July 16, 2009
Tokyo's cross-town rivals, the Yomiuri Giants and Yakult Swallows, are running neck-and-neck for the Central League crown--thanks in large part to a quartet of foreign stars
Originally published on metropolis.co.jp on July 2009
As the second half of the Japanese baseball season kicks off and teams make their bids for postseason glory, foreign players are right in the thick of the action. At season’s end, the Central League title race may well come down to the battle between Yomiuri Giants pitchers Seth Greisinger and Marc Kroon and Yakult Swallows sluggers Aaron Guiel and Jamie D’Antona.
The defending league champion, the Giants, can best be described as the New York Yankees of Japan. If there’s talent out there, you can bet they’ll eventually throw enough money at the player to get him in black and orange. Just ask their less-glamorous cross-town rivals, the Swallows, who lost their top starting pitcher (Greisinger) and their top offensive threat (outfielder Alex Ramirez) to the “Mighty Kyojin” over the last few seasons.
The Swallows are a successful club in their own right, having won four Japan Series titles since 1993. Playing in the cozy confines of picturesque Jingu Stadium, they can’t seem to shake their also-ran image. When renowned teams like the Giants or Hanshin Tigers hit Jingu, the home fans are always dwarfed by the rabid supporters of those more storied franchises.
A longtime resident of Washington, DC, Seth Greisinger may be an East Coast guy, but his demeanor is as laidback as they come. The rangy right-hander typically spends his offseason backpacking in some distant land, crashing in hostels—no fancy hotels for this guy, despite his $2.5 million annual salary.
“If you stay in a really nice hotel, you’re going to meet older couples or businesspeople,” says Greisinger, who is still single. “You’re not going to meet other people doing the same thing you’re doing.”
Despite a lengthy list of accomplishments, the Giants star is tough to interview. Unlike many professional sportsmen, Greisinger simply has no interest in talking about Greisinger.
Yet he certainly has a lot to brag about. In 1996, Seth had a breakout year pitching as a junior for the University of Virginia, where he would also go on to earn a degree in finance. That season, he was 12-2 with 141 strikeouts in 123 innings, and his ERA of 1.76 was tops in the Atlantic Coast Conference. He also went 3-0 as a starter for Team USA at the Atlanta Olympics, helping the hosts earn a bronze medal. Trumpeted by Baseball America as one of the “Can’t-Miss Kids,” Greisinger was selected by the Detroit Tigers in the first round of the draft with the sixth pick overall.
After making his Major League debut in 1998, where he would go 6-9 with the Tigers, things took a turn for the worse the following year, when he underwent “Tommy John” surgery to replace ligaments in his pitching elbow. For the next four years, Greisinger would barely be able to throw a baseball, missing the entire 2000 and 2001 seasons. After playing a handful of games with the Minnesota Twins and Atlanta Braves, he signed with the Kia Tigers in South Korea in 2005 before hopping over to Japan for the 2007 season—with the Swallows.
Since coming here, Greisinger has been the most successful starter in the Central League. Armed with a deceptive changeup, he led the league with 16 wins in ’07 (including 159 strikeouts and a fantastic 2.84 ERA) and, after the Giants scooped up the free agent over the offseason, led the league in wins again last year with 17 (167 strikeouts, 3.06 ERA). This season, he’s once again among the league leaders in wins with a record of 7-5 (plus 2 no-decisions in which he did not give up an earned run).
Greisinger, who is very well read and closely follows the world’s financial markets, can often be seen in the dugout between innings scribbling away in a notebook.
“Part of it is that I don’t have the best memory,” he says, “and another part is that I like to keep records on what guys do against me, how I pitch them sequence-wise, so I can adjust accordingly. I don’t really like to throw a certain guy the same way whenever I face him. Some guys you can get out the same way over and over again, but then there are other guys you have to get out different ways. I have a book that has every hitter I’ve faced in Japan in it.”
It’s a fact Greisinger likely could have been a world-class swimmer, had he stayed with the sport. Competing in the backstroke, individual medley and freestyle in juniors, he set several league and pool records at meets in northern Virginia.
