Former Mariners catcher Kenji Johjima has returned to Japan to play for the Hanshin Tigers, which is big news in his homeland.
GINOZA, Okinawa — After showing off his new Hanshin Tigers threads with black pinstripes over a white base and his flashy yellow-rimmed wraparound sunglasses, the first thing Kenji Johjima wanted to talk about was the new look of his old team.
“Cliff Lee and Chone Figgins?” he asked with surprised delight. “Wow, the Mariners really made some bold moves. I’ll bet everyone in Seattle is pumped up for the season.”
No matter how quickly excitement for the Mariners’ offseason moves might have spread across the Pacific Ocean, there surely won’t be as many television cameras, newspaper reporters and fan-held cellphone cameras in Peoria, Ariz., as there are in this little hamlet just off the highway interchange in northern Okinawa.
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Johjima’s addition to the Tigers is the hottest topic of spring training in Japanese baseball. In fact, one major sports daily runs “This Day’s Johjima,” a rundown of his every move from the previous day’s workout.
Readers who simply must know can learn that on a recent day, his activities included: 8:58, early work; 11:27, catching 61 pitches from one pitcher; 11:42, receiving 41 pitches from another pitcher, whom he chided loudly before one of them, “You want to throw a cutter? You don’t have a cutter.”
All the attention is on Johjima and his demeanor confirms he’s energized by it. One glimpse at the way he confidently struts around the field, barks out orders and acknowledges the fans, makes it clear that Johjima is back where he belongs.
“Why shouldn’t I look comfortable?” he asks. “This is my homeland.”
It’s a homeland where Johjima’s credentials sparkle the brightest. He studied the game under legendary home-run king Sadaharu Oh, his only professional manager with the Fukuoka Daiei (now Softbank) Hawks until leaving for the Mariners after 11 seasons; steered the Hawks to two Nippon Series championships; won the 2003 MVP award; and was the catcher of Japan’s still-celebrated World Baseball Classic championship last spring.
His desire to replicate another of his highly respected accomplishments, though, never meshed in Seattle: playing in every game. He did it three times in his career with the Hawks. In fact, in 2003, he became the second catcher in Japanese history to play every inning of every game.
“I sit when the manager says, ‘You’re getting a breather today,’ ” he said, explaining his philosophy. “But my mindset is always that I can play every inning of every game and I go about my preparations with that in mind. There’s no doubt in my mind that I can do that. I did it in 2003. Physically, there’s no difference between me now and then, so why shouldn’t I think that way? In America, there’s a great tendency to rest the catcher on a day game after a night game, but even after playing in so many games my first two years in Seattle, I always said I want to play more.”
But the opposite was happening. After playing in 144 games in his first season in 2006 — the most of his career due to the major leagues’ 162-game schedule versus Japan’s 140 games when he last appeared in all of them — his playing time gradually dwindled to 71 games last year.
There were reasons for the trend. He had two stints on the disabled list last year, and for the second year in a row, he didn’t hit as well as he had his first two seasons with the Mariners. But the reduced playing time really gnawed at the man who so staunchly believes it’s his mission to play in every game.
It wasn’t just the reduced playing time; Johjima was stewing over another emerging trend of less battery time with the team’s staff ace. The veteran from Japan was highly proud of his work in helping mold the enormous but raw talent of young Felix Hernandez during his first three years to a legitimate Cy Young Award candidate last year.
The 2009 season started with Johjima catching Hernandez on opening day in Minneapolis and on his next start in Oakland. The Mariners won both games, but Johjima landed on the disabled list before Hernandez’s next start. He caught him sporadically after coming back.
Then, Johjima went on the disabled list again. He returned June 26, only to be disappointed when he sat out Hernandez’s start June 27. The results, though, were clear. To that point, Hernandez was undefeated in games caught by Rob Johnson (3-0 plus three no-decisions) and Jamie Burke (3-0, plus one no-decision) while Johjima was either injured or rested. Hernandez was 1-3 with one no-decision with Johjima catching.
Athletes as well as their coaches and managers value good rhythm, and anyone would have been hard pressed to upset this trend. It continued when Johnson and Hernandez teamed for a 5-1 win that day at Dodger Stadium.
Johjima never caught Hernandez again. While he tried to be a good teammate during this demoralizing period, he found mirror-gazing exceedingly difficult.
“Every time the staff ace pitches, it’s a must-win game for the team,” Johjima explained. “You can’t rightly be called the ‘starting catcher’ if you’re not asked to receive the ace’s pitches. That’s my personal philosophy. You might say I get paid just the same so what’s the big deal, but to me, that’s not a satisfying way to earn my living.”
Yes, there was also the much-documented issue of Johjima’s game-calling, where he believes in confounding batters by calling for unexpected pitches in unexpected locations, an unusual strategy in the United States, where pitchers like to challenge batters with their best stuff. As much as he still believes in this approach, which is readily accepted in Japan, the inability to get everyone in Seattle to buy into it did not seem to weigh greatly in his decision to walk away from the remaining two years of his contract.
The compelling issues for him were playing time and batterymates. If his comments on those topics sound tinged with even the slightest bitterness, then something is lost in the translation. While careful to clearly articulate his thoughts about a catcher’s responsibilities, Johjima spoke effusively of his time in Seattle.
“I had a great experience in Seattle and I don’t regret going one bit,” he said. “Comparing myself now to four years ago, I’m really glad I went. I know how to communicate with foreign pitchers (Hanshin has two Americans and two Taiwanese in camp) and understand their style. My experience in Seattle is part of the catcher I am today.”
With Hanshin, Johjima enters a situation ripe with opportunity to fulfill his ideals.
Most people here like when he mentions his goal of playing every inning of every game, a notion that’s not far-fetched. Catching was one of Hanshin’s weaknesses last season as it finished in fourth place in the Central League and out of the playoffs.
While Johjima now dreams of the possibilities with his new team, he still harbors one regarding the old team.
“Seattle will always have a place in my heart,” he said. “When I’m finished with baseball, I’d like to go back to Safeco Field and enjoy a game just sitting in the stands drinking a beer. It was a great place and that’s a nice dream.”
Brad Lefton is a bilingual St. Louis-based journalist who covers baseball in Japan and America. He often follows the Mariners for Japanese media and he interviewed Johjima in Japanese for this article.