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Tuesday, May 15, 2012
Penny situation shows it takes more than skill in Japan
The reaction from some Japanese fans was vehement and swift when the news of Brad Penny's departure filtered out last week.
Fans besieged the now-former Fukuoka Softbank Hawks pitcher on Twitter, calling him "fat," a "fraud," and "the second (Kei) Igawa," among other things too vulgar to reproduce in this space.
Penny's career with Softbank basically lasted 64 pitches (and six runs — four earned — allowed), so it's hard to imagine he was even around long enough to elicit such a reaction.
Shortly after that outing, Penny was back in the U.S. nursing an ailing shoulder. He returned to the Hawks briefly, before asking for, and receiving, his release because he couldn't adjust to playing and living in Japan.
"There became a time where both sides decided it would be better to part ways," said Softbank reliever Brian Falkenborg. "He wasn't happy. Then the team was not happy. So they mutually agreed to go their separate ways.
"This allows the Hawks to move on, it allows Brad to move on and there's a resolution."
Penny isn't the first player to have trouble adjusting to Japan nor will he be the last, although most manage to tough it out at least until the end of the season.
That's the main source of the vitriol being hurled his way. Fans can forgive a guy who struggles, or has a hard time adapting, but have little patience for players who, for lack of a better term, quit.
Penny wasn't cut out for Japanese baseball. Many aren't. He had the skills, but if it was just a matter of talent, fewer players would wash out.
"It takes a lot of understanding," said Falkenborg, a two-time NPB All-Star who has played in Japan since 2009 after parts of six seasons in MLB.
"This is a baseball culture and a culture that does things slightly differently. Not better than America, not worse than America. Just different."
NPB teams can get a general idea about a player's skill set, but it's almost impossible to know how he'll react to a new environment.
"Nobody can project who's going to like it, who's not going to like it," Falkenborg said.
"My experience in Japan could've been completely different if I had played for a different team. Different manager, different system, it could've made me miserable. A different city could've made me miserable, being sent down to the minors for three months in Fukuoka could've made me miserable.
"There are so many factors that go into whether or not somebody is successful or not successful and whether or not they enjoy it or don't enjoy it."
Alex Ramirez, who has won a pair of Central League MVP awards and is in his 12th year in Japan, has always told first-timers to forget what they learned in the U.S.
That's a hard lesson for many. Some adjust, some don't.
It takes mental toughness, patience and an open mind to thrive in Japan. Players have to adjust to little differences in the game, the clubhouse atmosphere, the language, the food, the living conditions, the travel conditions and the list goes on and on.
"It's always something different with everybody that comes over here and doesn't like it," said Falkenborg. "Some people don't like the fact they can't go out in their city and just go to any restaurant and order food because they don't have an English menu. In Fukuoka some people are very concerned about driving.
"Baseball-wise, things are done differently and it's just hard for some people to understand that."
There is a long list of players who couldn't handle life in Japan, went through the motions, got their check and hopped the first plane out once their obligation was fulfilled. Then there is the group with the ability to adapt and the fortitude to stick with it.
Penny's greatest failing is he falls into neither of those categories. Things got tough, and he cut and run. In his wake, he's shown again that it often takes more than talent to make a smooth transition into Japanese baseball.
"You have to jump into the deep end," Falkenborg said. "There's no, 'well let's just go over there for a little bit and find out.' It's just one of those things where you have to go all in and dedicate yourself to the game just like you would in America. Whatever happens when you get over here happens."