Valentine masterminded a first-ever deal where the Marines will spend the first month of spring training in Arizona. They just may be the only baseball camp in Arizona--and America.

It was after orchestrating this deal that Valentine approached Incaviglia--explaining how baseball makes strange bedfellows. While wearing Rangers uniforms, the two didn't really, well, get along. In fact, the relationship--troubled by issues of personality and playing time--was past the point of frosty and well on its way to freeze-dried. "Time heals all wounds," assured Incaviglia last week, while preparing his new restaurant in Colleyville for its grand opening. Valentine "was big enough to approach me, and I respect him for that. I think both of us grew from it." The two buried the hatchet in 1993. Valentine began talking to Incaviglia about moving East--way East--in 1994.

"I said I'd have to see the place first," recalls Incaviglia. "I didn't know what the stadiums looked like or about the game or anything."

On its face, the idea seemed odd. Incaviglia, a member of the classic 1993 Phillies team which hit hard, played hurt, and considered dirt a condiment, doing the land of lotus blossoms and sushi? And he is somewhat allergic to fish. "I saw a lot of beef," Incaviglia recalls, explaining his conversion. "They fed me the whole time I was there. A lot of beef.

"The game is played the same. Philly or Japan--it's still the same game."
Well, the rules are the same, but those who have played there and returned to tell about it say just about everything else is different.

First off, you will never see a bench-clearing brawl at a Japanese ballgame. You may see guys bow or bend politely. You will see way-clean dugouts, and hands which show polite restraint with itchy crotches. And in Japan, the mouth is considered the proper place to dispose of unneeded saliva.

Thanks to the strike, Japanese baseball will offer another interesting sideshow. Julio Franco--the guy who took heat for sleeping on the trainer's table during batting practice while a Ranger--is going to the nation where baseball players have a workday only slightly less structured than hands in a steel mill.

Franco traveled here with an entourage--including a brother who runs his bath water and another relative who polishes his shoes and orders Julio's breakfast in hotel cafes, then phones his room to advise him when it's ready so the former batting champ does not have to wait. Then there's Franco's wife, who helped Julio find God a few years back, adding religion as a curious twist in this peculiar character who brought jungle cats on leashes into the Rangers' clubhouse.

Over here, we've basically regarded Julio as a really likeable flake. But good lord, what will they think over there?

And what about Incaviglia? He was one of the four horsemen of the Phillies' Macho Row, a bank of four lockers serving as the throne for the on-field bad asses, who also got to control the clubhouse stereo volume.

Incaviglia is the consummate hard-driving American ball player. The heat was on him last year as he struggled at the plate and did not play every day. He looks at this Japan deal as not only a good place to hang during the strike and make good money, but a place to wash some mental laundry. "There was all that controversy because I didn't play every day. I got caught in all that again. Reporters started asking and asking and finally I started thinking, 'Hey, I drove in 90 runs for these guys.'

"I think this will be good, to get where I'm away from those questions."
Hillman is at a critical juncture in his career. He had a 2-9 record with the Mets. But "anyone who knows anything about baseball," says Hillman, "knows the Mets were so bad, a 2-9 record doesn't mean anything."

Well, maybe it means less. But Hillman knows 2-9 hurts enough to send his U.S. market value into the toilet. That's one reason to head for Japan. "This will be a chance for people to see me," notes Hillman, who Valentine approached after the pitcher played a stint in Norfolk last summer.

Hillman talks about the strike, but he also cites a reason that drives most Americans no further than a fancier suburb. "I hope to get away from the crime. I just want to go over and get away and see a land where people respect each other and know how treat each other."

He figures that with the strike, "maybe in two years it will be OK to come back." Incaviglia plans to come back to the U.S. too--and says he'll play then in only two places: Philadelphia and Texas.

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