Saturday, February 27, 2021

Clayton Hamilton

A few weeks ago I got an email from Clayton Hamilton who asked if I was still in the business of selling NPB baseball cards.  His name sounded familiar but I was not sure why.  I replied that it wasn't much of a "business" but I do sell or trade NPB cards and asked him what he was looking for.  He said he had played for the Baystars in 2011 and 2012 and was trying to learn what cards he had in Japan.

Oh, THAT'S why the name sounded familiar.

I apologized for not recognizing him and pointed him to the list of his cards at the Trading Card Database.  He and I have been corresponding fairly regularly over the last month.  He first contacted me just two days after I had interviewed George Arias so I went from pretty much never having talked to a former player to talking to two within a couple days.  Our email exchange pretty much evolved into an interview although I was kind of slow-walking it so that I could get the interview with Arias done first.

The information for this post came from our email exchange and his Baseball Reference page as well as an interview he did on Baseball Prospectus' podcast back in 2011.  Any direct quote came from the emails although to be completely honest some of the text will very closely resemble quotes from the podcast.  I just think it's kind of unethical to use quotes from an interview that I didn't do.

Clayton Hamilton was first drafted during his junior year at Penn State by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 21st round of the 2003 draft but he decided to finish his degree.  He was drafted again in the following year in the 17th round by the San Diego Padres.  He played with three different teams in the Padres organization that year - their Arizona League team at their spring training complex in Peoria, Arizona, their Short Season Class A Northwest League team in Eugene, Oregon and their Double-A Southern League team in Mobile, Alabama.  He split 2005 between the Low-A Fort Wayne Wizards of the Midwest League and the High-A Lake Elsinore Storm of the California League before being traded to the Pirates that winter for Bobby Hill.

He spent the next two years on the roster of the High-A Lynchburg Hillcats of the Carolina League but he missed a significant amount of time with injuries.  He was selected by the Texas Rangers in the minor league portion of the Rule 5 draft after the 2007 season.  After having been a starter for most of his career, Texas moved him into the bullpen.  He split 2008 between the Bakersfield Blaze of the High-A California League and the Frisco RoughRiders of the Double-A Texas League and 2009 between Frisco and Triple-A Oklahoma City RedHawks of the Pacific Coast League.  He again missed some time in 2009 with an injury.

He was released by Texas at the end of spring training in 2010.  At that point in the season, most teams already have their rosters set so while he and his agent made some calls to try to find a position with another team, they were unsuccessful.  He considered his options, did some real estate work and then was sponsored by a couple friends to participate in the "World Series Of Poker" in Las Vegas.  He played in a couple of the lower tournaments.  He was doing pretty well there when he got a call from a close friend, Josh Boyd.  Boyd was the scout who signed him to his first contract when he was drafted by the Padres and at the time was working with Texas doing, among other things, some scouting in Japan.  Boyd told him that officials with the Yokohama Baystars were in Fresno, California and would be interested in giving him a tryout.

After discussing it with his fiancee, Clayton decided that Fresno was close to Las Vegas so he should try it.  His fiancee overnighted him his equipment and he flew to Fresno.  The tryout seemed a bit impromptu.  "They literally had a high school catcher catching me - I was worried at first he might get hurt but the kid did a pretty good job."  He had a decent tryout, somewhat surprising himself since he had not played in a few months.  The team was definitely interested in signing him for the 2011 season but they wanted him to have playing time in 2010 and then travel to Japan in the fall for a full tryout.

He still wasn't getting any nibbles from any MLB teams so he and his agent started looking at independent league teams.  He drew some interest from the Atlantic League but he wasn't interested in playing for a team that wasn't near his home in Western Pennsylvania.  He had a tryout with the Washington Wild Things of the Frontier League but his age and experience level was too advanced for the league.  He ended up joining a Pittsburgh area men's recreational league team called the St Johns Saints for a few weeks.  As expected, he dominated the team's opponents.  He estimated that he threw 15 innings in their regular season, giving up one hit and striking out about 40 batters.  He helped them win their league championship.  The team went on to play in a tournament in Youngstown, Ohio, and Clayton pitched in one of the their games.  He beat the Cleveland Black Wolves 2-1, giving up four hits and striking out 11.

