Before the 2007 season, the New York Yankees committed $46 million to lure left-hander Kei Igawa from Japan, where he was one of that country's finest pitchers.
Five years later, after compiling a 6.66 ERA in 16 major league appearances — none since 2008 — Igawa spends his final days in the Yankees organization banished to minor league purgatory. He refuses to go back to Japan, twice rejecting Yankees overtures to ship him home (GM Brian Cashman says nobody in the majors has been interested), and the club refuses to cut its losses by releasing him.
Igawa is the outcast who wouldn't leave. Reporter Bill Pennington calls it a remarkable stalemate in a must-read New York Times feature published Sunday.
For every success story in the U.S. — All-Stars such as Ichiro Suzuki(notes), Hideki Matsui(notes) or Hideo Nomo — Japan produces several failures. Though he cost the Red Sox more money than Igawa, at least Daisuke Matsuzaka(notes) helped them win a World Series when he came to the U.S. in '07.
It is Igawa who receives the infamy of being the biggest Japanese bust in major league history. Yet, he won't let go of his childhood dream of making it here. That is one reason his minor league teammates can relate to someone making 130 times their salary. Catcher Austin Romine says Igawa is respected by other players, but that they also know what's happening under his cool demeanor:
"He doesn't want to be here," Romine said. "He's doing what he's told. It's hard when someone owns you."
Romine's quote about the team "owning you" fits better if you make the giant leap of thinking about ballplayers as indentured servants rather than slaves (which, of course, they aren't). But the lengths Igawa and the Yankees stubbornly have taken to sustain their arrangement are mind-boggling.
In addition to the $4 million per season they pay Igawa to set boring minor league endurance records, the Yankees also chauffeur him from his home in Manhattan to stadiums at Double-A Trenton (perhaps an hour away) and Triple-A Scranton (between 2 and 2 1/2 hours away). Remarkably, Pennington notes in the Times, he's never been late for a game.
Igawa's reasoning for remaining as a tenant in New York City? He thought he would have pitched his way back to the majors by now. Besides, moving out would be retreating, an admission of failure. And to Igawa, the minors are better than nothing.
"But it is still baseball. I get to pitch. I love being on the mound. It is my job, but it's also what I want to do. I get to see new places I would never have seen otherwise. And it is my duty to do my best."
Cashman says that, despite putting up solid superficial numbers in the minors, having a strong work ethic and positive attitude, Igawa just isn't suited for the Yankees — or any other major league team.
"[H]e's a fly ball pitcher and that's not good in the major leagues," Cashman said. "Look, we've had plenty of pitching holes. If he could have filled one, he would have been here."
Igawa probably could have filled a need at some point. ESPN's Bobby Valentine, who managed against him in Japan, said pitchers with less talent than Igawa have succeeded in the majors. Valentine also said — possibly as a joke — that he thought Igawa had gone back to Japan two years ago.
But, with Igawa still being hugely popular at home, the Yankees bringing him back to the Bronx — where he's the butt of jokes and an object of scorn, at least among those who remember him — would have caused another bloated media circus. The Yankees have at least three rings of action happening at all times, so they probably figure the likely payoff wouldn't be worth it.
And the Yankees said they couldn't trade him, as they did with Hideki Irabu — an earlier, slightly cheaper bust from Japan. So, why haven't they just cut Igawa? They would have to pay him anyway. Perhaps the Steinbrenners just couldn't stand the thought of Igawa succeeding with another team on, basically, the Yankees' dime.
Long ago, the team admitted it made a mistake by bringing Igawa to New York. (They had to pay a $26 million posting fee to the Hanshin Tigers, freeing Igawa to negotiate, on top of paying him to pitch for them.) Cashman also has admitted that the team mishandled Igawa in the past by forcing him to change his mechanics.
They made another miscalculation by never giving him a fair second chance to pitch the majors.
There's a certain cruelty to Igawa's predicament, no matter how much money he's making. But he has only about two months left on his sentence, so to speak. At 32, he still is young enough to pitch for someone else's major league organization. If he can't make it in New York, perhaps he can make it anywhere else.
If anything, Igawa still could prove the Yankees weren't all wrong about him.