By JORDAN IKEDA
Rafu Sports Editor
In today’s times, where professional sports have become more “business” than game, it’s rarer than a still mooing cow to find an athlete who will give up guaranteed money for the love of the game. Ask Stephen Jackson of the Golden State Warriors who claims he’s unhappy and wants to be traded, but isn’t giving up a penny of his recently signed contract extension.
Or Jamal Tinsley, formerly of the NBA’s Indiana Pacers, after years of lackluster commitment, weight issues, and injuries, who decided to not play instead of agree to a buyout of his contract last season when the Pacers banished him from the team. Or Stephen Strasburg, the number one pick in last year’s MLB draft, who refused to suit up for the Nationals this season until he got paid. Or the 10th overall pick of the 09 NFL draft, wide receiver Michael Crabtree who missed all of training camp, pre-season and the first four games of the regular season due to a holdout with the 49ers over, you guessed it…money.
In most cases, both the player and the organization lose in these types of standoffs. Tinsley got 10.7 of the $14.7 million due him, but he’s widely looked at as a cancer throughout the league and remains unsigned a week before the season starts. The 21-year-old Strasburg inked a record $15.1 million guaranteed contract, but missed out nearly an entire year of minor league experience. Crabtree signed, but for the same deal he was offered before the holdout, and joined a 49ers squad already a third into the season and in dire need of a wideout. Crabtree got his money without ever taking any snaps from the quarterback.
Over the weekend, Kenji Johjima, who has manned the backstop for the Seattle Mariners over the past four seasons, opted out of his contract, set to pay him a guaranteed $16 million, so that he could return to Japan to finish out his career. He invoked a clause that allows him to opt out of the final two years of a three-year, $24 million contract extension he signed last year.
“After lots of very deep thought and deliberation, I have decided to return home to resume my career in Japan,” he said in a statement Monday. “I have had a wonderful experience competing at the Major League level. The last four years have been extraordinary, with great teammates and great coaches. I will always be indebted to the Mariners organization for giving me the opportunity to follow my dream. This was a very difficult decision, both professionally and personally. I feel now is the time to go home, while I still can perform at a very high level.”
In his native country, Johjima is a seven-time Gold Glove winner, six-time “Best Nine” winner, former MVP and perpetual All-Star in 11 seasons who helped secure Japan’s second WBC gold this past year.
In his four seasons stateside, he has struggled to fit in and had several veterans of Seattle’s pitching staff—including Jarrod Washburn, Erik Bedard and Felix Hernandez— complain to the manager asking to work with another catcher. As a result of this, Johjima was bumped down to a replacement role in favor of a second year player (Rob Johnson) who hit .213 this year.
There are those who will point to the language barrier being at the heart of the pitching staff’s discontent. After all, anyone who’s ever caught before will tell you that communication and providing a comfort zone for pitchers are both huge factors in excelling as a catcher.
But Johjima had a full-time interpreter whose key role was to help him go over scouting reports before games and communicate with his pitching staff. He also worked tirelessly to know all his teammates exemplified by his making the 6,500-mile trip from Japan to Phoenix this past February so that he could work with the pitchers and new manager Don Wakamatsu and his staff. Though he stayed for just two days before going back to Japan to re-join his WBC teammates, the effort must be noted.
Case in point, Mariners closer David Ardsma, who signed with the club in the offseason, remembers Johjima reaching out to him at spring training to ensure they understood each other as pitcher and catcher. He said there was no language barrier.
“People are going to assume there will be an issue when you don’t speak the same language,” Aardsma said. “But he did a great job of trying to understand us. My first day here, he had his interpreter pull me aside and say Kenji wanted to do everything he could to make sure we worked together, that I could come to him at any time. When somebody tells you that, there’s definitely no issue.”
In reality, the real culprit is the differences in philosophy between Japanese catching and American catching. Johjima liked to stay away from the fastball early in the count and rely upon it heavily when a pitcher fell behind, which sounds an awful lot like the game plan of Boston’s Daisuke Matsuzaka who also has had his own “cultural” differences with the Red Sox.
