Baseball's Far Eastern Division

In case you haven't noticed yet, it's Valentine's Day in the seasonal aisle at Kroger. That means it's about the day big-league pitchers and catchers normally report to camp in Florida and Arizona.

But, of course, it isn't going to happen. The only baseball players doing any showing up anytime soon will be a bunch of Japanese guys, their Italian-American manager, an outfielder of similar descent, one really white guy, and a Dominican with an aching knee and a Bible.

The Japanese, as always when the USA stumbles, are here to brace American baseball's fall--and grab the windfall.

That's why Pete Incaviglia's next $2 million will be in yen. Japanese baseball, unlike the Yankee version, will start on time--and some decent major leaguers are taking the bait.

It's an easy trade-off. They leave their nation of birth (where they can't play anyhow) just six months of the year. In return, they get a few million bucks, and escape hardball's nuclear war, in which both sides have curiously opted for mutually assured destruction.

"It's disgusting even to think about it--the things that are going on in the game," says Incaviglia, the rough-and-tumble former Texas Ranger, who still makes his home in the Metroplex. "I feel bad for the fans. It just got so frustrating, that both sides couldn't go halfway. I hope when I come back from Japan, they have it all worked out."

Greed having a considerable half-life, it should be safe to return in a season or two.

Former big leaguers have been playing in Japan for years. Mostly it's been guys at the end of their careers. They figure they can take a day-long plane ride, take a few minutes for press photos with the Japanese people looking up at the big goofy American, take a season of swings--then take the paycheck and run.

But this--well, this is a new one. Pete Incaviglia of the Philadelphia Phillies, who signed for one year for $2 million, Julio Franco of the White Sox, who went for $3.5 million for one year, and the Twins' Shane Mack, who we'll get to in a minute, still have decent prospects here. Far from an old-timer postponing the inevitability of hanging it up, Eric Hillman of the Mets organization is a kid trying to keep his own game going, which he will do for $725,000.

Then there's former Rangers skipper Bobby Valentine, who's going to manage Japan's Chiba Lotte Marines. He just wants to manage some grownups somewhere after not being able to get hired anywhere above the minor-league level since his firing here.

Mack signed last Wednesday for the biggest contract in the history of Japanese baseballa two-year deal with the Yomiuri Giants for $8.1 million. The old record belonged to Julio Franco. Valentine and all the others now belong to the Chiba Lotte Marines.

And the rest of us are stuck here, with no baseball, no hockey, no Southwest Conference, no Democrats, and too much Barry Switzer.

The Japanese are getting some downright interesting people. Each brings a unique set of qualities to Japan, though all are driven by the same reason: "Will play ball for food."

Mack had a shoulder problem early last year but still hit .333. It was the strike which threw the guy over the edge, Twins' general manager Terry Ryan told reporters. In Japan, Mack is assured of getting to play. He was making a little more than $3 million last season and filed for free agency in October.

The Japanese wooed Valentine. But it wasn't hard. He has been interested in the international expansion of baseball since his firing and wants more manager time on his resume so he can return at the big-league level here. It's a decent financial proposition and gets him out of Norfolk, Virginia--and similar stops--where he was riding herd over a team of minor leaguers.

"I think a bridge has to be built between U.S. baseball and Japanese baseball," says Valentine. "That is the last pool of talent untapped by major-league baseball. You never see Japanese players coming this way."

He has a point here. Teams were screaming last season that there isn't enough pitching talent in America. Last summer, general managers went nuts looking for big-league arms.

"I get up every morning and check the waiver wire--there just isn't anyone," says Phils' GM Lee Thomas. "Unless they open up Cuba," says Thomas, declaring America's latest labor crisis, "we are going to have some serious problems with the quality of pitching in this country."

Could this be a mixed blessing? If the strike builds a bridge, will Japanese pitchers arrive to bail out U.S. baseball? It's not way likely. Baseball people say they'd sooner take what Cuba's holding any old day--though the star pitcher for the Yomiuri Giants is talking about playing U.S. baseball.

Valentine, of course, has a different perspective at the moment. He sees this as a opportune time to snag good U.S. players for Japan--eventually leading to a "world playoff" between the two leagues. Old stereotypes about Japan have receded, making the Asian card one that pragmatic U.S. ballplayers are willing to play.

"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.

All in all, it's another history in the two nations' strange history of international trade.

As always, the Japanese are drawn to our anxious materialism and crass individualism; we're drawn to their efficiency and cleanliness and remarkable sense of decorum. They import burly guys who curse and swing bats; we import well-made stereos and cars.

As usual, we'll be on the losing end of the latest form of trade. Unless, of course, they can come up with some pitching.


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