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Thursday, Dec. 21, 2000

SPORTS SCOPE

Wife prevented Kawasaki from having a new life with Red Sox


It has been said that to be great in life you have to be very selfish. I have always believed this to be true no matter what the field -- sports, politics, art or anything else.

The bottom line is that it is very difficult to get to the top in any occupation if you become distracted, weighted down or worried about what other people think.

Such was the case last week when longtime Yakult Swallows ace Kenjiro Kawasaki threw away the opportunity of a lifetime to pitch for the Boston Red Sox and chose to remain in Japan and sign a three-year deal to play for the Chunichi Dragons for less money.

The Red Sox offer was solid -- a two-year contract for $4.25 million (with the first year guaranteed and the second year guaranteed unless the MLB players go on strike) and a $350,000 signing bonus, plus incentives that could have easily earned the hurler an additional $500,000 to $700,000. Not to mention the chance to play with the best pitcher in the game -- Pedro Martinez -- and opportunity to go against the New York Yankees on a regular basis.

Yet apparently Kawasaki let the only obstacle standing between him and a locker in historic Fenway Park -- his wife -- fell him before he could make it to the finish line, or in this case sign on the dotted line.

Ray Poitevint, the Red Sox executive director of international baseball operations, is the man who made the offer to Kawasaki, who went 8-10 with a 3.55 ERA for the Swallows this season, but won the Sawamura Award as Japan's top pitcher in 1998 when he led the Central League with 17 victories.

"We were looking at Kawasaki as a fourth or maybe third starter," Poitevint said by telephone during an exclusive interview with The Japan Times last week from his office in Glendale, Calif., where he was obviously still amazed at the turn of events.

Poitevint says that generally eight to 10 people are involved in a signing of this magnitude, but that in this case, it was he alone who made the decision.

"There was a job for him with the Red Sox. The timing was everything. In another four years when Kawasaki (who will then be 33) can become a free agent again, nobody will have any interest in him," says Poitevint.

Even more staggering is what Kawasaki could have earned after pitching a few years in the majors.

"His third year with us he would have made about $5 million. After five to six years in the majors he would have been making between $7 million to $10 million a year," says Poitevint.

Not bad compensation for a pitcher with a lifetime record of 88-80 with a 3.63 ERA during a 12-year career, I dare say. When word came out last Wednesday that Kawasaki had decided to decline the offer by the Red Sox, stating, "I have to think about my wife and 2-year-old child and would have to go alone to the majors my first year," Poitevint smelled something fishy.

The Red Sox had made it clear that they were ready to do whatever it took to make Kawasaki comfortable, including paying the airfare for his family to come to both the press conference announcing his signing in Boston and for the eventual move, and providing a translator to smooth his way in the USA.

"We never said that (he had to come alone) and never would. We would have had an interpreter and housing set up for them. We sign a lot of international players and their families are always involved. It is a very different culture than in Japanese baseball where the wives and families are not as involved," says Poitevint.

Furthermore, Poitevint points the finger directly at Kawasaki's agent -- International Management Group -- for the deal getting bogged down. The longtime Asian region scout says IMG tried to use the Red Sox for leverage to try and drive up the offers from the Swallows and Dragons.

Last year free-agent pitcher Kimiyasu Kudo tried the same routine, shamelessly using the Colorado Rockies to try and increase his value, before eventually signing with the Yomiuri Giants, when it was obvious he had no intention of ever pitching in Colorado. Kawasaki was being represented by two agents -- Toshi Yasuno, the IMG manager of baseball in Japan, and Casey Close, the president of baseball for IMG in the USA, in his negotiations with the Red Sox.

"Close kept coming back asking for more (money)," says Poitevint, who was first approached by IMG about signing Kawasaki. "We told them to take the Japan offer if it was better, because we weren't going to go any higher. My feeling is that we have been used. Next time we probably won't be interested."

Poitevint says that the excuse of Kawasaki having to "be alone in the States the first year" totally contradicts what IMG had led him and the Red Sox to believe.

"I don't know who told him that, whether it was his agent or one of the Japanese teams," says Poitevint. "We were led to believe that his family supported him 100 percent."

Even more interesting is how Poitevint claims IMG tried to manipulate the financial end of the matter from the outset.

"When I heard that it was in the Japanese papers that we had made a three-year, $9 million offer for Kawasaki, I knew something wasn't right, because at that point we had made no offer at all."

With agents finally being introduced into Japanese baseball, this is going to be one of the downsides, as the players -- who have never been allowed to have agents before -- are having to trust people they don't know well and a process they are not familiar with. They may just believe whatever they are told.

Yasuno, speaking from his office in Tokyo on Monday, told The Japan Times that three other clubs were interested in Kawasaki (the Cleveland Indians, Chicago Cubs, Philadelphia Phillies) and that Poitevint and Red Sox general manager Dan Duquette "have misunderstood the situation."

"Kawasaki never said he couldn't accept any support from his wife and family," says Yasuno. "The final decision was made according to the happiness of his family and himself. The money offered by the Red Sox was higher than that offered by the Chunichi Dragons or Yakult Swallows."

Kawasaki ended up signing a deal that averaged 200 million yen a year with the Dragons. The Swallows offered him a three-year pact averaging 150 million yen a year.

When it became clear that Kawasaki was out of the picture, the Red Sox signed Hideo Nomo to a one-year, $4.5 million contract.

"Even though his wife said that she would be supportive of him (Kawasaki), she would not have been able to go to the States with him," Yasuno said. "She wanted to go but couldn't."

When asked why, Yasuno said, "She was unable to go because of several private situations that prevented her from going," and wouldn't elaborate further.

Those "private situations" must really be something, if they added up to essentially preventing your husband from pitching in the major leagues. I mean, come on! It is very common in Japanese culture for men to work overseas while their wives and families stay behind. That is why this whole thing sounds so strange.

One has to wonder if Kawasaki's decision was also affected by a bizarre incident that occurred during the summer of 1997. While Kawasaki and the Swallows were on a road trip playing a game in one of the many rural ballparks in the nation, his ex-girlfriend, actress Kazumi Kawai, went to the building housing his Tokyo condominium and committed suicide by jumping off the roof.

That would shake up even the toughest, most selfish person no doubt. I just have to wonder if Kawasaki was worried about not being around for his wife for a long period of time and what might happen.

Yasuno claims Kawasaki, "was very serious about going to the major leagues," and had several late-night sessions with his family and advisers before arriving at a decision, "before reluctantly deciding to stay in Japan."

Play against the best in the world or remain a big fish in a small pond? Somehow I feel Kawasaki would have enjoyed the challenge that awaited him in New England just a bit more than one he will find in Nagoya.

My philosophy is you live every day like it may be your last, because it just may be. Kawasaki will come to regret this decision, because regardless of the real reason, he passed up a chance at something big.

In the end, he wasn't selfish enough when he needed to be.



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