Tony Barnette had given up on playing in Major League Baseball until a breakout season in Japan. Now he’s in the Texas Rangers bullpen ready to pitch in a season-opening series against the Mariners.
SURPRISE, Ariz. — Tony Barnette stands by his locker near the middle of the clubhouse and watches teammates scurry to morning meetings.
New players are directed to one area, the rest to another, but the Jefferson High School of Federal Way product hesitates and wonders where he really belongs. At age 32, he is older than the other new players.
“I’ll see a bunch of guys much younger than me and I’m not sure I should be with them,” he says. “Am I a new guy this time? Or an old guy?’ I like to say I’m old and new at the same time.’’
Barnette has plenty to learn in his first serious major-league camp. But after six seasons pitching in Japan — his last one good enough for the Texas Rangers to offer a two-year, $3.5 million deal — nobody really treats Barnette like a rookie.
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Rookies rarely get lockers near the center of the room. They don’t get to hang with staff ace Yu Darvish, testing out Japanese phrases.
Born in Alaska, but raised in Federal Way since age 4, Barnette is finally living the dream he had once abandoned. His only previous big-league camp, with the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2009, was to reward the one-time 10th-rounder for having pitched in the Arizona Fall League as a top prospect.
“It’s a completely different atmosphere now,’’ Barnette said last week, seemingly destined for the opening-day roster against the Mariners, the team he rooted for as a kid. “Back then, you were out with the first round of cuts. You sat in your corner and tried to be seen and not heard.’’
Not that he’s taking things for granted.
Barnette still abides by “no time in the big leagues” unwritten rules, like where to park in the player lot. Barnette didn’t start seeking a rental home in Texas until a Rangers official recently suggested it.
A year ago, he was about to embark on a career-best, pennant-winning season with the Tokyo Yakult Swallows. They’d paid him 50-million yen (then about $600,000) in 2010 to stop spinning his wheels in Class AAA and head overseas.
But taking their money meant accepting his big-league dream was dead. Japanese baseball can help former big-leaguers return to the majors, but never unproven AAA guys. They only go to cash in before their career checks out.
It took time before the loneliness, a foreign language and a disciplined Japanese baseball system stopped feeling like banishment. Barnette struggled as a starting pitcher and was relegated to Japan’s minor leagues, then released after that 2010 season.
But after a player failed his physical, the Swallows surprisingly invited Barnette back.
Beforehand, he married his girlfriend, Hillary Jones, who he had met at Arizona State University. She’d remained behind to finish her studies his first season, but now joined him in their cramped, corporate housing apartment in bustling downtown Tokyo.
The Swallows moved Barnette to the bullpen in 2011 and things began clicking. He even closed some games.
Meanwhile, his new wife, not legally permitted to work, started blogging about her challenges assimilating. She explored and photographed Tokyo’s streets and took high-speed trains to distant outskirts to hike through fields.
By 2012, she began learning Japanese, which opened a world of culture, cuisine and friends she introduced her husband to.
Based off his 2011 finish, Barnette began 2012 as the Swallows’ closer – eventually saving 33 games and becoming an all-star. Seven-figure paydays followed, as did the birth of a daughter, Madelyn, in 2014.
“I figured Japan was where I’d finish my career,’’ Barnette said. “I was good with it.’’
But then, his 2015 season happened.
From one home to another
Inside the couple’s four-bedroom, 3,000-square foot home in the Phoenix suburbs, Barnette’s wife recalls the moment last November she knew their charmed life in Japan was over.
Barnette’s 41 saves and 1.29 earned-run average had helped the Swallows to their first Japan Series finals since 2001 and MLB teams were inquiring about his ground-ball inducing cutter and sinker. Barnette and the Swallows decided he’d try the “posting” system, where MLB teams pay Japanese clubs to negotiate with players.
Only one non-Japanese player had posted before — Alejandro Quezada in 1999 — but the Rangers in early November paid $500,000 to open talks. Though Barnette didn’t sign until mid-December, the couple knew it was a foregone conclusion they weren’t going to turn the Rangers down.
Hillary Barnette was five months pregnant with another daughter and planning a Tokyo spring training birth when Texas made its offer. The couple had raised daughter Madelyn like Japan was home.
They’d bought their Arizona house after Barnette’s difficult 2010 season, his days in Japan seemingly over. They added a custom kitchen, lavish flooring, a self-cleaning pool and other trappings of those expecting to stick around permanently.
Now, years later, they finally will.
Hillary Barnette says her husband’s MLB shot is “the coolest thing ever” but leaving the life they’d embraced in Japan proved difficult.
“It was definitely bittersweet,’’ she said. “We felt very at home.”
Now, expecting to give birth any day, she jokes about destiny. How they were meant to own this house near the Rangers’ spring complex, in her native Arizona, with family close.
Tony Barnette agrees it’s fortuitous.
But he’s also a tad wistful. He points out a Tokyo newspaper artist’s sketch of him and his Swallows teammates hanging in a hallway of his home, next to a Seattle skyline painting.
“I’m going to ride this thing as far as it goes,’’ Barnette says. “But I’m open to going back to Japan and playing there again.’’
Learning about himself
Barnette finishes post-workout sprints alongside Rangers teammate and ex-Mariners reliever Tom Wilhelmsen. Barnette hunches over, gasping for breath.
“This part isn’t getting any easier at my age,’’ he said.
The defending American League West champion Rangers have a deep bullpen, anchored by standout closer Shawn Tolleson. But they want middle relievers with multiple-inning ability and Barnette’s veteran arm looks enticing.
He’s gotten to know Wilhelmsen a bit, aware of his late-blooming career from onetime bartender to Mariners closer.
But they haven’t compared notes on unusual career paths. The majors are unpredictable and spring training is about the now.
Barnette walks back to the clubhouse alone, unwrapping his long hair from the “Samurai’’ topknot used to tuck it under his cap — a tip learned overseas. He signs a few autographs, but most fans ignore him.
Barnette didn’t know anyone when he got here. He’ll chat with pitcher Colby Lewis about his own two-season Japan stint, or trade quips with Darvish, but for now remains largely on his own.
Just like that first season in Japan.
“You only had certain teammates you could really converse with about life or pitching,’’ he said. “You spend a lot of time self-coaching. I think I really had to learn myself physically and mentally.’’
The Swallows thought enough of Barnette’s self-improvement to pay him $1.55 million last season. They offered more this year than the Rangers gave him to leave.
And that’s one comfort with his future still a thrilling unknown. The feeling that, whatever happens, Barnette can always go home again. Even if it’s an ocean away.