October 2009

Kenji strikes it rich(er) in Japan

Is Kenji Johjima a wise man, or what?

The former Mariners catcher has landed a four-year, $21 million contract with the Hanshin Tigers, which sure takes the sting out of forfeiting the $15.8 million remaining on the three-year, $24 million contract extension he signed on April 25, 2008.

There was no mention out of Japan whether or not Johjima has been guaranteed the full-time job as the Tigers catcher, but for $21 million (or 1,905,145,114.13 yen), you can be sure he’ll be playing a lot.

By the way, Johjima was “concerned” last week when it was written that one of the major reasons he left the Mariners was because of the decreased amount of playing time he had received the past two seasons, which was caused by two things — injuries and eroding skills.

But he wanted to make it clear, without a shadow of a doubt, that he has nothing personal against the organization and never complained about the reduced amount of playing time he received.

All that is true.

It’s also true that the Mariners gave him a chance to become the first Japan-born catcher to play in the Major Leagues and his place in history is forever etched in stone. Now, he can return to his homeland, be close to family and friends and live happily ever-after.

Good luck to him.

— Jim Street

Catching up with the other catchers

The sudden departure of Kenji Johjima caught the organization by surprise, and the two players most affected by Kenji’s decision (other than himself) told me they were surprised — and ready to compete for the position.

“I got a phone call from my agent telling me about it,” Adam Moore said from his offseason home in Texas. “If it opens a door for me, I’m ready for the opportunity.”

Moore said he didn’t have a clue that Johjima was considering going back to Japan. “It must have been a difficult decision. I like Kenji and wish him the best.”

Moore was among the late-season call-ups from Triple-A Tacoma and impressed manager Don Wakamatsu with his defensive skills. Moore did not seem overwhelmed by the big-league surroundings.

“I expected to start maybe two games and ended up starting six,” he said. “It was better than I expected.”

Among the five hits in his 23 at-bats was his first big-league home run.

“I gave the ball to my mother and she put it in a little case,” he said. “It’s pretty neat.”

Moore is working out and plans to check in to the Mariners’ Spring Training facility in Peoria, Ariz., in early January.

Meanwhile, Rob Johnson, who shared the catching duties with Johjima this past season — and actually moved to the top of the depth chart — currently is en route, via car, to Arizona from Montana.

He’ll soon begin a rehab program following the first of two hip surgeries. Johnson said he is “feeling great” and 100 percent confident that he will be completely healthy when camp opens in mid-February. The story currently is on the Mariners web site.

Johnson also was surprised by Johjima’s decision, and said Kenji was a “good friend and taught me a lot about catching.”

— Jim Street

Recalling the day the earth shook


SF earthquake one.jpg

It doesn’t seem possible, but at 5:04 p.m. PT on Saturday, it will have been 20 years since the earth shook in the San Francisco Bay Area.

A 7.1 magnitude earthquake brought the first (and only) Bay Bridge World Series to a stunning halt and it would be 10 days before the Series resumed. It ended two days later with the Athletics completing a four-game sweep.

My memories of that day remain vivid.

Tacoma News Tribune baseball writer Larry LaRue and I were staying in Alameda with a longtime friend of mine, the late, great Dr. Sebastian Russo, the team dentist for the Athletics and Raiders at the time. Around 2:30 that afternoon, with me behind the steering wheel, we headed for Candlestick Park, driving over the Bay Bridge shortly before 3 p.m., We arrived at Candlestick around 3:30, parked the car and found our assigned seats — which happened to be in the football press box, which overhangs the facility between the first and second decks.

Everything was normal. The Giants and Athletics were preparing for that night’s Game 3 of the Fall Classic and the stadium was filling up quickly for the first pitch.

I was talking on the telephone with Seattle Post-Intelligencer Sports Editor Glenn Drosendahl — when all of a sudden the press box started to move. Having lived in San Jose for several years, I recognized the feeling of an earthquake and this one was similar to a couple of others that I had experienced. We continued our phone conversation, figuring out whether I should refer to the earthquake in my game story, or make it a separate story after the game. In the meantime, esteemed Chicago baseball writer Phil Rogers wanted in the worst way to get the heck out of the place and proceeded to scramble away from his assigned seat — running on the top of the table, knocking everthing in his path out of the way. It was not one of his moments of glory.

I looked up and saw the light standards swaying. I looked down and the players were coming out of their respective dugouts, trying to figure it all out, looking for their families.

