In 1992, Tom Selleck starred in the film Mr. Baseball about a veteran New York Yankees first baseman named Jack Elliot who gets traded to a professional baseball team in Japan. Because of the way the Player’s Union works in the real world, it’s nearly impossible for players to simply get traded to another country without their approval, although we do occasionally see teams purchase their contracts. It’s a movie so not everything about it is fact. The fictitious character Selleck played is relatable to several notable MLB players as there have been plenty of guys we know from their days in the American League and National League whom we may not have realized also played in the Nippon League over in Japan.
Of course, as the world gets smaller, there are plenty of players we do know played in Japan. Ichiro Suzuki, for instance, started his career there. Players like him are disqualified from this list as are anyone else born in Japan or a nearby country in the Far East, since we already know they played in Japan. Here, we take a look at those memorable players we may not have realized made the journey across the Pacific Ocean to attempt to play in Japan.
For the most part, anyone with a successful run in the MLB made this transition later in their career with the hope of sticking around or possibly proving they deserve another shot at the big time in the United States. Some, however, quietly played in Japan for a year in the middle of their career. Ranging from guys who had their best years in the MLB to those who discovered they should have played overseas all along, these are the top 15 MLB players you didn’t know played in Japan.
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15 Bryan LaHair
Chicago Cubs’ fans will remember Bryan LaHair best as the 29-year-old who helped represent them in the 2012 All-Star Game. It came from out of nowhere as LaHair had never previously been anything more than a part-time player in two short seasons. A terrible second half ultimately caused him to reconsider his place in the world the following season. LaHair spent 2013 with the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks in Japan where he showcased some power, but slashed only .230/.306/.428. He returned in 2014 as a minor leaguer in the Cleveland Indians’ system, but has not played professionally since.
14 Charlie Manuel
Charlie Manuel is one of only two managers to lead the Philadelphia Phillies to a World Series Championship victory. Before he was making the pitching changes, Manuel was a struggling slugger who spent most of his MLB career with the Minnesota Twins. However, at age 32, he went to Japan to play for several teams. Manuel saw his home run numbers increase significantly with a career high 48 in 1980 as a member of the Osaka Kintestu Buffaloes. He played only one more season before retiring with what was one of the best short runs any American has had in Japan.
13 Chad Tracy
After playing several years in the MLB, third baseman Chad Tracy decided the best move for the 2011 season was to head across the Pacific to Japan. He was coming off a rather poor year split between the Chicago Cubs and Florida Marlins, as his playing time was decreasing with his declining skill. Tracy spent one year in Japan while playing for the Hiroshima Carp. He only had one home run in 164 plate appearances with a rather forgettable .235 batting average. Tracy returned to the Washington Nationals franchise a year later without much success before retiring.
12 Wily Mo Pena
When Wily Mo Pena stepped up to the plate during his time in the MLB, it was usually a massive home run or a strikeout. Much more often than not, Pena was doing the latter. Pena tore up the minor leagues and Independent Leagues yet never managed to find the same prolonged success in the MLB. In 2012, he went to Japan where he has been very successful ever since. For instance, in 2014, Pena hit 32 home runs and drove in 90 runs with his thick bat. He is a feared hitter over there and not someone pitchers take advantage of... although he still strikes out a lot.
11 Glenn Davis
Injuries deserve the primary blame for slowing down Houston Astros’ slugger Glenn Davis. A monster home run hitter in the 1980s, Davis apparently hoped he could revitalize his career over in Japan in 1995 as a 34-year-old. Davis wasn’t as good as he used to be, yet he did manage to smash 23 home runs for the Hanshin Tigers while also adding 77 RBIs. Davis spent the 1996 season playing in the Independent League in the United States briefly while also participating in 33 games for Hanshin. Obviously slowing down, Davis retired after 1996.
10 Bobby Thigpen
Chicago White Sox closer Bobby Thigpen saved a then-record 57 games in 1990. Shortly after, his skills diminished and in 1994, he found himself playing in Japan. Thigpen was awesome during his time with the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks. In 53 relief appearances, he saved 20 games and had a 1.94 ERA. Thigpen did return to the United States for the 1996 season to pitch for the White Sox Triple-A affiliate, but this was short-lived, as he allowed 5 earned runs in only 6.1 innings pitched. There was no MLB comeback left for Thigpen to make.
