Sunday, February 24, 2019

Study Abroad - Hanshin In Fresno, 1988

By 1988 the trend of Japanese teams sending players to the US minor leagues was reaching its peak.  Half the teams in NPB that year sent players abroad - the Lions were in their final year in San Jose in the California League, the Buffaloes and Whales were in the Pioneer League in Salt Lake City and Butte respectively, the Giants were in Miami in the Florida State League, while the Dragons had at least one player with three different Dodger affliates in the Gulf Coast, Northwest and Florida State Leagues.  The newcomer for 1988 was the Hanshin Tigers who sent four players to the Fresno Suns of the California League.

The Fresno Giants had been an affiliate of the San Fransisco Giants for 30 years, ever since the big league team had moved to the Golden Gate in 1958, but ballpark issues (46 year old Euless park had its grandstand condemned in 1987) caused the Giants to end their relationship with the city.  They ended up moving the affiliation to San Jose where they've been ever since.  The newly renamed Suns operated as an independent team in 1988.  They signed a handful of former major league players, including Julio Cruz, Dwayne Murphy (who would play in Japan in 1990 for the Yakult Swallows) and Terry Whitfield (who spent 1981-83 with the Seibu Lions and played with the Lions farmhands in San Jose in 1986).  Cruz and Whitfield both retired after the 1988 season.  The team filled the rest of their roster with players loaned from other organizations as well as non affliated players.  As is typical for independent teams playing in organized ball, the team wasn't very good.  They went 53-89 for the season and suffered a California League record 20 game losing streak during the second half of the season.  They weren't the worst team in the league, however.  Another independent team, the Reno Silver Sox, went 39-103.

Here's a summary of four Hanshin players:

Name Draft Nickname Career
Katsumi Manabe 6th round 1986 Bullet Tigers 1987-91
Naoji Miyauchi 4th round 1985 Hector Tigers 1986-94
Atsushi Tagi 4th round 1986 Anthony Tigers 1987-95
Hiroshi Yagi 3rd round 1986 Richard Tigers 1987-2004

There were two team sets produced for the Fresno Suns in 1988, one by Cal League and one by ProCards.  All four players appear in both sets.  I swiped all the images for the Fresno cards from TradingCardDB.com.

Katsumi Manabe had the shortest career of the four players.  He was drafted as a pitcher out of Kansai High School but hurt his arm and converted to the outfield in 1991, his final season.  He's the only one of the four who never played for the ichi-gun Tigers.  He made the top league in a different way, however, as he's been an NPB umpire since 1994.  The only cards I know of for him are from the Fresno team sets.

1988 Cal League Fresno #21

1988 Cal League Fresno #21

1988 Procards #1235

1988 Procards #1235

Naoji Miyauchi also went by the name Masakazu.  He only played about half the season in Fresno - he fractured his elbow in mid-July and was out for the rest of the year.  He eventually got into 108 games with the big league Tigers over parts of four seasons - 74 of which were in 1991.  His Japanese wikipedia page says he retired following the 1994 season although his Baseball-Reference page says he played in 16 games with the Expos Gulf Coast League team in 1995.  I know of three Japanese cards for him  - 1992 BBM, 1992 Takara Tigers and 2013 BBM Tigers Legends.

1992 BBM #261

1988 Cal League Fresno #15

1988 Cal League Fresno #15

1988 Procards #1233

1988 Procards #1233
Side-arm pitcher Atsushi Tagi (whose NPB stats are available under Atsushi Taki although I don't think he ever went by that name) made his ichi-gun debut in September of 1988 after appearing in 46 games for Fresno, mostly in relief.  He'd go on to make only three more appearances with the top team before retiring following the 1995 season.  The only NPB card I know of for him is from the 1994 BBM Tigers team set.

1994 BBM Tigers #T-19

1988 Cal League Fresno #20

1988 Cal League Fresno #20

1988 Procards #1234

1988 Procards #1234
Hiroshi Yagi unquestionably had the best career of the four players who spent the season in Fresno.  He became the regular third baseman for the Tigers in 1990 and hit 28 home runs in 1991.  He alternated between third and the outfield some over the next few years although he remained one of the Tigers regulars.  His playing time started to diminish in 1994 and 1995 and he spent all of 1996 with the farm team.  He returned to the ichi-gun level in 1997 and spent most of the remainder of his career as a pinch hitter and late inning replacement.  He retired following the 2004 season.  He was selected to the All-Star team in 1992 and 1994 although he declined the honor in 1994.  There are many cards of Yagi besides his Fresno cards.