While this strategy obviously works in Japan, the Mariners staff saw things differently. King Felix throws a 96 mph heater. In his mind and a lot of baseball minds out there, there’s no way that he should be reserving that weapon.
It would seem then, that after four years of constantly being questioned and second-guessed by key members of the pitching staff, seeing his role and playing time diminish and hearing and reading about his worth, in terms of his salary, questioned by fans, Johjima decided to return to Japan where he remains a star able to play the game to the best of his abilities.
The immediate interest in Japan over his services shows just how highly he is regarded, despite being 33 and having an injury-plagued year that saw his numbers only slightly improve over a horrific 2008 season.
“As a right-hander who can be a clean-up hitter he is a player we very much covet,” Tigers President Nobuo Minami told Tuesday’s Japanese media. “We are very keen on getting down to the business of trying to sign him. We hope to meet him quickly and convey our desire to bring him here.”
Seattle general manager Jack Zduriencik said Johjima’s decision came somewhat unexpectedly over the weekend, and that it was solely Johjima’s. Zduriencik said the Mariners did not pay any money to buy out their former starting catcher, who said last season he was struggling to accept Seattle benching him in favor of Johnson.
“My understanding,” said Zduriencik, “was for him to be part of this organization for the next couple years. He made a personal decision to return and play close to home…We have to respect and honor that.”
Last season, with three major league level catchers in their farm system, including Johnson and Adam Moore as well as former top prospect Jeff Clement, Johjima was inexplicably handed a $24 million, three-year extension while hitting .194 by Seattle’s franchise chief and Japanese billionaire Hiroshi Yamauchi. Whatever the outlaying reasons may be, this contract extension, amidst a 101-loss season, created a lot of resentment in the clubhouse.
So, despite the disappointment in Zduriencik’s statements, the reality of the situation is that Johjima just gave up $7.7 million next year and $8.1 million in 2011. For a player who was no longer starting, yet paid a starter’s salary, his loss is actually the team’s gain.
Johjima is a good teammate by most accounts, and a pretty good bat (especially for a catcher) despite two consecutive down years. But by losing his contract for free (no buyout as emphatically emphasized by Zduriencik), the team has more financial freedom to re-sign Russell Branyan and/or look to plug other holes in the roster.
“It does leave a void,” Zduriencik said, who currently has the 25-year-old Moore as Seattle’s only healthy catcher. Moore made his MLB debut Sept. 17 and appeared in six games.
Johjima would have given the Mariners a sense of stability going into spring training seeing as how the Mariners starting catcher, Johnson, will undergo at least three, and possibly four, operations to fix several injuries.
Johnson had surgery Friday to repair a torn labrum in his left hip and will undergo a similar procedure next month on his right hip. He also will have ligament damage repaired in his left wrist and may need surgery to remove bone spurs from his right elbow. The Mariners are hopeful but aren’t certain he will be at full strength when spring training begins.
Despite the hole at catcher, that can, admittedly, be easily filled with a comparable offensive player at a fraction of the cost, Johjima’s decision to leave MLB seems to be a win-win situation. Johjima will return home, to a comfort zone and a place that truly appreciates him, and the Mariners are freed from his cumbersome contract and able to address the rosters’ other pressing needs.
For his American career, Johjima hit .268 in his four seasons with Seattle, with 48 homers and 198 RBIs in 462 games. He holds the AL record for hits by a rookie catcher (147 in 2006). His 18 homers in his first season tied the Mariners’ record for most by a catcher.
This is the second time in five years a Japanese-born player has left the Mariners with time left on his contract. Kazuhiro Sasaki, Seattle’s career saves leader, did it before the 2004 season.
While finances will always be a chief aspect of professional sports (and don’t get it twisted, Johjima will still make a lot of money in Japan), Johjima is proof that there are ball players out there who truly love the game and are willing to do whatever it takes to play. Take notes Stephen Jackson…