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Sunday, April 1, 2012

Fernandez has proven to be a good fit for NPB teams

Only a handful of foreign players have enjoyed careers in Japan of 10 years or more.

The leader is Tuffy Rhodes, who played 13 seasons with the Kintetsu and Orix Buffaloes and Yomiuri Giants. His record will be tied this year by Taiwanese pitcher Hsu Ming-Chie who has joined the Orix club after a dozen years with the Seibu Lions.

Hawaiian native Wally Yonamine played 12 years, and that mark will be equaled in 2012 by Alex Ramirez with the Yokohama DeNA Baystars and Alex Cabrera of the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks.

One other foreigner, Jose Fernandez of the Rakuten Eagles, will also hit double figures as he begins his 10th season in Japan and 11th overall in Asia.

Fernandez's career here is also unusual because he is on his sixth tour, having played for four Pacific League teams; two of them twice.

The Dominican native broke into the major leagues with the Montreal Expos in 1999 at the age of 24, and he also played in the bigs with the Anaheim Angels in 2001.

His total MLB experience, however, consists of only 21 games with 49 at bats over those two seasons. He never hit a major league home run and his "career" batting average is .143.

If ever there was a guy made to play in Japan, it's Jose Fernandez.

After a year playing in the Korean Baseball Organization with the SK Wyverns in 2002, Fernandez joined the Pacific League's Chiba Lotte Marines and immediately established himself as one of the best hitters in the country, belting 32 home runs, driving in 100 and batting .303.

The following year he was with the Seibu Lions and helped that team win the 2004 Japan Series, hitting 33 homers along the way. He was with the Lions two years, then moved north and put in three seasons (2006-08) with the Eagles. The 2009 season saw him play with the Buffaloes in Osaka.

During that lone season with Orix, he was part of a quartet of imported sluggers expected to set home run records. Along with Fernandez were Rhodes (not counted as a foreigner) and Cabrera, who share the single-season Japanese baseball record (along with Sadaharu Oh) of 55 homers, and Greg LaRocca, who had had a 40-home run season previously with the Hiroshima Carp.

The chemistry was not there, however, and the quartet was broken up that fall.

Rhodes retired, while LaRocca and Cabrera spent 2010 with the Buffaloes before moving on.

Fernandez was released and began the 2010 campaign in the Mexican League but still had his mind on returning to Japan. He hoped for the opportunity to come back and did not have to wait long.

Midway through the 2010 season, Seibu third baseman and cleanup hitter Takeya Nakamura went out of action with an injury, and the Lions needed a replacement, both in the infield and the hitting lineup. A happy Jose got the call, and he showed once again why he belongs in Japan, compiling one of the best half-seasons by anyone in Japanese baseball history.

Re-joining his old club in July, Fernandez hit .339 with 11 home runs and 45 RBIs in just 57 games as the Lions ended the season in second place, only two percentage points behind the pennant-winning Fukuoka Softbank Hawks. He also played a big part in Seibu making the playoffs again in 2011, and now he will try to make the postseason once more with Rakuten.

"I'm happy to be back in Sendai," he said. "We have a great little ballpark, and it's a nice town, the fans are great, and it's fun to play there, especially in the summer."

As a 10-year man, Fernandez will join Hsu, Ramirez and Cabrera as "Japanese" players, meaning they are no longer considered as foreigners and do not count against the team quota of having four non-Japanese registered on the varsity roster at any given time.

Asked about his longevity playing in Japan, Fernandez said, "I never thought I would play 10 years. After I had a good year in Korea in 2002 and followed that with another one with Lotte in 2003, I thought I might have a second chance to play in the majors."

He turned 37 last November but has been fortunate to avoid serious injury and feels he still has a lot of playing time ahead.

"I feel great," he said. "My body has responded well, and I think I can play at least two more years."

In Japanese baseball where most foreign players do not last more than two seasons and many only one, the career of Jose Fernandez has been a remarkable one and, if ever there was a player who fit the description of a baseball "journeyman," he's the guy.

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Friends & Fans: The 2012 edition of my Japan Pro Baseball Fan Handbook & Media Guide is now available. It is the complete English-language guide to Japanese baseball and includes league and team directories, team rosters, league schedules, profiles of the foreign players, statistics from past seasons, directions to the stadiums, ticket prices and much more, packed into 128 pages.

The quickest way to get your copy is to order directly from me. Please send ¥1,000 in cash, Japanese postage stamps or postal check "kawase," along with your name and address, to: Wayne Graczyk, 1-12-18 Kichijoji Higashi-cho, Musashino-shi, Tokyo-to 180-0002.

It is also on sale at Tokyo Dome, and fans outside Japan can order through the JapanBall.com website. Yoroshiku.

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Contact Wayne Graczyk at: Wayne@JapanBall.com

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