|Tuesday, July 3
Updated: July 16, 3:45 PM ET
No Ichiro-type tale for Arias
By Jim Caple
There are no George Arias bobblehead doll giveaways.
There are no Sports Illustrated covers, no ESPN highlights. No army of American reporters crossing the Pacific to shadow his every move. No live game broadcasts
This is the other side of the Ichiro story. While the Japanese outfielder makes international baseball history and creates his own mania in Seattle, Arias plays in front of virtually nonexistent crowds on the opposite side of the Pacific for Ichiro Suzuki's former team, the Orix Blue Wave.
Arias is 29, a veteran of nine professional seasons with three organizations on two continents. He's been the player to be named later in a trade for a future Hall of Famer. He's been on a World Series roster.
And now he's in Japan, keeping his career alive, albeit 5,000 miles from home, trying to get back to the majors.
"I'm not just here for the money," he said in a phone interview. "It's a good opportunity to get back to the states. They say that American hitters who come here and hit with the Japanese style fit in well back home."
While Ichiro is fulfilling a long-desired dream as the first Japanese position player to play in Major League Baseball, Americans have been going to Japan for years. None, however, go there at the peak of a career, none go to fulfill a dream, none go as a first choice. They go because major-league opportunities are scarce and because the money in Japan is greater than in the minors.
In a clear trade gap, Major League Baseball. imports players such as Ichiro and exports players such as Tuffy Rhodes, Alex Cabrera and Miguel Del Toro, three of about two dozen ex-big leaguers playing in Japan this season.
Indeed, just weeks after Ichiro cemented his spot in the Seattle outfield, the first-place Mariners released outfielder Anthony Sanders, a U.S. Olympic gold medalist. He, in turn, signed with the last-place Yokohama Bay Stars. While Ichiro began piling up All-Star votes, his former teammate made another detour in his baseball career.
"I'm not locked down for two or three years," he told the Star. "My goal is still to play in the major leagues. It's not like this is a dead end."
Arias is in a similar situation. After several seasons bouncing between the major leagues and Triple-A, Arias signed with the Blue Wave last year. It was a season of adjustment, of learning the pitchers and the strategies and the culture. He hit .250 with 26 home runs and 61 RBI.
With a year's experience, Arias got off to an exceptional start this season, hitting .313 with 17 home runs by the end of May. Then he ran into the same problem so many Americans do when they're hitting well. The strike zone gets bigger and yet somehow the pitches are seldom near it.
"I hit a wall in June," said Arias, who was hitting .279 with 19 home runs and 51 RBI heading into this week. "I think they kind of stopped pitching to me and then I got impatient and went after bad pitches."
Despite Ichiro's departure, the Blue Wave has been competitive this season, trailing the first-place team by just 3½ games. Attendance is a different matter. Orix announced its average attendance at 16,000 last season, but the night Ichiro made his major-league debut, perhaps a thousand fans were in the stands at the Blue Wave game.
"You came on a good night, we usually don't have that many," Arias said. "Ever since Ichiro left there haven't been that many people. Maybe on weekends, there are more but the crowds have really dropped this year. You think you're playing at a big-league level here but you look up and there aren't really any fans.
"I couldn't believe how much attendance dropped by him being gone. This year I realize how important he was to Orix."
And to Japan in general.
As interest in Ichiro's major-league season soars and the Japanese recession continues, attendance and TV ratings are down throughout Japan's major leagues, particularly in Ichiro's old Pacific League where there are no Tokyo Giants (the Yankees of Japan) to boost attendance. NTV announcers supposedly have been told to downplay reports about Ichiro to avoid diverting even more interest from the Japanese game, though they report on him just the same.
This problem may worsen. While many of Japan's star players will prefer to stay in their home country, enough may want to play in America that the talent pool will decline even further.
"I think that Ichiro going over there will open doors for Japanese players to play there as well," Arias said. "And that will have a big affect on interest here. Fans will be more interested in the major leagues than the teams here."
Arias, meanwhile, said he hopes all those major-league scouts arriving to find the next Ichiro will notice him. In the meantime, he earns $600,000 a season with Orix. "That's a lot more than I would be getting back home," he said. He lives in an American-style housing development with his pregnant wife, Rachel, and their 18-month-old son. They fly in friends and relatives to visit.
Still, it can be a lonely life. Brian Raabe played eight years in the minors and 17 games in the majors before playing a season in Japan in 1998.
"The hardest part for me is I'm a conversationalist and there was no one to talk to," he said. "I know what it's like to be illiterate because I couldn't speak the language and I couldn't read it. I know what it's like to be a minority."
"Once you're on the baseball field, that's when it will be easy," Sanders told the Star. "The language of baseball is the same no matter where you go."
The game is the same and yet at the same time much different, and many players have difficulty adjusting. Arias talks of teams regularly bunting for one run in the first inning and teammates taking cigarette breaks during games that regularly lasted four hours or longer.
Raabe remembers his first game in Japan when a close call at third base brought the managers and his coaches onto the field where they surrounded, pushed and otherwise intimidated the umpire. "And the amazing thing is, no one was kicked out. ... I shook my head almost everyday."
Arias says he is enjoying his Japanese experience but he dreams of playing in the majors again, hoping he can become one of the relatively few Americans to return to Major League Baseball from Japan.
"I believe I'm a stronger person because I played here," he said. "Baseball is a matter of adjustments. Being over here you deal with so much adversity -- and not just within the game but the lifestyle, too. You learn so much.
"For me, my downfall in baseball was being mentally tough. I have what it takes to play in the majors, but it's tough to go back and get opportunities."
He is gone from America but he knows he isn't forgotten. He still gets calls for interviews.
Reporters want to ask him about Ichiro.
Jim Caple is a Senior Writer for ESPN.com.