With the Major League All-Stars barnstorming through Japan to take on the very best that Nippon Professional Baseball has to offer (along with saving us from a baseball-less winter), it's time to look back at fifteen of the best and most notable Major Leaguers who have played in Japan.
And note, this isn't a list of the best Japanese players who came here, but vice versa. So no Ichiros here. OK, a little Ichiro, mostly so I could post this:
(image via Collecting Ichiro)
So without further hilarious sweatshirt ado, here are the fifteen.
15. Mr. Baseball
OK, I get it. Tom Selleck isn't an actual Major League player (even if his mustache is MLB-quality). Still, I would wager that for many baseball fans, their first taste of Japanese baseball came via a film that critics on Rotten Tomatoes have cruelly given a 13 percent.
After all, the man who made a "Tip your hat" reference after a player was hit by a pitch in my slow-pitch softball league instantly became the coolest guy on either team. And doesn't that deserve a spot on this list?
14. Warren Cromartie
Cromartie is one of the rare players to play in America, Canada and Japan. In 1983, Cromartie left the Expos to play for the Yomiuri Giants. Along the way, he became extremely popular, earning the cheer of "Bonzai!"
More importantly though, Cromartie made news in 2007 when he tangled with Indian wrestling legend, Tiger Jeet Singh. Naturally, Cromartie yelled "Bonzai" as he home run-chopped his way to victory.
13. Kevin Youkilis
After heading to Japan because his family was so excited by the prospect of living there, Youkilis' time with the Rakuten Golden Eagles lasted only 21 games due to issues with plantar fasciitis. Because this is Youkilis we're talking about though, he still managed to post a .342 OBP. The dude knows his strike zone -- whether at home or abroad.
12. Bobby Valentine
After managing the Texas Rangers and before becoming the public safety director for Stamford, Conn., Bobby Valentine had two stints managing the Chiba Lotte Marines. After delivering the team to their first pennant in 31 years, he became popular enough to have cookie boxes adorned with his face.
Which is what I want instead of a tombstone -- simply bury me under a box of cookies with my face on them.
11. Cecil Fielder
After struggling to get playing time as a husky-jeaned first baseman with the Blue Jays between 1985-88 and never receiving more than 175 AB in a season, Fielder headed to Japan to play with the Hanshin Tigers in 1989. While there, Fielder erupted with 38 HRs and a 1.081 OPS.
He was welcomed back to the States the next year by the Detroit Tigers with a sweet $1.25 million contract -- 10 times the amount he was paid by the Blue Jays in 1988. All he would do in his first two seasons back is lead the league in home runs with totals of 51 and 44, respectively.
10. Julio Franco
Franco has done it all. After making his debut in 1982, he made his final appearance on Sept. 17, 2007, as a 49-year-old. Along the way, Franco played for eight different teams, went to three All-Star Games and even led the league with a .341 average in 1991. Heck, Franco even became a player/coach at the age of 56 for the independent Fort Worth Cats in 2014 -- somehow managing to hit .222 along the way.
So of course Franco played in Japan -- twice. Franco first went overseas in 1995 to play for the Chiba Lotte Marines, hitting .306/.385/.435 before returning in 1996 to play for the Indians (hitting .322 along the way.) Franco returned to Chiba Lotte in '98, hitting .290 that season.
Despite already being 37 years old, Franco managed to return to the Majors to play for another 10 seasons. Which is only slightly more likely than finding a cat who grants wishes.
9. Alfonso Soriano
Though Alfonso Soriano played only nine games for the Hiroshima Carp to start his career, his effect is still being felt in MLB - NPB relations. Reportedly unhappy with the practice routines in Japan, Soriano was advised to "retire" so that he would be available to American teams -- something that Hideo Nomo had done before.
Japanese teams, tired of losing their players with no compensation, changed the posting system to something similar to today's where Major League clubs can bid for the rights to new talent.
8. Bryan LaHair
One of the greatest named ballplayers in the history of the sport, LaHair went from a 2012 All-Star to Japan in a single year. After hitting .286/.384/.516 with 14 HR in the first half of the season, LaHair struggled after the break, hitting only 2 HR with a .202 average for the Cubs.
Unfortunately, Japan wasn't the answer either and LaHair hit only .230/.306/.428 with 16 HR in 2013 for the Softbank Hawks. LaHair returned to the States in '14 to play in the Indians' system.
