Bill Pennington of the New York Times wrote a fascinating piece on Kei Igawa, the “Lost Yankee”.
For those of you who don’t know much about Igawa, he was the less heardled Japanese import that came to MLB when Daisuke Matzusaka came over from Japan.
After a few months in the big leagues he was sent to the minors…never to be heard from again.
TRENTON — In the middle of a bright Manhattan summer afternoon, the Yankees’ $46 million pitcher steps from his fashionable East Side apartment building and slips into a waiting Lexus for a chauffeured ride to the ballpark.
But the car does not turn north for the five-mile drive to Yankee Stadium. The destination is instead Trenton or Scranton, Pa., where for the last five years Kei Igawa has pitched for two Yankees minor league teams. Day after day, start after start, complete with the return trip to Manhattan.
Plucked from a Japanese baseball all-star team roster in 2007 and introduced at a lavish news conference, Igawa was expected to be a staple in the Yankees’ starting rotation. He lasted 16 games, most of them regrettable outings that were sometimes spectacularly inept. Booed off the field, he was called one of the worst free-agent signings in Yankees history.
After his last, losing appearance for the Yankees in early 2008, he was banished to the farm system and he has not come back.
Except for his nightly returns to Manhattan. But Igawa’s unusual commute is only part of a long, strange journey.
The five-year saga is a story of a giant mistake of a contract and an overmatched pitcher, a huge organization digging in and a quiet, somewhat mysterious Japanese pitcher with a sense of honor and a durable love of the game.
The Yankees made it pretty clear Igawa would never pitch again in the Bronx, but they were determined that he pitch somewhere for his $4-million-a-year salary. They tried to return him to Japan, too. Igawa refused to go, standing fast to his childhood dream of pitching in the American big leagues.
And so, the stalemate — remarkable, if almost entirely un-remarked upon — continues.
The Yankees let him gobble up innings before small crowds in distant outposts as a cavalcade of younger prospects push past him on their way to Yankee Stadium. Igawa never complains, and in a tribute to either willpower or lower level longevity, he has set farm system pitching records. And with just a few months left on his contract, he still dreams of the major leagues, if no longer as a Yankee.
About two weeks ago, on a rare day off, Igawa celebrated his 32nd birthday alone at his Manhattan apartment. He did not consider attending a Yankees game in the Bronx, nor did he tune them in on his television.
“I don’t watch their games anymore,” Igawa said. “I never follow them.”
“I feel a burden of anxiety at the opening of my first season in the Majors but it is overwhelmed by the excitement of being a home player standing on the field at Yankee Stadium. I will strive to do my best at all times.” — a post from Kei Igawa’s baseball blog, April 1, 2007
“The manager told me to report to the minors. … Wherever I am, this is the choice I made, so I have to move forward. As long as there’s a place to pitch, I’ll do my best and want to contribute to the team.” — Aug. 9, 2007
Igawa had a 2-3 record and a 6.79 earned run average when the Yankees sent him to Class AAA Scranton/Wilkes-Barre in August 2007. Three pitching instructors had already executed a kind of pitching intervention. Igawa had been told to give up his old motion and learn a new delivery, which included changes in the coil of his left arm, the swing of his right leg and even where he stood on the pitching rubber.
“That didn’t work out too well,” Igawa said last week, recalling the spring of 2007 as he sat in the small, crowded locker room of the Yankees’ Class AA Trenton Thunder affiliate. This season, Igawa has been shuttled between Trenton and Scranton, frequently making just one start at Class AAA before being demoted again to Class AA.
“In 2007, I did what the coaches told me in Tampa, but I was not effective,” he said. “They let me go back to my old delivery, and I produced for the team.”
Indeed, he produced a 5-4 record with a 3.69 E.R.A., but that team was still the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees.
“Yes, Scranton,” Igawa said with a laugh, something he does easily and often. “About 2 hours and 10 minutes from Manhattan.”
Because his English is limited, Igawa travels everywhere with an interpreter, Subaru Takeshita (pronounced tah-kah-SHE-tah). Igawa will engage in brief conversations in halting English, especially when joking with teammates, but relies on Takeshita, who is paid by the Yankees, for most communication.
Takeshita helps Igawa answer reporters’ questions, picks him up for the daily commute, accompanies him on road trips and goes onto the field during games should the manager or pitching coach visit Igawa on the mound.