Betcha didn’t know… that Greisinger, who like most pitchers is not too adept with a bat, can really crush a golf ball. He’s been known to hit tee shots close to 350 yards.
Aaron Guiel is from hockey country, where most kids dream of playing for a team like the New York Rangers. As a boy growing up in Vancouver, though, he aspired to play for the New York Yankees—and eventually got his wish.
Not that there isn’t a little hockey player in him. If you’ve ever seen Guiel take out an unfortunate catcher at home plate, you know he’s not afraid of contact.
The 36-year-old right fielder fulfilled his Major League dreams by playing parts of five seasons with the Yankees and Kansas City Royals. But he also did his time in baseball backwaters like Oaxaca, Mexico, near the Guatemalan border.
Sitting in his comfortable expat apartment in central Tokyo, Guiel recalls the long, hot days playing in Mexico, holding on to the dream and hoping for that shot at a Major League job.
“When you’re in such an isolated place, it really gives you a chance to do a lot of soul-searching about the direction you want to take,” he recalls. “When I was down there by myself, I realized that my heart was still set on making it in this game.”
Needless to say, both Guiel and the Swallows are glad that he stuck with it. The affable Canuck seems to have found a home at Jingu Stadium, where he is one of the team’s most potent hitters. Batting in the 4th or 5th spot, the left-handed slugger is having another power-packed season at the plate. Through July 13, he was tied for the team lead with 14 home runs and topped the Swallows with 52 RBIs.
Guiel also put up some big numbers in his first year in Japan in 2007, when he crushed 35 home runs, just one behind Central League leader Shuichi Murata of the Yokohama BayStars. He got off to a quick start last season, too, but a painful elbow injury limited him to just 79 games. Now he’s all the way back—Swallows skipper Shigeru Takada had been platooning his star slugger earlier this season, but has put him back in the lineup just about every day.
Guiel brings more to the ballpark than just a mighty swing: he’s got one of the strongest throwing arms in Japanese baseball, and he’s also one of the most fan-friendly players in the league. An army of supporters in Jingu’s right-field bleachers squeal with delight when his name is announced, and appreciative fans have bestowed the nickname “Angel” on him.
“I connect with the fans and they connect with me,” he says. “At some parks in the US, the fans can give out a real negative vibe. The fans treat players so well here and I enjoy playing in front of them. I think they pick up on that.”
It’s a fact Playing for Team Canada in the 2006 World Baseball Classic, Guiel was part of the squad that shocked the US, 8-6. His brother Jeff, now a West Vancouver police officer, also played baseball for Canada, taking part in the 2004 Olympics.
Betcha didn’t know… that Aaron’s grandfather Lloyd Gilmour was one of the premier referees in the National Hockey League. He officiated the infamous 1976 game between the Philadelphia Flyers and the Soviet Red Army, in which the Russians left the ice for 15 minutes to protest a call.
When he’s called into the game during crucial late-inning situations, Marc Kroon walks to the mound with a confident strut, almost as if he’s saying to the poor sucker in the batter’s box: “Don’t even think about it.”
Yet the reliever is quick to admit that his insides are often churning. And who can blame him? Being a closer in pro baseball is one of the most pressure-packed jobs in all of sports. You come into a game with everything on the line, your teammates have battled hard for eight or more innings to get to this point, and it’s your job to hammer the final nails in the coffin.
“The one thing I want people to know about me is that in the ninth inning, I came out here to battle,” Kroon says. “I came out to win.”
And win he has… or save, at least.
Since arriving in Japan in 2005 with the BayStars, the man with a rocket launcher of a right arm has set several records, including the fastest pitch ever recorded in Japanese baseball—a mind-blowing 162kph, or a shade over 100 mph.
So, what’s the secret to bringing the heat?
“I’d say 99 percent of it is God-given ability,” he explains. “The other 1 percent helps me find that, helps me work on it. The long-toss drills help me maintain the strength of my arm. But it’s all God-given, I’m just trying my best to work with it—and get even better.”