2004 BBM Tigers #T52

1988 Cal League Fresno #14

1988 Cal League Fresno #14

1988 Procards #1239

1988 Procards #1239
In addition to the players, the Tigers also sent Jiro "Joe" Ueda to Fresno to be the pitching coach for the team.  Ueda was the Tigers number one draft pick in the 1969 draft and was a starting pitcher for them during much of the 1970's.  His best season was 1972 when he went 22-14 with a 2.22 ERA.  He was named to the All Star team in 1970 and 1973.  He spent a couple seasons (1980-82) with the Nankai Hawks before returning to Hanshin for the second half of 1982.  He retired following that season and worked as a coach for Hanshin until 1994.  There are many NPB cards of Ueda but he only appeared in the Procards set during his stint in Fresno.

1973/74 Calbee #92

1988 Procards #1238

1988 Procards #1238
Following the 1988 season the Suns were sold to long time minor league team operator Joe Buzas, who moved them to Salinas.  As we shall see in a future post, the Salinas Spurs would come to be the largest test case in the NPB Study Abroad experiment.

Card Of The Week February 24

This card (#344) from the 1975/76 Calbee set* shows 1975 Pacific League MVP Hideji Kato (#10 on the left) along with two of his Hankyu Brave teammates - pitcher Takashi Yamaguchi (#18 in the center) and catcher KenichirĊ Kawamura (on the right).  I had originally thought this photo might show this happy trio celebrating winning the 1975 Nippon Series but after doing a little research I don't think that's the case.  The Braves won the deciding Game Six of the 75 Series at home while the players are wearing their away uniforms in this photo.  In addition the Braves catcher for that game was Shinji Nakazawa, their regular catcher that season.  However this photo could be from Hanyku's 2-1 victory in Game Five two days earlier - that game was played in Hiroshima, Yamaguchi got the save and Kawamura was the catcher.  Or it's just from some random game in 1975 - I don't think there's anything on the card that actually says it's from the Series.  Regardless I think it's a pretty cool card.


*I guess we should start calling it the 1975/76/77 Calbee set now based on what Sean's discovered

Over The Top

Epoch has carved out a niche for itself over the past few years with what I've referred to as "ultra-high end" sets.  Boxes of these sets typically contain four to six cards and retail for over 10,000 yen, although they generally are guaranteed to include at least one autographed card.  Yesterday, however, Epoch released a set that can only be described as "stratospheric-high end".

"One & Only" is a set completely dedicated to Shohei Ohtani.  Each box retails for 129,600 yen (roughly $1170) and contains four cards.  Each box contains one or two regular cards, a parallel card (if there's only one regular card), a memorabilia card and an autographed card.  The base set contains 25 cards, each of which is serially numbered to 11.  There are three types of parallels - "Gold" (numbered to 5), "Black Parallel - Silver" (numbered to 3) and "Black Parallel - Gold" (1 of 1).  The memorabilia cards include jersey, letter, "big patch" and combination varieties.  These are all serially numbered to no more than 11 - some of the varieties are 1 of 1.  There's about 12 versions of the autograph cards - all of which seem to be limited to no more than 5, including some 1 of 1 cards.  There's also cards that are both memorabilia and autograph cards - these are limited to no more than three each with a couple varieties being 1 of 1.  A couple versions of the memorabilia & autograph cards are booklets - someone was selling one of these on Yahoo! Japan Auctions with a starting price of one million yen (roughly $9037) (although it didn't sell).  This search on Yahoo! Japan Auctions will show you what some of these cards look like - it's the only way I'll see them because this is certainly way out of my price range.

Just to be clear - Ohtani is depicted as Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighter on all these cards - there are no Angel jerseys or photos in the set.

Generally I'm not a big collector of memorabilia and autographed cards but I do understand the attraction of them.  This seems a bit much though but to each his own.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Missing In Action - Warren Cromartie

For a while now I've been wanting to talk about players who for whatever reason don't show up in Japanese sets very often.  Now obviously I'm talking about retired players as pretty much every active non-ikusei player has a card each year - even if it's only in one of BBM's "comprehensive" team sets.  I thought I'd start a series of posts for players who appear to be missing with some regularity.