“I have learned some English and Spanish,” Igawa said through Takeshita. “I can use it to get around my neighborhood. I know restaurant menus. But a Broadway show or a movie? I can’t do that because I don’t understand what they are saying.”
He has made some friends in New York, but not many, he said. In the five years he has maintained an online diary, he has rarely mentioned another person. The only photo on his personal blog is a picture of himself, jogging alone.
In the locker room, even on a team where the players are 8 to 10 years younger, Igawa is welcomed into the frequent poker games, popular for having an iPad that teammates can borrow and appreciated for his sense of humor.
“For someone who doesn’t speak much,” Trenton catcher Austin Romine said, “he has a lot of funny one-liners.”
Currently on the disabled list with tightness in his elbow, Igawa usually sits in his corner locker by the door and reads. Several players said Igawa’s curious predicament — a celebrated Yankees free-agent acquisition and a three-time Japanese league all-star now playing in places like Bowie, Md., and Altoona, Pa. — rarely comes up. Although on payday last week, his fellow pitcher Pat Venditte did switch the envelope left in his locker with the one left for Igawa.
Igawa returned Venditte’s check and said, “No, thanks.”
An average salary at Class AA is about $2,500 a month; Igawa makes roughly 130 times more.
“Everybody respects what he’s done and he never has an attitude that he’s too big for this,” Romine said. “Whether they send him up or down, whether they put him in the bullpen or the starting rotation, his disposition is always the same. But come on, we know how he feels.”
During Trenton games, there is often no room for Igawa to sit in the dugout. He will trundle out to the makeshift bullpen in foul territory along the right-field line. He sometimes sits under an umbrella beside a children’s playground. He rarely reacts to the action on the field.
“He doesn’t want to be here,” Romine said. “He’s doing what he’s told. It’s hard when someone owns you.”
Igawa is occasionally recognized as a professional baseball player on the streets of New York. People think he is Hideki Matsui. Until recently, he said a common second guess was Chien-Ming Wang, the former Taiwanese Yankees pitcher. At 6-foot-1 and 215 pounds, with a thick shock of black hair, Igawa has a calm but notable presence, although he says he dresses conservatively to avoid attention.
During his first years in New York, Igawa struggled to find Japanese food stores, especially ones open late, and he lost weight. It bothered him that he might go weeks without hearing his native tongue. The winter temperatures were new to him so he remained inside. If he felt lonely and missed Japan, he would visit an electronics store because examining all the new models and emerging technologies reminded him of something he would do at home.
It has been 16 years since Hideo Nomo became the first modern-era Japanese professional to play in the United States. There have been other distinguished Japanese successes since, like Ichiro Suzuki, and dozens of largely unnoticed flame-outs — about 15 players have returned to play in Japan; an equal number retired.
Igawa fits neither category. He is the still-famous flame-out. He cannot escape that he was a big star in Japan, winning 75 games in his last five years and leading the Japan Central League in strikeouts for three of those years.
In recent years, when a Japanese team has qualified for the Little League World Series, the players have made the pilgrimage to Scranton to greet the great Igawa, before whom they stood in awe.
A few days ago, the Trenton sales office got a call — a group of 20 Japanese-Americans wanted to come to a game, but only when Igawa was scheduled to pitch.
“My fans’ support adds motivation,” said Igawa, who is accessible and good with crowds in public, even English-speaking ones.
But away from the ballpark, Igawa is exceedingly private, almost reclusive. Takeshita said in the two years he has been his interpreter, he has been inside his apartment once, very briefly. Takeshita lives in Queens and keeps Igawa’s car, picking him up on the street when they are driving to the ballpark.
Igawa decided years ago to commute from Manhattan for the simplest of reasons: he thought his stay in Scranton would be temporary. After the first year, once he had learned his way around New York, it seemed easier to stay than to pick up and learn a new city. Besides, wouldn’t his second season be mostly in the Bronx? Or, in some way, wouldn’t moving from Manhattan be admitting failure?
By the time his minor league existence became more permanent, the driving habit had become routine, and Igawa likes a routine. Somehow, his minor league managers say, he has never been late to the ballpark in five years.
Igawa is married and has children, and they visit him in New York for a couple of months each year, usually just as the baseball season is ending. But Takeshita has never met any member of the family. Asked when he was married and how many children he has, Igawa smiled and said he does not give out that information. He also declined to give the name of his wife.