One thing Kroon can’t attribute his success to is his diet. While he’s a fantastic physical specimen, with a ripped washboard stomach, the native New Yorker is also a notorious junk food junkie.
“I’ve just never been able to get fat, and I don’t eat really healthy too much,” says Kroon, with considerable understatement. “I love my pizza and I don’t ever watch what I eat. But we also work out for at least a couple of hours a day, so maybe that helps me maintain a little bit.”
Whatever the formula, it’s certainly working. Among his other accomplishments, Kroon holds the Giants’ all-time record for saves in a single season with the league-best 41 he chalked up last year, his first with Yomiuri. His 136 (and counting) career saves in Japan are the most ever for a foreign player.
This year, Kroon has been limited to 11 saves after going on the DL in early June when he injured his left (non-throwing) hand during a rundown, requiring surgery to repair a damaged tendon. He recently made his return, however, so the honeymoon is over for Central League hitters.
“When it’s all said and done, I can never be known as a great closer because I don’t have enough time in Japan,” he says. “But I do want to be known as one of the top closers who ever pitched here.”
It’s a fact Kroon’s official website—www.kroon161.com—was named for his 161kph fastball. It may have to be updated now that he’s hit 162kph on the radar gun.
Betcha didn’t know… that growing up in New York, Kroon’s favorite team was the Mets, the club that drafted him in 1991. His favorite player as a kid: another hard-throwing right-hander, Dwight “Doc” Gooden.
The first thing you notice about Jamie D’Antona is that he always seems to be enjoying himself. Whether taking ground balls before a game or talking about his fishing exploits over a few beers afterwards, his infectiously playful character bubbles to the surface.
Of course, D’Antona puts on his game face when the ump yells “Play ball!” But the rest of the time you’ll probably find him wearing a big grin, plotting his next practical joke or goofing around.
“That’s my M.O., it’s always been who I am,” he says. “When I take things too seriously, I get uptight. There are a lot of other things to stress out about in this world other than going 0-for-4 in a baseball game.”
In his first year in Japan, the 27-year-old power hitter, who grew up in Connecticut but now makes his offseason home in South Carolina, is putting up some sizzling numbers. His 14 home runs are tied for the team lead with Guiel, and he’s second on the club with 48 RBIs. He also leads the team in soaking teammates with beverages while celebrating “sayonara” hits, which has become something of a team tradition this year. Green tea and sports drinks are his weapons of choice.
“They told us no more coffee,” says D’Antona, who can often be spotted in the dugout stockpiling drinks as games go down to the wire. “Leaves too many stains on the uniforms.”
For all his on-field exploits, D’Antona, who played 18 games with the Arizona Diamondbacks last year, is a fisherman at heart. In fact, he says that he only took up baseball in the hopes of getting his own fishing show on TV when he retires.
D’Antona played his college ball at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, where he ripped it up with a .354 career average and 58 home runs. In 2003, he led the Atlantic Coast Conference in homers, RBIs and slugging percentage. His proficiency with a bat can be traced back to his high school days, many of which were spent in a batting cage.
“I worked in that batting center 42 hours a week, from 3pm until closing at 9pm every day,” he recalls. “When no one was there, I was in that cage hitting. I’d also jump in there before and after work.”
With D’Antona in the fold, the Swallows can be sure of two things: baseballs will be leaving Jingu Stadium with increased frequency, and the team’s laundry bill will be going up.
It’s a fact In 2008, D’Antona won the home run derby at the Triple-A All-Star Game.
Betcha didn’t know… that as a 10-year-old, D’Antona won the junior division of a fishing tournament in Florida. His haul included a seven-foot hammerhead shark.
The Giants take on the Chunichi Dragons July 28-30 at Tokyo Dome. The Swallows are in action at Jingu Stadium against the Hiroshima Carp (July 28-30) and Dragons (July 31-Aug 2). The Giants and Swallows square off in a battle for local bragging rights Aug 7-9 at Tokyo Dome and Aug 21-23 at Jingu Stadium. See sports listings for details.