As the tournament ended, the Rangers again came calling.  In July, Texas made a number of trades, bolstering their roster for the stretch drive that would culminate in their first ever World Series appearance and they needed to restock the roster at Double-A Frisco.  He rejoined the RoughRiders and made four starts before being released at the end of the season to pursue his opportunity in Japan.

He flew to Japan in October for his week-long tryout with the Baystars.  The team was also looking at three other foreign pitchers that week - Joey Newby, Jeff Ridgway and Brandon Mann.  The four pitcher spent most of their week working out at the Baystars' farm team facility in Yokosuke but spent at least one day at Yokohama Stadium throwing batting practice to ichi-gun team members.  "I don't remember exactly who I threw against in bp, but I do remember the following day was bad weather and we all threw side-by-side off the mounds in the indoor facility in Yokosuka. We were all trying to throw every pitch as hard as we possibly could as the sound effects in that tight indoor space made the velocity seem higher than it really was.  They had some hitters stand in the box during the session, mostly ni-gun guys, just to give it as real of a feel as possible.  I knew I had thrown really well in that session, but none of us really knew what the coaching and front office staff was thinking at that time."  

He found out soon afterwards.  "After the tryout I was offered a one-year contract with a club option for a second year and accepted."  Brandon Mann was the only other player of the group who was signed by the team.

He married his fiancee that winter didn't get to spend much time with his new wife as he flew to Japan in late January to be ready for training camp in Okinawa by February 1st.  After a month in Okinawa the team returned to Yokohama to continue playing exhibition games in preparation for the regular season.  

He quickly learned about the differences between pitching in Japan and pitching in the US.  "Japanese pitchers have a much higher practice throwing volume than we do in America - their throwing sessions and bullpens are probably double or triple than what I was used to.  Obviously you try to fit in when you first arrive, but after a couple weeks of spring training your arm starts letting you know you aren't used to that much throwing.  Eventually you work it out so the coaches feel you are putting enough work in and so you feel like you can comb your hair without discomfort in the mornings.

"Additionally, Japanese hitters approach their AB's differently than what we're used to as well.  The top and bottom of the order are predicated on putting the ball in play - small ball such as bunting, stealing, etc are staples in their system.  Playing on turf was often times frustrating for me as a groundball pitcher because I'd make a good pitch but it would get chopped down into the turf creating a high bounce - which the runner would consistently beat out.  Nothing drives a pitcher crazy quite like an infield single!

"I found it was difficult to rack up strikeouts in the NPB as well because most hitters there are very meticulous in their 2-strike approach.  They would much prefer to hit a groundout to the right side than strikeout swinging - a stark difference to what you see currently in today's MLB game.

"The single biggest adjustment, one which I ended up struggling with, was life in the NPB bullpen.  When you are pitching well, you get used early and often.  In the states there are similar thought patterns across most teams.  Back to back days for a reliever is fine, followed by a day off.  If you throw three straight days, you most times get two days off if possible. In the Baystars bullpen those were out the window.  I think part of that was due to the team struggling for so long to win that each win was a very big deal.  It can be like that when you're used to losing ballgames, you really need a win that night to keep wind in the sails."

On March 11th the Baystars were in the middle of playing a game when the Tohoku earthquake hit.  The players and eventually the fans in attendance were evacuated onto the field for safety in case the ballpark or surrounding buildings collapsed.  In the aftermath of the disaster the Baystars allowed their foreign players to go home briefly so Clayton was able to fly home for less than a week before returning.  (One of his teammates - Brent Leach - refused to return to Japan initially and became the first ever player placed on the NPB's restricted list.  Leach eventually returned to the team in July.  Brian Bannister of the Yomiuri Giants was also placed on the restricted list for the same reason - he retired as a player rather than returning to Japan.)

Clayton made his NPB debut on April 13th, entering the game in relief at home against the Chunichi Dragons.  His first several appearances with Yokohama were relief ones but the team moved him into the starting rotation in May.  "I started in the pen, and eventually made a couple spot starts.  I think they really wanted me to be a starter but that transition doesn't happen overnight and I couldn't seem to consistently get past the 5th inning in those starts. Obviously as a starter your goal is to go deep into the game, but I kept running out of gas pretty quickly.  I still had a bullpen mindset in a starter's body!"