It was still dusk and no one was sure about the immediate impact on Game 3 — or beyond. When the shaking stopped, the fans cheared. I found that hard to believe. At first, we heard the start of the game would be delayed. But reports from the outside started coming in and  indicated that there had been some severe damage. Without electricty, we had no idea how bad it really was. Much later, I saw video of the Bay Bride and two-story viaduct in Oakland as to how much damage there was. The first thing that popped in my mind was that we had driven over that road just two hours earlier. What if the earthquake had happened about two hours earlier? It was a sobering thought, for sure.

Dusk turned to in darkness and the media was instructed by MLB officials to leave the ballpark.

We couldn’t write our stories because there was no electricity. We couldn’t dictate anything because there was no phone service. This was before cellphones.

So, out in the dark we went. Post-Intelligencer columnist John Owen had taken a cab to Candlestick that afternoon and had no way to get back to his hotel, so he, LaRue and I went to my rented car and inched our way out of the still-crowded parking lot. We drove away — not sure how we were going to get back to Alameda, located on the other side of the Bay Bridge, which obviously was closed and even less sure how we would write our stories and get them to our respective newspapers.

As we left a darkened Candlestick, we took 101 towards the City, discovering along the way that there were no lights anywhere. While I drove, LaRue was in the front seat writing his story and Owen was in the backseat writing his column. The inside dome light wasn’t the greatest, but it worked.

Thankfully, I had lived in San Jose for many years and realized that the best way to reach Alameda was to take 280 south from San Francisco to San Jose and then take the Nimitz Freeway north to Oakland.

As I drove south, we kept waiting to see some lights. And waiting. And Waiting. Finally, when we arrived in Palo Alto, there was light. So I drove to the nearest pay phone. Luckily, John had a penlight flashlight that was powerful enough for him to see his copy and read it over the phone to a P-I copy clerk, who typed the column. It must have been around 8 p.m. at the time. LaRue then dictated his story to his office in Tacoma. Meanwhile, I was in the car writing my own story.

Fortunately, the little flashlight had enough power remaining for me to dictate my story as well.

Mission accomplished, we climbed back into the car, drove to San Jose and on up to Alameda, arriving at around midnight. The good doctor was waiting for us, though not sure where we were or when (or if) we could get back.

The three scribes spent the night in Alameda and John returned to SF the next day via BART, which amazingly had not been damaged by the quake.

I remained in the Bay Area for several days, covering daily news briefings in San Franciso by then-Commission Fay Vincent, and writing “news” stories about the devastating quake that killed more than 60 people and injured more than 3,500 more.

Let me tell you, riding BART underwater was no picnic — especially the first time.

After a few days, I returned to Seattle and waited for the Fall Classic to resume. It finally did and I returned to cover the final two games and this was one Series when people were satisfied that it lasted only four games.

Including me. Even 20 years later.

— Jim Street

A ‘Cy’ of relief for Felix?

Some good news from the Twin Cities.

Royals right-hander Zack Greinke, figured to be Felix Hernandez’s main competition for the American League Cy Young Award, surrendered four earned runs in six innings against the Twins earlier today.

That’s as many runs at Greinke had surrendered in is previous seven starts put together and possibly opened the door for King Felix, who makes his final start of the season on Sunday against the Rangers.

Greinke finished the season with a 16-8 record and 2.16 ERA. Felix goes into his final outing with an 18-5 record and 2.49 ERA. Another strong performance figures to boost his Cy Young chances a whole bunch.

If he does win the award, he would join soon-to-be Hall of Fame left-hander Randy Johnson as the only Mariners to win the award.

— Jim Street

Ichiro, Felix, White honored

For the fourth time in his nine seasons with the Mariners, Ichiro was selected as the team’s Most Valuable Player by the local chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America.

All Ichiro did was become the first player in MLB history to have nine consecutive 200-hit seasons, reached the 2,000-hit mark in lickity-split fashion, made it nine-for-nine in All-Star Game selections and most likely will be awarded his ninth Gold Glove Award for defensive excellence.

Ichiro shared the award with Bret Boone in 2001 and won it outright in ’04, and ’07.

Ace right-hander Felix Hernandez was the overwhelming winner of the Most Valuable Pitcher Award — his first.

He has an 18-5 record and 2.49 ERA going into Sunday’s start against the Rangers and is among the leading Cy Young Award candidates.

Also, right-handed reliever Sean White, who started the season in the Minor Leagues but ended up making 52 appearances, was selected by the coaching staff as the Unsung Hero Award winner.

He posted a 3-2 record and 2.80 ERA before having season come to an premature end because of an injury.

Each of the award-winners received a plaque — and a handshake.

— Jim Street