Warren Cromartie was a regular outfielder for the Montreal Expos from 1977 to 1983.  He left Montreal as a free agent but didn't receive any offers he liked from MLB teams so he ended up signing a contract with the Yomiuri Giants.  He spent the next seven seasons with the team, hitting .321 with 171 home runs over that time.  He won the Central League MVP in 1989, was selected to the All-Star team three times (1985, 1989, 1990) and made the postseason Best 9 team three times as well (1986, 1987 and 1989).  He also led the league in batting in 1989 with a .378 average.  He returned to MLB in 1991 and spent one season with the Kansas City Royals.

Cromartie had many cards during his career in Japan.  Despite apparently not having any cards in his first year in Japan (1984), he had more than 30 Calbee cards between 1985 and 1990.  He was also in each of the Takara team sets for the Giants over the same period of time.  There's a couple other sets I know of that he appeared in including the 1987 Amada Heat-Sensitive Giants set, the 1987 Play Ball set and the 1988 JBR 22 bromide set.  It is somewhat surprising to me however that he does not appear in the Lotte sets from 1989 and 1990.

1985 Calbee #70

1986 Calbee #201

1987 Amada Heat-Sensitive Giants

1988 JBR22

1989 Takara Giants #49

1990 Takara Giants #49

The photo on the JBR 22 card was likely swiped from a Calbee card.

He's appeared in very few Japanese cards since his retirement however.  He's in only three BBM sets that I know of - the "Nostalgic Stars" subset in the 1994 set, the 2008 "Back To The 80's" set and the 2013 "Legendary Foreigners" set (2 cards).

1994 BBM #541

2009 BBM Back To The 80's #010

2013 BBM Legendary Foreigners #30

2013 BBM Legendary Foreigners #78
I will add a caveat to that last statement by saying that there are four cards for him in the 2000 BBM 20th Century Best 9 set but none of them show his photo.

2000 BBM 20th Century Best 9 #114
There have been a number of BBM sets that I would have expected him to show up in such as the 70th and 80th Giants Anniversary sets, the 2013 All Star Memories 80's setthe 2014 80th Anniversary Batters Edition set, and the 2018 Time Travel 1979 set.  I've no idea why he hasn't appeared in these sets.  Other Americans who played in Japan for several seasons around the same time, such as Randy Bass and Boomer Wells, show up frequently in sets from both BBM and Epoch.

Thanks to John E. Gibson of the Japan Baseball Weekly Podcast I had the opportunity to reach out to Mr. Cromartie a few months back.  John was kind enough to forward some questions I had to him.  John warned me that it was likely that Mr. Cromartie would probably not respond as he was very busy but, to the surprise of both of us, he sent back answers to my questions.  I tried to get some follow up questions answered as well but John did not get a reply back from Mr. Cromartie.

I specifically asked him why he had not appeared in many of the retired player sets.  The gist of his reply was that he had never been contacted by BBM for ANY retired player sets, including the ones he had appeared in!  "I must be honest," he wrote, "I have not seen any of these retired player baseball cards so if you see any please let me know.  Obviously they have them without my approval."  He added that "All they need to do is ask me directly."

I fear that I've not explained what the sets were adequately and that he has seen the cards.  I included scans of the cards in my follow up expecting him to reply "Oh - THOSE cards!  Well, why didn't you say so?"  I find it much easier to believe that I asked a confusing question than BBM has published cards of a player without his permission.  One piece of evidence that he did not know about the cards however - there's no autographed card for him in the 2013 Legendary Foreigners set.

I want to express my gratitude to Warren Cromartie for taking the time to answer my questions and to John for acting as an intermediary between us.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

NST Albums

I've talked about NST some in the past - they issued four sets of cards between 1975 and 1983.  Really what they issued were stickers that were meant to be pasted into albums.  I had gotten a partially filled in album for their 1983 set a few years back.  Recently I picked up partially filled in albums for their 1975 and 1977 issues as well.

First the 1975 album - this set was dedicated to Shigeo Nagashima.  I don't know the actual count but it wouldn't surprise if half of the 288 cards in the set were of Nagashima.  His cards include a bunch dedicated to his final game on October 14, 1974 and some showing Shukan Baseball covers.  There's also cards of other NPB players active at the time as well as some cards showing major leaguers from either tours of Japan or the Giants training camp in Vero Beach, Florida in spring of 1975.  Specifically there are a couple cards of Nagashima with Brooks Robinson and Boog Powell of the Orioles from the Orioles 1971 post-season tour of Japan, and Gene Mauch with Nagashima and Tsuneo Horiuchi pitching to Ron Cey from spring training.

