American pitcher building a home a long way from home
Federal Way's Tony Barnette is in his third year pitching in Toyko, and has found a lasting comfort zone.
Seattle Times staff reporter
TOKYO — Tony Barnette opened the tiny cupboard and noted the Girl Scout cookies he washes down with a glass of milk every night.
They are part of the care packages his wife brings over from the United States and sit alongside cans of Sprite and Dr Pepper, neatly stacked beside a box of Pop Tarts. Two years after leaving the U.S. to play professional baseball in Japan, the Federal Way product is still adapting to "Gaijin" life in a foreign land.
But it gets easier each step of the way. Now in his third season pitching for the Tokyo Yakult Swallows of the Nippon Professional Baseball League, Barnette, 27, is blending parts of his old home with the new and better appreciating this opportunity.
"I've never even been to New York City," said Barnette, who rose to Class AAA in the Arizona Diamondbacks organization before leaving. "But living here, from what I've been told, it's just like having it right outside your doorstep.
"I can literally walk to the ballpark in five or 10 minutes. Other guys show up in their Porsches and SUVs, but me, I'm the guy walking up there in my running shoes and jeans."
The Swallows put Barnette and his wife, Hillary, 24, in a spacious, two-bedroom apartment in a security-rimmed housing complex in which they share part of the rent. The complex is set back about 100 yards from a bustling commercial area in the city's Shinjuku district, a short walk to restaurants, cafes, a major bookstore and a subway station where trains come every few minutes and always run on time.
"I'm not even much of a city person," Hillary said. "I like to take the trains out of the city and go hiking and try to get out of here. The train system is so reliable, it's perfect."
Tokyo is a city of 13 million people — 30 percent larger than New York — while its greater metropolitan area, including Yokohama, is the world's biggest at 33 million. It has ample nightlife and shopping opportunities and a cleaner look than found in most major U.S. cities.
Not bad for the Alaskan-born Barnette, whose family moved to Federal Way when he was 4. He starred at Jefferson High School and later at Arizona State before being drafted in the 10th round by the Diamondbacks in 2006.
But he was spinning his wheels three years later in AAA after going 14-8 with an ugly 5.79 earned-run average.
Still, the fact he led the Pacific Coast League in wins, was second in innings pitched and fifth in strikeouts caught the eye of the Swallows. They paid him 50 million yen — about $600,000 — plus incentives to begin a new life overseas.
Like Tokyo itself, baseball in Japan has similarities to the U.S., but with enough differences. For one thing, Barnette never took so many ground balls during daily workouts.
"They don't even have PFP's here," he said, referring to pitchers' fielding practice common in the U.S. "They just tell you to head out there to take ground balls. And they keep hitting them and hitting them and it's like, 'OK, enough already with the ground balls.' "
The other difference is depth. With just one minor-league level, Barnette said the talent drop-off is huge.
"You'll have some guys who could maybe get a shot at the majors," he said. "But then, some guys who would maybe make it in A ball."
In any major-league bullpen, he added, it's common to find guys who throw 95 mph. But here, if they do that, they automatically become the closer.
Then, there's language. Teams are allowed up to four non-Japanese players, and the Swallows provide them their own interpreters.
Barnette has gotten to know his interpreter, Go Gofujisawa, like a friend. He helps Barnette communicate with coaches and teammates and occasionally amusing exchanges with the local media.
"When I first came over here, one of the very first things they wanted to know was, 'Are you married or single?' " he said.
His wife remembers stories trying to ascertain whether Barnette looked like Tom Cruise or Brad Pitt.
When Gofujisawa isn't there, Barnette gets around by taxi and orders in restaurants with key phrases and gesturing.
"I'm getting real good at charades," he said. "I've become a professional finger pointer."
His teammates are generally younger, so he doesn't get "the salty old veterans who are mad all the time" giving him a hard time. Not that the Swallows are above good-natured ribbing.
"You can tell when you're kind of the butt of a joke," he said. "They'll say something to me and I won't know what it is and then they'll all start laughing."
His teammates are constantly telling him: "This is Japan. Learn Japanese."