He earned his first (and only) victory in Japan on May 23rd, throwing six shutout innings against the Fighters in Yokohama.

His season got interrupted due to an injury that occurred while running the bases in a start against the Giants:  "I had thrown 4 great innings and had handled Rami-chan twice and got an AB against [Hirokazu] Sawamura.  He was throwing bullets that day and I somehow managed to get a bunt down - which he promptly fielded and threw the runner out at second.  I literally hadn't stood on first base in a real game since my Senior year of High school and here I am standing on first in the Tokyo Dome with 50,000 fans in attendance.  Nervous would probably be an understatement - pitching is one thing as it's second nature at that point but running the bases?  Not so much.  Of course Rocketboy ([Takahiro] Ishikawa) hits a grounder to second giving them an opportunity at a double play and I don't recall even thinking about what to do - I just went in with a solid slide trying to break it up a bit if possible.  When I was on the bases 12 years before that it would have been the right play, but in this instance I should have just peeled off.  I sprained my wrist on the slide and within seconds it was significantly swollen.

"I of course was not going to admit that just happened so I did my best to go back out for the 5th inning.  I couldn't bend it very well and had a rough inning.  It also didn't help that we misplayed two hits that inning either but when it rains it pours!  They yanked me that inning and we ended up losing the game.  I got a cortisone injection in my wrist the day after the game, and spent a few weeks at ni-gun letting it heal.  

"The bad news was for some reason even once my wrist felt better and good enough to pitch, I couldn't throw my sinker anymore.  No matter what I tried I could not get the ball to sink - and that was my bread-and-butter that got me there in the first place.  I joke with my wife that getting that AB was the beginning of the end of our time in Japan, and she'll remind me that it's embarrassing hurting yourself sliding."

He ultimately played in 18 games at the ichi-gun level in 2011 including six starts and went 1-4 with an ERA of 7.18.  He fared somewhat better on the farm, going 2-2 with a 3.70 ERA in 16 games and the club picked up their option on him for the following season.

Some changes were in store for the Baystars over the 2011-12 off season.  The biggest change was the team's owners, Tokyo Broadcasting System (TBS) sold the team to the software company DeNA, resulting in the team being renamed the "Yokohama DeNA Baystars".  The other change was that manager Takao Obana was replaced by Kiyoshi Nakahata.  Clayton said that the ownership change really had no effect on him but he preferred playing for Nakahata:  "He was more of an energetic player's manager while Obana was more of a stoic figurehead."

He was back in the bullpen for the 2012 season and seeing a lot of playing time early in the season. "My second season started as well as it could have.  I rattled off like 7-8 scoreless appearances to start the year and led the league in appearances through 5-6 weeks.  Problem was I had never tossed that many innings that early in a season before (typically relievers have lighter workloads in April than they do in August) and it began to take a toll.  The wheels finally fell off in a game against Hanshin in which I tore my rotator cuff and tried to push through it."

He made some appearances with the farm team after his injury however he still wasn't healthy.   His 2012 numbers with the ichi-gun team were 9 appearances with a 7.43 ERA in 13 1/3 innings while his ni-gun numbers were 6 appearances with a 8.10 ERA in 6 2/3 innings.  The team released him in June.  "I did extensive physical therapy and PRP injections before a comeback attempt in the Puerto Rico winter league [with Ponce], but wasn't the same and decided to retire."

Clayton favorite teammate during his time in Japan was Daisuke Miura and his favorite memory was "riding in Miura's Mercedes and trying to comb my hair like his".  His favorite ballpark was Koshien ("the fans were unbelievably passionate and I liked the balloon release ritual they had going on every game.  It also was a decently long way from the indoor bullpen to the mound, so it gave you a little extra time to soak in the excitement.") while his least favorite was Fukuoka Dome ("I swear to this day that mound is not the right height!").  He says that the batter who gave him the most trouble was Michihiro Ogasawara while his favorite opposing pitcher to watch was Sawamura.  "Playing in the NPB was truly a great experience and a great way to end my playing career."

As I mentioned, Clayton had contacted me to try to find out what Japanese baseball cards existed for him.  He said that his son had recently gotten into collecting cards and "wants to build a collection of all my cards so we're trying to find them all which is not an easy task when you are common card!"