“It is just safer that way,” he said, somewhat cryptically.
On trips, teammates said Igawa keeps to himself and does not accompany groups of players going out after a game. The one place they do see him is outdoors running during the day. Maintaining a grueling exercise regimen is customary for Japanese professional baseball players.
For the last five years, Igawa’s teammates arriving at the ballpark knew they would see Igawa already doing sprints in the outfield or running the stadium steps. Then he would do the running assigned by the team as well.
During Igawa’s first spring training in America, Joe Torre, then the Yankees manager, was astonished when his coaches discovered Igawa throwing a baseball against a fence unsupervised. The Yankees had their own throwing schedule for Igawa, but he wanted to throw more and was perplexed that the Yankees disapproved.
Bobby Valentine, now a broadcaster with ESPN, has managed in the American and Japanese professional leagues.
“The concept that less might be more does not compute in Japan,” Valentine said. “It’s a problem for Japanese pitchers over here. If Igawa was throwing when the Yankees didn’t know it, he wasn’t doing it to be a contrarian. In Japan, they think if you don’t throw every day you not only won’t be successful, you don’t deserve to be successful.
“So that doesn’t surprise me.”
But Valentine was surprised that Igawa was still in the Yankees minor league system.
“I thought he had gone back to Japan years ago,” Valentine said.
“The other day, the GM (Brian Cashman) informed me that I had been removed from the 40-man roster. I have had a dream to pitch in the Majors since I was in Japan. This dream won’t change in the future. I think this opportunity is part of the process where I can realize that dream. I’m not going back to Japan and still believe there will be chances here. I will keep challenging myself, with a positive outlook, until I can play in the Majors and have consistently good performances there.” — July 30, 2008
Asked last week to assess Igawa’s five years in the Yankee organization, General Manager Brian Cashman answered: “It was a disaster. We failed.”
Cashman quickly added that in 2008 and in 2009 he had negotiated a deal to return Igawa to two different Japanese professional teams.
“I drove to Scranton, sat him down and told him it was our assessment that his abilities didn’t translate into a major league career,” said Cashman, who added the Yankees would have been relieved of some financial obligations in the Japanese deals. “I told him that it was our fault — our mistake — not his. But I said, ‘If you stay, you’re not going anywhere.’ And he refused the trade both times.”
Major league teams have not expressed an interest in trading for Igawa in the last four years, Cashman said, although he conceded Igawa’s five-year, $20 million contract — the Yankees also paid $26 million in bidding rights — could be keeping some teams away.
In 2007, the San Diego Padres claimed Igawa off waivers and Cashman was ready to make the trade but he said, “ownership was not willing to let him go yet.”
Kevin Towers, who was the Padres’ general manager at the time and now holds the same title with the Arizona Diamondbacks, said he thought Igawa might have had more success in the National League and at San Diego’s Petco Park.
“Getting him out of the New York market might have helped,” Towers said by telephone. “The expectations in New York are enormous and immediate, and if you don’t succeed right away, for Japanese players, there has to be added pressures and cultural adjustments.”
Last year, Towers was a special assistant scout to Cashman and spent two weeks with the Scranton team.
“I was amazed that Kei was still there grinding it out,” Towers said.
Igawa’s best minor league season was in 2008 when he had a 14-6 record with a 3.45 E.R.A. The next year he was 10-8 with a 4.15 E.R.A. In time, using a deceptively sharp curveball and sneaky changeup while spotting an average fastball, Igawa set the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre franchise record for career victories with 33. He has set or is close to setting several other franchise pitching records.
But Cashman said none of Igawa’s minor league accomplishments brought him closer to the Bronx. Looking at his 2008 minor league totals, Cashman noted that Igawa’s QERA or QuikERA — a statistic that estimates what a pitcher’s E.R.A. should be based on his strikeout rate, walk rate and ground ball-to-fly ball ratio — was 4.52.
“That tells me he’s a fly ball pitcher and that’s not good in the major leagues,” Cashman said. “Look, we’ve had plenty of pitching holes. If he could have filled one, he would have been here.”
Cashman called Igawa “a great clubhouse guy” and denied that he was taking a spot normally reserved for a top prospect. He said luxury tax penalties — sometimes cited for Igawa’s lengthy minor league stay — had no impact on how Igawa was used. “He didn’t block anyone who was moving up,” he said. “Again, if he could help us or help us get another player we could use, the luxury tax wouldn’t have stopped us.”