His wife will start to learn Japanese this week. She has a knack for languages, having graduated from ASU in marketing and international business in Spanish.
They met when he was pitching for the Sun Devils and now have a house in the Phoenix area they return to each offseason. They married in December.
Barnette has been too busy learning baseball here to take language courses. He had a rough first season in 2010 before establishing himself as a go-to relief pitcher last year. When the team's incumbent closer got hurt in spring training, Barnette took over.
He sympathizes with Japanese players who use translators in the major leagues as well as Latin-Americans who struggle when they first arrive.
"I know for me, it was a real adjustment at first," he said. "I don't care who you are or how much talent you have, if you can't make the adjustment to living here, you're not going to last."
Barnette went just 4-5 with a 5.99 ERA in 15 starts and one relief appearance his first season.
"I just never got into a good rhythm on the mound, the culture of it all," he said. "It just never really clicked."
He suffered a deep bone bruise on his foot initially diagnosed as gout. Later, he was relegated to a minor-league team that's an hour's commute from his home with no English-speaking players.
The Swallows released Barnette after the season. Then, the team had a change of heart.
A Korean player they wanted failed his physical.
"They were like, 'Call Tony — do you think he'll come back?' " Barnette said. "Oh, yeah, you're darned right."
Since then, things have improved. The Swallows moved him to a full-time bullpen role. He posted a 2.68 ERA in 48 relief outings, while averaging 10.3 strikeouts per nine innings.
In the interim, he and Hillary found an international delicatessen they like and a "pretty authentic" Mexican restaurant near their home.
Another find was an online food service that could bring them the meals they wanted.
"The Japanese people eat a lot of rice and noodles," Barnette said. "But they eat it in very small portions. We both found we'd gained weight."
They grew to enjoy their apartment — quite large by Japanese standards — with the oversized king bed in the master suite that gets brought in for foreigners. At first, they didn't know what to make of the shower that sits separate from the bathtub and requires getting the entire bathroom floor wet.
The incinerator in the kitchen took getting used to, as did the washer and dryer directly across from the oven. Their toilet is a typical Japanese model with various jet-spray mechanisms that keep foreigners laughing.
But they spend more time here than in Arizona. Their neighbors are mostly American expats they can socialize with.
Hillary spends time with wives of non-Japanese players. Onetime Mets outfielder Lastings Milledge joined the Swallows this year and former Mariners outfielder Wladimir Balentien arrived last season and clubbed 31 home runs.
There are times when Barnette's wife and her non-Japanese comrades are the only ones at games.
"The Japanese wives, especially when the players are older, just don't go," she said.
The Swallows hired a new manager, Junji Ogawa, after the 2010 season and Barnette said he has a younger, more approachable style. Still, there is a giant-sized billboard of Ogawa covering two stories of Meiji Jingu Stadium, where the Swallows play their home games.
"The manager, he's the supreme being," Barnette said. "It's his show. They all huddle around the manager after the game and he gets carried off the field."
A crowd of 43,869 shows up for the season opener at the Tokyo Dome against the Yomiuri Giants.
Barnette's wife was seated for the opener with Milledge's girlfriend. They chuckled as the Swallows supporters in the left-field bleachers belted out a standard "Mil-le-jay!" chant when Milledge came up.
"They always have to have a vowel they can pronounce at the end," Barnette's wife said. "When they cheer for Tony, it's 'Bar-neh-tee!' "
The Swallows were up 4-0 when starting pitcher Masanori Ishikama lost a no-hit bid with two outs to go.
One single later, there were runners at the corners and manager Ogawa went to Barnette. He took the count full on the first hitter before blowing a fastball by him.
The next batter grounded out to end the game.
"He loves those situations," Hillary said. "He loves going out and doing what he just did while I have a heart attack in the stands."
The couple's stress level has eased considerably off the field, to where they view Tokyo as a second home.
And though Barnette knows it will never be a permanent home, given all the family members the couple has back in the U.S., he's in no hurry to leave.
"I'd like to pitch here," he said, "for a long, long time."
Geoff Baker: 206-464-8286 or email@example.com.
On Twitter @gbakermariners