Friday, January 19, 2018

Study Abroad - The Whales Of Montana

The Salt Lake City Trappers were not the only Pioneer League team to have a working agreement with an NPB team in the late 1980's.  The Butte Copper Kings had one with the Yokohama Taiyo Whales between 1987 and 1989.

Like the Trappers, the Copper Kings were an independent team.  Unlike the Trappers, the Copper Kings were very bad - they went 19-50 on the season and finished 29 1/2 games behind the first place Trappers.  The Whales sent four players to the Copper Kings that season.  Two were pitchers (Katsunori Kitano and Tomoyuki Tozuka) and the others were a catcher (Yasushi Takeda) and a third baseman (Katsuya Okubo).  Both Takeda and Okubo played tolerably well - Takeda was fourth on the team in batting with a .277 average while Okubo's 11 doubles was tied for the second most on the team.  The two pitchers didn't do very well however - Kitano went 1-9 with a 6.86 ERA and Tozuka went 2-8 with a 5.11 ERA.  Keep in mind however that the staff ERA was 5.43 so Tozuka was arguably one of the better pitchers on the team.

Butte would turn it all around in 1988.  The team became a Texas Rangers farm team that year and ended up going 44-26 and finishing first in the league's South Division before losing to Great Falls in the playoffs.  The Whales sent only two pitchers that season - Denney Tomori and Kenichi Shiozaki.  Both pitchers worked out of the bullpen and put up decent numbers - Tomori went 5-0 with a 2.51 ERA and Shiozaki went 1-0 with an ERA of 3.32.  The staff ERA was 5.45 so both pitchers were among the team leaders in ERA.

In many ways 1989 was a repeat of 1988 for Butte.  The team again won the South Division crown (going 41-25 this time) and again lost in the playoffs to Great Falls.  The Whales again sent two pitchers - Takaaki Matsumura and Koji Sugiura - but this time neither pitcher made much of a contribution to the team.  Matsumura appeared in four games and had an ERA of 9.35 while Sugiura appeared in six games with a 11.42 ERA.  The team was managed that year by Bump Wills who had spent two seasons with the Hankyu Braves in 1983-84.

The Whales and Butte parted company after the 1989 season.  As usual I don't know what happened - if the working agreement was only supposed to last three years or whether the Rangers didn't want to give up roster spots.  Butte would remain a Rangers farm team through 1992 before spending the next three years as an independent team again.  They were a Rays farm team in 1996 (two years before Tampa Bay fielded their major league team) and then an Angels farm team from 1997 to 2000.  The team moved to Casper, Wyoming in 2001 and became affiliated with the Rockies.  The franchise moved again for the 2012 season - this time to Grand Junction, Colorado where they still are today (and still are affiliated with the Rockies).

Here's a summary of the players the Whales sent to Butte:

Year Player Draft Played For
1987 Katsunori Kitano 4th round 1985 Whales 1986-89, Dragons 1990-98
1987 Katsuya Okubo 6th round 1985 Whales 1986-90
1987 Yasushi Takeda 5th round 1982 Whales 1983-90
1987 Tomoyuki Tozuka 5th round 1983 Whales 1984-88
1988 Kenichi Shiozaki 5th round 1986 Whales 1987-92
1988 Denney Tomori 1st round 1986 Whales/Baystars 1987-96, Lions 1997-02, Baystars 2003-04, Red Sox 2005, Dragons 2006-07
1989 Takaaki Matsumura 3rd round 1986 Whales 1987-90
1989 Koji Sugiura 5th round 1984 Whales 1985-91

Denney Tomori obviously was the most successful of this group of players.  He spent most of his career working out of the bullpen and was a very good middle reliever for the Lions in the late 1990's.  He made the All Star team in 1998 and pitched in the 1997 and 1998 Nippon Series (both in losing efforts).  He returned to North America in 2005 and spent the season in the Red Sox organization - he appeared in 19 games with AA Portland and 15 games with AAA Pawtucket.  He is now the pitching coach for the Chunichi Dragons (and was the guest on the Japan Baseball Weekly podcast a few weeks back).  There are many Japanese baseball cards of Tomori including cards from BBM, Calbee, Takara and Broccoli.

1989 Takara Whales #30

1999 Calbee #116

2004 BBM Baystars #YB25

2007 BBM Dragons #D036
Kitano had the longest career of the rest of the players.  He spent four seasons working out of the Dragons bullpen in the mid-90's.  All in all he pitched in 178 ichi-gun games between 1988 and 1997 and racked up a 3.62 ERA.  There are a small handful of Japanese baseball cards of him - almost all from BBM but he made one Takara set.

1994 BBM #61
Of the remaining six players only Kenichi Shiozaki and Koji Sugiura ever played at the ichi-gun level and they each only appeared in three games.  None of the other six players had any Japanese baseball cards.

There was no team set issued for Butte in 1987 so there were no American minor league cards for Kitano, Okubo, Takeda or Tozuka.  Sports Pro issued a set for the 1988 team however so there are Butte cards for Shiozaki and Tomori.  Shiozaki is one of those rare players who has an American baseball card but not a Japanese one.  I don't have the 1988 set but I was able to track down the image of the front and back of Shiozaki's card on

"Kenny" is actually from Ehime Prefecture and not Yokohama.

Not only is Tomori in the 1988 Butte set but he also has cards in the 2005 team sets for both Portland (Grandstand Update) and Pawtucket (Choice).  The only one of the three cards I could find an image for online is the Portland card:

Neither Matsumura nor Sugiura appear in the 1989 Butte team set issued by Sports Pro.

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