- Faith and Fear in Flushing - http://www.faithandfearinflushing.com -

Land of the Declining Mets

Mets alumni news you’ve probably heard this spring:

• Jose Reyes is a Miami Marlin [1].
• Carlos Beltran is a St. Louis Cardinal [2].
• Angel Pagan is a San Francisco Giant [3].
• Robin Ventura is the manager of the Chicago White Sox [4].
• Bobby Valentine is the manager of the Boston Red Sox [5].

Mets alumni news you might have missed:

• Lastings Milledge is a Yakult Swallow [6].
• Chris Carter is a Seibu Lion [7].

It’s relatively big news to us when former Mets show up in the majors in non-Mets uniforms. It’s huge news in Japan when somebody from their leagues show up in the majors (our majors, I guess they’d say). Yu Darvish as a Texas Ranger is the latest example of a Japanese star causing a Japanese stir [8] simply by playing in America. What’s rarely more than a line or two in the agate type, however, is when former Mets become current Swallows or Lions or what have you. Yet it’s happened far more often than any of us who doesn’t track these things probably realizes.

Eric Hillman, for example, was an enormous New York Met of little renown in the first half of the early 1990s. Then he seemed to just disappear, which of course didn’t happen because you can’t make a 6’ 10” pitcher disappear, no matter how hard he is hit. Hillman went to Japan after the whole Mets thing didn’t work out and had a great time pitching for a former Met who never played in Japan but became its most famous manager (to us, anyway), Bobby V.

“I busted my butt and played well for him in Norfolk, in Tidewater, and he says, ‘you wanna go?’ and I said ‘yeah, I’d love to.’”

In a rollicking, must-listen interview with SportsTalkNY [9] — mesmerizing less for his throwing former teammates under the bus than standing up and pointing out to the driver which of the erstwhile passengers were causing the ruckus that made the bus fly off the cliff — Hillman reflects for a few minutes on his time in the Land of the Rising Sun. Well, “reflects” may not be the right word, considering the first thing he talks about his height relative to the size of the standard Japanese toilet (Hillman never pitched for St. Louis but he sure is a card), but the remembrances are definitely fun and insightful.

Eric went to Japan and received “fight money,” significant bonuses of several thousand dollars doled out for winning efforts. “Luckily, I won a lot over there,” Hillman said, marveling that “the wild thing about Japan is they just leave it on your stool.”

“When you come in the next day, your money would just be in an envelope, in cash, on your stool, and they never 1099’d me for that stuff or anything.”

I have to admit I had no idea until Metstradamus mentioned the interview [10] that Eric Hillman had pitched in Japan. With a couple of exceptions, I had no idea until looking it up that dozens of players who spent time as Mets found themselves playing baseball half a world away when the Mets and the rest of MLB were through with them.

Because Bobby V was so high-profile in his second term with the Chiba Lotte Marines, I knew Matt Franco and Benny Agbayani followed him to Japan and helped him win a championship. I was vaguely aware of a few other names that had gone West to East over the decades, such as Wayne Garrett (a Chunichi Dragon when his 1969 Met teammates were celebrating the tenth anniversary of their miracle [11]), Tom O’Malley (who pinch-hit one memorable homer as a Met in 1990 and later won an MVP award for the Swallows) and Mike Hessman (whose sole Met home run in 2010 fascinated me [12] enough to notice the agate type mentioning he’d signed with the Orix Buffaloes).

According to my exhaustive research — consisting of a thought-provoking e-mail thread with some friends, skimming a Wikipedia page listing expatriate American players and cross-referencing that with Baseball-Reference — I count about forty former Mets who continued their careers in Japan (as opposed to American players who boomeranged back from Japan to careers in America, such as Pat Mahomes, Brandon Knight, Julio Franco and current currency-waster D.J. Carrasco).

You know which ex-Mets go to Japan to keep playing baseball? Not great ones, to be perfectly frank. Probably the biggest name in the bunch, if it’s not Agbayani or Garrett, belongs to Kevin Mitchell, The man who scored the tying run in Game Six spent part of a season as a Fukuoka Daiei Hawk in 1995, after leaving the Reds and before realighting as a Red Sock. This was six years after he was Most Valuable Player of the National League and nine years after his crucial World Series base hit.

That figures. You don’t go from America to Japan at the top of your game. You go when you don’t have a better American option. You go when you’re Mike Marshall —  the first baseman, not the pitcher — and it’s 1992 and you haven’t been an All-Star since 1984 and you were utterly ineffectual as a Met in 1990 so you give being a Nippon Ham Fighter a shot. You go when you’re Gary Rajsich, the great Tide hope whose impending brilliance gave us something to look forward to during the strike of 1981 but whose ensuing Met tenure in 1982 and 1983 didn’t quite measure up to his Triple-A notices; he extended his livelihood as a Chunichi Dragon from 1986 to 1988. You go when you’re Don Zimmer, the first failed 1962 Met third baseman, determined to hang on as a Toei Flyer in 1966.

You go if you enjoy a stockpile of cult cachet among Mets fans (Bruce Boisclair, 1980 Hanshin Tigers) or just a hint of it (Kelvin Torve, 1992-1993 Orix BlueWave). You go if your “future star” status from the back of the Mets yearbook never quite came to fruition (Ike Hampton, Kinetsu Buffaloes, 1981). You go if you were a few tools short of what the Mets swore you were packing (Alex Ochoa, Chunichi Dragons, 2003 to 2006). You go if you enjoyed a solid, unspectacular stretch in orange and blue (Mark Carreon, Chiba Lotte Marines, 1997-1998). You go if your extra-inning homer spoiled somebody else’s playoff hopes but you never homered again (Craig Brazell, Sataima Seibu Lions, 2008).

Even if you didn’t know who went before you looked it up, you’re not surprised that their ranks include a slew of Mike Fyhiries, Shawn Gilberts and Jon Nunnallys. It’s not surprising, either, that Lastings Milledge, a top draft pick who famously didn’t pan out [13], and Chris Carter, a pinch-hitter judged quickly by a new regime [14] as fatally one-dimensional, are preparing to join the ranks of Met gaijin. You’re only surprised when you hear a former bit Met who lengthened his career in Asia might be coming back…as C.J. Nitkowski might be [15].

The least surprising aspect of any of this? That baseball players will attempt to immerse themselves in a completely foreign culture [16] nearly 7,000 miles from Flushing (or at least put up with it) to keep playing baseball. Baseball is what they do and, I think we’d all agree, baseball is just that great, no matter where it is played.

Plus those envelopes filled with fight money sound pretty sweet.

(NOTE: Readers have pointed out Edgardo Alfonzo and Felix Millan were pretty fair Mets who extended their careers in Japan, Fonzie as a Yomiuri Giant and Millan as a Taiyo Whale. I’d say they move to the front of this particular class.)