The album I got only has about 104 cards in it (and the only MLBer in the album was Mauch).  The album is too large for my scanner so I took a bunch of photos:

Cover

NPB Stars

More NPB Stars

Nagashima Retirement Game

Training Camp (Mauch card is #189)

Career Retrospective including Shukan Baseball covers

Nine card puzzle of Nagashima
The 1977 NST set was dedicated to Sadaharu Oh, although he does not dominate the set anywhere near as much as Nagashima dominated the previous set.  The set contains 324 cards, only about 17 of them are for Oh (while 18 are for Nagashima!).  The rest are for other NPB players.  There is one MLB player in the set - Henry Aaron appears on a card with Oh.

Like the other album, the album I got for this set had about 100 cards in it.  Instead of being scattered throughout the set however, the cards were sequential - they're the first 99 cards in the set.  Luckily for me, this included the Aaron/Oh card (#89).  Here's photos of the album cover and all the cards in the album:

Cover

NPB Stars

More NPB Stars

More NPB Stars

Yet More NPB Stars

More NPB Stars and Oh's Records (Aaron is in the center of the right hand page)

Last Batch Of NPP Stars
I think of the four NST sets, the 1977 one is my favorite since it has the biggest variety of NPB players in it.  The 1978 and 1983 sets pretty much only have Giants players in it and there's too much Nagashima in the 1975 set (not that I don't like Nagashima).

I now have albums for three of the four NST sets.  I'll have to keep my eyes open for a 1978 album.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Card Of The Week February 17

The Fighters wrapped up the Arizona portion of their 2019 training camp last Tuesday.  I was not able to make it down there this year (I'm saving leave for another long vacation in May/June) but Deanna Rubin was there and she posted a lot of interesting photos to her Twitter feed.

One tweet in particular that caught my eye concerned Po-Jung Wang, the outfielder Nippon-Ham signed out of the CPBL via the posting system.  Deanna reported that Wang's translator was a former first round pick of the Hanshin Tigers - a pitcher named Ikketsu Shoh.

Actually (as Deanna mentions) his real name is Yi-Jie Hsiao.  According to this NPB Tracker post, Hsiao is from Taiwan originally and moved to Japan at 16 because he wanted to pitch in the Koshien tournament.  He attended Nichinan Gakuen High School and appeared in two tournaments - the 2003 summer one and the 2004 spring one.  He went onto Nara Sangyo University and was the top pick for the Tigers in the fall 2008 draft.

He remained property of the Tigers for the next four seasons although he did not appear with the ichi-gun team until August of 2011.  He got into two games that month, going 0-1 with a 2.16 ERA (and 4.32 R/9 innings).  Those would be the only NPB games he would appear in.  The Tigers released him after the 2012 season and the Hawks picked him up as an ikusei player for 2013.  He joined the EDA Rhinos of the CPBL in 2014 and appeared in 64 games with them over the next three seasons, going 6-9 with an ERA of 4.95.  He was still with the team (which was now the Fubon Guardians) in 2017-18 but he didn't make any appearances with the top-level team.  They released him at the end of last season.  He was hired last month to be Wang's interpreter.

He didn't have a whole lot of baseball cards, at least in Japan.  He was in the 2009 Rookie Edition and 1st Version sets from BBM and a 2009 Konami set but other than that all his cards were in BBM team sets - for the Tigers from 2009 to 2012 and for the Hawks in 2013.  He may have CPBL cards under his original name - on TradingCardDB.com I see some cards from the 2014 CPBL Player of the Year set listed for Yi-Chieh Hsiao which might be the same guy.

Here's his card from the 2009 BBM Tigers set (#T008):


Saturday, February 16, 2019

Happy New Year!

I know it's mid-February but to me the new year doesn't really start until the new baseball cards start coming out.  I know that here in the States the new Topps cards hit the streets a few weeks ago but the "flagship" cards in Japan won't be out until right around the start of the baseball season. But at least the card companies have made announcements about them so we know what to expect:

- Calbee's first of their three expected Series will be released around March 25th.   This set appears to be following their established pattern from the past few years.  The base set contains 98 cards - 72 player cards (six per team), 22 "Title Holder" cards and four checklist cards.  There are two premium subset/insert sets - a 10 "Legend" set for players who retired in 2017 and the standard 24 card "Star" set.  There's also a special box set called something like "Strike Card" which contains a card for the strikeout leader from each of the 12 NPB teams.  The checklist is available on-line here.