9 Gabe Kapler
Outfielder Gabe Kapler seemed to play everywhere during his career. Kapler was always changing teams and managed to become a memorable guy with above average power in his best years. One place most of us didn’t realize he played was in Japan for the Yomiuri Giants. Although Kapler also played for the Boston Red Sox in 2005 for 36 games, he managed to log more appearances overseas with the Giants. Maybe because he slashed only .153/.217/.261 in Japan, Kapler decided to return to playing for the Red Sox full-time. He never played another inning in Japan.
8 Ryan Vogelsong
It makes sense to learn Ryan Vogelsong pitched in Japan. A player who bounced between the minor leagues and the majors for most of his career in the USA, Vogelsong spent three years in Japan from 2007-2009. He was far from spectacular with ERAs of 4.13, 3.99, and 4.54 in the time he spent pitching for two different Japanese teams. Of course, Vogelsong returned to the MLB and actually managed to win a couple of World Series with the San Francisco Giants while also receiving an All-Star Game selection in 2011. A far from typical career path, Vogelsong is still pitching in the MLB at almost 40-years-old.
7 Mike Greenwell
Mike Greenwell was a career .303 hitter during his time in the MLB, which was spent exclusively with the Boston Red Sox. After 12 years with Boston, Greenwell made a move to Japan at 33-years-old for the 1997 season. He only played seven games for the Hanshin Tigers, going 6 for 26. It was an interesting decision to go to Japan as he was still a very productive player in the MLB as recently as 1996. Several quick injuries in Japan led to Greenwell’s decision to suddenly retire from baseball for good. If he stuck around in the MLB, Greenwell could have certainly produced for a few more seasons.
6 Pete Incaviglia
The first thing most people think when they hear Pete Incaviglia, other than “mullet,” is how he was one of the few players who went straight to the MLB after getting drafted without spending a day in the minor leagues. He certainly had no trouble hitting home runs from the start, but Incaviglia never did live up to the hype. His career change to playing in Japan was more related to getting on the baseball field during the strike in 1994-1995 than an attempt to recapture his glory years. Incaviglia only spent one year with the Chiba Lotte Marines over in Japan where he slashed .181/.263/.325 with 10 home runs in 270 plate appearances. He came back to the MLB a year later, yet never managed to have the same success he did in the earlier part of his career.
5 Kevin Youkilis
Kevin Youkilis is baseball’s most recent recognizable name who made the switch from the MLB to playing in Japan. After struggling with the New York Yankees in 2013, The Greek God of Walks attempted to continue his career with the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles. Youkilis lasted only 21 games with them with a .215/.342/.323 slash line, which is possibly to blame for his quick departure. In true Youkilis fashion, his on-base percentage finished strong while the rest of his numbers had declined.
4 Julio Franco
You could have guessed at some point in his never-ending career, the ageless Julio Franco would end up in Japan. In between his 23 MLB seasons, Franco had two stints with the Chiba Lotte Marines. The first was in 1995 where he showcased his skills with a .306/.385/.435 slash line. The next time around was in 1998 when Franco contributed a slash line of .290/.379/.464. Franco wasn’t nearly done yet with playing in the MLB, as he returned in 2001 to play for the Atlanta Braves following a few seasons in other parts of the world including Mexico and Korea.
3 Alfonso Soriano
Alfonso Soriano stands out on this list for one major reason. The majority of players with MLB experience not born in Japan or anywhere else in the Far East would typically head there at the end of their careers. Soriano, however, started his professional career in Japan. He ultimately only played nine games for the Hiroshima Toyo Carp in 1997 with poor results. He hit only .118 in the limited at bats before eventually ending up with the New York Yankees’ Gulf Coast League team in 1999. By the end of the year, he was with the big league club making his debut.
2 Cecil Fielder
There’s something to love about Cecil Fielder’s career. After not establishing himself as a starter for the Toronto Blue Jays, Fielder headed to Japan as a 25-year-old in 1989 to play a season for the Hanshin Tigers. Attempting to prove himself, Fielder succeeded immensely. He smashed 38 home runs with a .302/.403/.628 slash line and suddenly became a guy the Detroit Tigers wanted. Fielder didn’t disappoint as he hit 51 home runs for Detroit when he returned to the MLB in 1990. He would, of course, continue to produce home runs and RBIs at a high rate for the next few seasons as a very notable power hitter in the 1990s.
1 Goose Gossage
In 1990, following a brief one year return to the New York Yankees, Gossage pitched for the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks. He performed pretty poorly, going 2-3 with a 4.40 ERA in 47 innings pitched over 28 games. Gossage returned the following year to pitch for the Texas Rangers and actually managed to stick around with halfway decent numbers through the end of the 1994 season. The Hall of Fame relief pitcher clearly performed best in his home country.
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