Between Trading Card DB's list, what Clayton already owns and what I've been able to find on-line, it looks like he had ten cards altogether, including parallels and autographed cards.  Here's the list:

2011 Bandai Owners League 02 #144
2011 Bandai Owners League ?
2011 BBM 1st Version #305
2011 BBM Baystars #YB20
2011 BBM Baystars #YB20 foil parallel
2011 BBM Baystars #YB20 facsimile autograph parallel
2011 BBM Baystars Autograph (serially numbered to 51)
2011 Konami Baseball Heroes Opening Version White #135
2012 BBM Baystars #DB21
2012 BBM Baystars Autograph (serially numbered to 60)

Clayton sent me photos of the cards he owns:

2011 BBM 1st Version #305

2011 BBM Baystars #YB20 normal and foil parallel

2011 BBM Baystars Autograph

2011 BBM Baystars Autograph Back

2011 Bandai Owners League 02 #144

2011 Konami Baseball Heroes Opening Version White #135

I found images of a couple of the other cards online:

2011 Bandai Owners League ?

2011 BBM Baystars #YB20 Facsimile Autograph Parallel

2012 BBM Baystars #DB21

I don't know for sure which 2011 Owners League set that first card is from.  It's either 01 or 03 because I have the checklist for 04 from the box I opened and he's not on it.  

I think it's entirely likely that there are team issued Baystars sets from 2011 and 2012 that he's in but I've never seen any.

I asked him if he remembered signing the stickers for the autographed cards and if he got paid extra for them.  "Typically card companies (US and Japan) will come to the stadium or hotel and bring sheets of autograph sticker sheets.  You sit there and sign a sheet of say 100, 200 etc at once.  In the US, they do pay you for signing these, the amount depends on how valuable they think your auto's will be.  First round draft picks might get 10k, a later round guy might get 1k.  In Japan I remember signing sheets, but have no idea if I got paid extra or not!  I think the base cards were not paid and were considered part of the teams licensing agreement.  I'll be honest, it was such a whirlwind daily I can't quite remember."  He thinks he signed separately for each autograph card as he was "pretty sure they came to either Okinawa during spring training or Yokohama Stadium when the season started each year".

He only recently picked up the 2011 autograph card while the remainder of the cards he found while playing in Japan in 2011.  "My wife and I were shopping in different areas of the city, and were walking around Harujuku and stumbled upon a store advertising NPB and Comics in the window.  The store was mostly comics and the like, so I asked the gentleman working in very poor Japanese if he had NPB items.  He walked us back to the side wall where he had a 3-ring binder for each team individually.  We searched through the Baystars book and found the 2011 cards.  They were mostly the BBM set but a couple other random cards also.  We took out every single card of mine and went to the counter.  To this day my wife still gives me a hard time because I needed to know more - I needed to know if I was considered a good card or a common.

"At the counter the man came over to ring the cards up and I pointed to the cards and asked him if this player on the card was a good player?  At first he was being coy and wouldn't answer, but I pressed him a bit about should I buy the cards or not and the truth came out..."Da-me [bad]".  I instantly busted out laughing, a moment I'll cherish forever - this guy was telling me to not buy my own cards!  Now I know for sure he didn't realize I was the guy on the cards but if he did I'm sure he wouldn't have answered honestly.

"He charged me about 30yen each for the base BBM card and 50-100Y each for the "short prints".  We left with about 2 dozen cards and a memory neither of us will ever forget."

I'd like to thank Clayton for taking the time to talk with me and for being patient as I put this post together.  I'd also like to thank my wife for her proofreading and editing suggestions.

Clayton and I made a trade while I was working on this post - I sent him a 1994 BBM Daisuke Miura rookie card while he sent me an autographed version of his 2011 BBM 1st Version card:


SumoMenkoMan said...

Holy cow, what a great story! Thanks for taking the time to write that up and it was so interesting to hear how it all came together and then how it all ended. The fact that you have a regular conversation with him is awesome. I sure hope he can find all of his cards! Thanks again for a great post.

NPB Card Guy said...

Glad you liked the post. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Great post! Really enjoyed this and the George Arias interviews.

Sean said...

Ha, fantastic post and great story. The anecdote about him buying his own cards at the shop and the owner not recognizing him is really interesting! Hope he is able to complete his own card collection for his son.