- The 2019 edition of BBM's 1st Version set will be released in early April.  Last year Epoch put out a flagship set that had more player cards in it than BBM's 1st Version set and I'd been curious to see how BBM would react to that challenge this year.  It turns out that they didn't really change a damn thing.  For the fifth year in row the base set will contain 372 cards - 324 player cards (27 per team), 12 team checklist cards and 36 "Cross Sunrise" subset cards - this last is a cross set subset that will be completed in 2nd Version in August.  There's the usual assortment of signature parallels for 108 of the player cards (9 per team) plus parallel versions of the rookie cards.  BBM is also doing "secret" versions of 12 cards again (1 per team) - these are a short printed  photo variation parallel.  There are four 12 card insert sets - "Japanism", "Beginning", "Dominator" and "3D Cross Sunrise" - this last one is limited to 25 of each card.  The usual autograph and memorabilia cards are available as well.

- BBM's first two "comprehensive" team sets have been announced as well.  The base set of both the Swallows and Marines sets are still 81 cards as has been standard for BBM since 2015.  However the Swallows set has 70 "regular" cards for the players and manager while the Marines set has 72 "regular" cards - these numbers are higher for this than they've been in the recent past so it's possible that BBM is now including the ikusei players for each team which they haven't done for a while so this might be a response to Epoch which had included ikusei players last year in their team sets.  The remainder of the cards in the base sets fall into a couple subsets.  Each set has a number of insert sets - there's a total of 30 insert cards for the Swallows set split among five sets including a 12 card "Phantom" set while there's a whopping 36 insert cards for the Marines set split among five sets including an 18 card "Phantom" set.  There are autograph cards available with each set and there's a special "Mysterious Fish" stamp card available with the Marines set.  Both sets will be out in early April.

- Hits is back for 2019.  They are doing a team set of "mini colored paper" for the Baystars.  There's 12 "cards" in the base set and each "card" has a gold facsimile signature parallel.  The set will be out on April 6th.

Friday, February 15, 2019

2018-19 Australian Baseball League Cards

I had heard that there were cards for the Australian Baseball League this season but I hadn't seen any until I got a package from Steve Smith the other day containing two cards from the set.  Steve sent me the cards of two players from the Sydney Blue Sox who had NPB experience - Alessandro Maestri (who played for Orix from 2012-15) and Shogo Nakashima (who played for the Swallows from 2015-17).  Here's the front and back of the cards:





Several things jump out about these cards.  First that they were made by Choice who's been making minor league cards in the US for over 20 years.  Second the photos of the players show them in their NPB uniforms instead of their Sydney uniforms.  I assume this is because of time constraints - the season started in mid-November and the set was released in mid to late December (I think).  Steve said that it was common in the set for players to be depicted wearing a non-ABL uniform - the examples he cited were Gift Ngoepe and Dwayne Kemp of Sydney being shown in Pirates and Netherlands WBC uniforms respectively; many of the Auckland players are shown wearing New Zealand WBC uniforms and Geelong manager Dae-Sung Koo is shown in a Sydney uniform.

The Australian Custom Baseball Cards blog had a post up about the set early last month.  The set is sold in 8 card packs and contains a base set of 79 cards (77 common cards plus 2 checklists) and a 10 card "foil card" insert set (numbered 78 to 87).  The cards include both current and former players - Ronald Acuna being probably the biggest name alumni player in the common cards with Acuna, Rhys Hopkins and Dave Nilsson being the biggest ones in the foil cards.  I was a little disappointed that none of the current NPB players who were in the league this winter (Shota Imanaga, Hayato Takagi, Taiga Hirasawa, etc) are in the set.  In fact I think the only one in the set other than Maestri and Nakashima to have any NPB experience is Koo (and I think Daryl George was an ikusei player for Orix a couple years ago but I could be mistaken).  None of the current CPBL or Korean players are included either.

I noticed something odd on the backs of Maestri and Nakashima's cards.  Maestri's stat line lists "Major Lg. Totals" consisting of a 16-13 record in 105 games.  Maestri has never actually played in MLB - those totals appear to be the compilation of his NPB and KBO stats (14-11 record with Orix and a 2-2 record with Hanwha in 2016).  But Nakashima's card back sums up his NPB stats as "Minor Lg. Totals" which seems inconsistent to me.

Steve asked me if I was interested in getting any more of these cards and I'm back and forth about whether I do or not.  I like them but I think I'd be much more interested in them if all the players were shown in their ABL uniforms and the NPB players were included in the set.  Still if I could possibly get a complete set at a reasonable price I might consider it.

Thanks to Steve for getting me these cards.