In the end, Cashman sounded mystified by Igawa. “It’s the most curious case I’ve ever heard of,” he said. “And frustrating. The lesson is to be very careful with Japanese pitchers. I give him credit for living a dream and for fighting the fight. It can’t be easy. It has to bother him, too.”
Cashman added, “He does things his own way.” Like commuting to and from Manhattan.
“Yeah, he’s passed me on the drive down to Trenton,” Cashman said. “He drives faster than his fastball.”
“I also got a chance to watch the Japan Series on TV. I hadn’t seen many of the participating players for a long time and I really felt that time is going by very fast because there were also several players I didn’t know. I looked on in envy of them playing in packed stadiums in November.” — Nov. 4, 2009, upon a return visit to Japan.
Igawa, who often snickers when he begins to answer a question, was stoic and straight-faced last week when he was told he had now pitched in 104 minor league games and thrown more than 525 minor league innings. He had sat on the bench or waited in the bullpen through more than 5,700 innings, riding buses from Maine to Kentucky and from Richmond to Rochester. Teammates, managers, trainers and pitching coaches came and went. Igawa stayed, the only journeyman left who could tell new prospects where to park their cars so they would not get hit by a foul ball or explain how the outfield walls were different at the home park five years ago.
Was this the odyssey he envisioned when he agreed to leave Japan in 2007?
“No,” Igawa answered before another Trenton game, sweaty from the pregame sprints and toweling off so he could slip into his game uniform. “But it is still baseball. I get to pitch. I love being on the mound. It is my job, but it’s also what I want to do. I get to see new places I would never have seen otherwise. And it is my duty to do my best.”
Igawa, whose complete major league record from 2007-8 was 2-4 with a 6.66 E.R.A., concedes he did not pitch well in his time with the Yankees. But he also thinks he could have done better had he been given more than 16 pitching appearances.
“America is a different world from Japan and so is American baseball,” he said. “I had never pitched out of the bullpen. I had never pitched on four days rest. The hitters here also have more power — another adjustment. I look back now and I have developed a cut fastball, I throw my changeup differently. I understand American hitters better. So I think I would have done better if I had more time the first season. And I wish I had then what I have now.”
The goal next year is to show off what he has learned to another team, anywhere in the world. He would even return to the minors again, if he thought he had a legitimate chance to make his new team’s major league roster.
Towers believes some American and Japanese clubs will show interest.
“Once his Yankees contract is out of the way,” Towers said, “the landscape might change. It’s like he’s been out of sight in the minors forever.”
As Valentine said, “I’ve seen lefties with less stuff than he has have success in the majors.”
Igawa is aware that baseball fans, and especially Yankees fans, view him as a renowned bust.
“Yankees fans may always think of me as not being successful,” said Igawa, whose record this season at Trenton and Scranton is 3-2 with a 3.68 E.R.A. “But I’ve grown as a pitcher and as a person. I’ll be better for these five years. I do not regret coming here.”
Spend enough time with Igawa, however, and it becomes clear that he has moments when he is dismayed. On July 14, the Yankees signed J. C. Romero, a 35-year-old left-hander who had just been released by the Washington Nationals. Romero was assigned to Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.
Igawa got the news standing at this locker in Trenton. His shoulders sagged slightly and he slumped to a chair.
He was asked if he ever wants to shout, “What about me?”
He shook his head.
“I am Japanese,” he said. “I don’t go crazy too often. I’m not going to throw things or make a scene. In five years, I have seen this happen over and over.”
Four days later, Cashman burst through the Trenton clubhouse door and nearly stumbled over Igawa, whose locker is next to the entrance. The two have not had a conversation longer than “hello” since 2009, but Cashman gave Igawa a smile and a playful jab in the arm as he walked toward the office of Trenton Manager Tony Franklin.
Cashman was there to discuss a promotion to the big leagues.
Back in his Yankee Stadium office the next day, Cashman summoned to the Yankees Igawa’s Trenton teammate, Steve Garrison, a 24-year-old left-hander with no major league experience. Garrison’s Trenton record this season is 3-6 with a 6.26 E.R.A.
The team made the announcement in the early afternoon. Igawa was already in his car, on the road from Manhattan to Trenton. He had to be on the field for a pregame workout at 3 p.m.