Still, not a bad showing for the 39th round draft pick in 2002.
7. Ryan Vogelsong
Nothing about Vogelsong's career follows convention. From 2000-06, the pitcher struggled to a 5.86 ERA while bouncing between the rotation and bullpen for the Giants and Pirates. Vogelsong then headed to Japan to pitch for the Orix Buffaloes and Hanshin Tigers from 2007-09.
While he pitched a little better abroad, posting a 4.17 ERA in the NPB, it wasn't as if he absolutely dominated the competition.
And yet, here we are. After returning to the States to pitch for the Phillies' Triple-A affiliate in 2010, Vogelsong has been a cog in the Giants rotation. Since 2011, he's gone 39-35 with a 3.74 ERA, collecting two World Series titles and an All-Star appearance along the way.
I know, it doesn't make any sense to me either. Life's weird.
6. Matt Murton
If you were ever going to predict which player was going to break Ichiro's single-season hits record, I'm not sure if Matt Murton would have been among your first 10 guesses. Maybe not even your first 100.
While Murton carved out a respectable career as a fourth outfielder for the Cubs, Athletics and Rockies, (hitting .286/.352/.436), he flourished in Japan.
In his first season with the Hanshin Tigers in 2010, Murton hit .349/.395/.499 with 17 home runs and 35 doubles. Oh yeah, he also picked up 214 hits, breaking Ichiro's 1994 record of 210.
Murton has continued to be one of the best players in the NPB, batting .317/.359/.450 with 68 HR in his five seasons with the club.
5. Wily Mo Pena
One player that is mulling over a return to America is Wily Mo Pena. The king of swing, the man who crushes home runs like nobody's business, may have left the Majors, but he's still doing his thing.
Or this time that when Pena made hitting home runs to the opposite field seem as easy as picking dandelions:
Here are 34 reasons why Major League teams need to bring back the Wily Mo.
4. Goose Gossage
The lone Hall of Famer to go from the Majors to the NPB. After posting a 2.97 ERA out of the bullpen for the Yankees and Giants at the age of 37 in 1989, Gossage joined the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks (now Fukuoka Softbank).
After posting a 4.40 ERA in Japan, Gossage returned to the States for four more seasons.
3. Tuffy Rhodes
Chances are few would remember Rhodes if not for his time in Japan. An outfielder who spent time with the Astros, Cubs and Red Sox between 1990 -95, Rhodes hit only 13 home runs in the Majors.
Which is not to say he didn't show flashes of that power. After all, he did have this three-homer game against the Mets:
But then Rhodes went to Japan and erupted. With a violent leg kick and upright stance, Rhodes averaged 27 home runs per season in his first five years before going crazy and tying Sadaharu Oh's single-season home run record with 55 long balls in 2001.
He would make yearly assaults on the record after that, hitting 46, 51 and 45 over the next three years. He would top 40 two more times at the age of 38 and 39 in '08 and '09.
2. Alex Cabrera
Rhodes and Oh would soon be joined in the record books by another MLB slugger who didn't get much of a chance to show off his skills in America. Though Cabrera hit 5 HR in only 84 at-bats with the D-backs in 2000, the outfielder/first baseman soon found himself in Japan with the Seibu Lions in 2001.
Cabrera made a quick impact, hitting 49 home runs his first season before tying Rhodes and Oh with 55 in 2002.
Cabrera hit 50 more home runs the next season and would finish his career with 357 long balls in only 12 NPB seasons in 2012.
1. Wladimir Balentien
And the guy you all came here to see: Wladimir "The Curacao Crusher" Balentien. While Balentien showed spurts of his talent, cracking out 15 HR in 559 Major League plate appearances, Japan is where he's shown off the goods.
Oddly enough, in three of his four seasons with the Yakult Swallows, Balentien has hit exactly 31 home runs. That's the kind of consistency you can't even get with a fiber supplement.
The one year he didn't? Oh, you know, he only hit 60 home runs to become Japan's single-season home run champ. And he did it all in only 130 games.
To put that in some perspective, Babe Ruth needed 151 to hammer out 60 in 1927.
Unfortunately for viewers at home, it's unlikely that Balentien will be seen on a Major League roster any time soon. His deal with Yakult runs until 2016.