YOKOSUKA, Japan – The Year of the Rat in the Japanese zodiac started Feb. 7, about a week after Larry Bigbie arrived.
He came here with some fanfare, more than he had seen in his six years playing in the major leagues. Bigbie's new team, the Yokohama BayStars, held a press conference to tout his appearance. They liked his left-handed swing and the way he patrolled right field. And they really didn't care about what was going on back home.
"I needed to get away," Bigbie says, and he meant from the baseball establishment that regarded him as no better than a minor leaguer, sure, but he knew there was much more to it than that.
Bigbie broke the code. In baseball, the honor of the clubhouse, of keeping secrets no matter how deep, dark and dirty, is sacrosanct, and when the former Sen. George Mitchell released his report on the rampant performance-enhancing drug use in baseball, there was Bigbie, not only admitting using them but naming names of teammates who did, too.
"That's not how it went," Bigbie says. "That's not how it went at all. But right there, I was done. My name – done."
A bowl of ramen in front of Bigbie is getting cold. So is his fried rice. He sits in the lunch area of the BayStars' minor-league facility, here to heal from a cracked rib, and tries to explain what exactly happened, how he became baseball's Sammy Gravano, and when he realizes he's repeating himself, Bigbie shakes his head.
Before, he was best known as the centerpiece of a three-way trade that broke down and, ultimately, caused Boston general manager Theo Epstein to quit. Now, Bigbie might as well be in exile. He signed with Yokohama prior to the Mitchell Report's release, but he knew what was coming, ever since the January 2006 day infamous IRS agent Jeff Novitzky knocked on his door and said they needed to talk.
So Bigbie is here. Every morning, his full-time interpreter picks him up and brings him to the train station. They hop off at the Anjinzaku stop, about 40 miles outside of Tokyo, where old women with poor posture walk toward the homes they've lived in for decades and a man driving a rusted-out white flatbed blares, through a bullhorn, that he'll pick up old electronic junk for free, and they walk together toward Bigbie's new life.
Larry Bigbie's name appeared 93 times in the Mitchell Report. Seven full pages were devoted to him, one fewer than Roger Clemens. Mitchell attributed much of the information accusing Baltimore Orioles second baseman Brian Roberts of steroid use to Bigbie, his former roommate, and did the same with Jack Cust, the slugging outfielder now with Oakland.
In news reports, Bigbie was placed alongside Brian McNamee and Kirk Radomski as Mitchell's informants. He stewed. He had talked, yeah, but says he brought up neither Roberts' nor Cust's name and only confirmed information with which Mitchell's investigators confronted him.
"They had everything," he says. "They knew. It wasn't like I had to sit there and spit names to them."
More than a year earlier, federal agents confronted Bigbie at his home. By then, they had pinched and flipped Radomski, and during his cooperation, Bigbie tried to order a kit of human growth hormone. The feds had leverage on him too, and as they searched his house for drugs, Novitzky, the special agent with a shaved head who made the BALCO case that tarnished so many careers, told Bigbie he'd be best served telling the truth.
No one close to Bigbie knew that he had used steroids first, then human growth hormone, not even his girlfriend, who at the time was pregnant. Bigbie started to rationalize: He had a family and life beyond baseball, and he refused to give it up for a misguided omertà.
So he said what he knew, first to Novitzky, then Mitchell.
"Brian Roberts was one of my good friends," Bigbie says. "The way that came out, it was like I picked up the phone and decided to talk about Brian Roberts. That's how it's perceived, and it wasn't the case. Jack Cust is one of my friends, too. Love Jack. A great guy."
For the next two years, first in the major leagues with St. Louis and last year in at Triple-A, Bigbie played with the specter of Novitzky's investigation still present. Novitzky checked in every so often to update Bigbie on the progress, and Bigbie said he appreciated Novitzky's professionalism and respect.
When the Mitchell Report finally dropped, Bigbie tried to purge his involvement, so the backlash hurt. He called Roberts and left a message. He never heard back.
The embarrassment of his inclusion in the report was enough. The disappointment from his family, from Hobart, Ind., the small town where he quarterbacked the Brickies on Friday nights, from himself.
Baltimore drafted Bigbie with the 21st overall pick in 1999 with hopes he would develop into a power hitter. He never did naturally, so he turned to a needle.
"I'm not going to say I never used steroids," Bigbie says. "I couldn't say how much I want to apologize. When you're there, it's just never enough. You want to be the best. It really didn't help me at all. I could feel a lot better about my career, and I wouldn't have that on the backside of it. I could sit here right now without that and be happy about what I did."
Instead, he's just here.
Life here, actually, is pretty good. The BayStars pay for Bigbie's apartment. He married Lauren in November, and she'll be coming with their 2-year-old daughter, Madison, in early April. Locals are beyond friendly and accommodating. The plummeting dollar means his 65 million-yen contract is worth about $660,000 – $80,000 more than when he signed. And rib issue aside, Bigbie feels healthy, which is worth nothing for a veteran of six trips to the disabled list.
"I can't crawl under a rock and hide," Bigbie says. "I still want to play baseball, and that's why I was so happy to come here."
Bigbie fits in well. He's unflinchingly polite and pairs a chuckle with an easy grin. He's 30 years old but could probably pass for 21, and he's much closer to the 190 pounds he carried coming out of Ball State than the 220 he bulked up to when on steroids and HGH. He knows the words for right and left and wants to learn the train system. And he's moving beyond McDonald's for sustenance.
Veteran first baseman Takahiro Saeki took Bigbie and two other American teammates out to dinner upon their arrival. Saeki made Bigbie try thin-sliced raw liver, cow tongue and a few other Japanese specialties. Bigbie hasn't exactly progressed to the octopus balls served for lunch, but he's got time.
"I'd like to finish my career playing here in Japan," he says. "However many more years I can do it, I'd like to stay. Obviously, it's still early, but it's a place I'd like to finish my career out."
That, Bigbie says, is his happy ending. Success, and recognition for it. And yet there's another piece. He mentions it last, as though to emphasize its importance.
"I'd also like someday to be able to talk to Brian and Jack," Bigbie says. "I'm not going to be able to change the opinion of the public. I'm not going to change the views of others.
"I would tell them about how things worked. I'd tell them how things came out. I'd want to try and smooth my end over so they didn't feel that way. Chances are, I'll probably never see them again in my life, but I don't want someone to feel that way about me."
Roberts is finishing spring training with the Orioles this week. Cust, however, arrives in Tokyo on Thursday with the A's for their series against the Red Sox later in the week.
Bigbie is quiet for a few seconds.
"Tell him I said hi."