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.

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Jennifer Briggs