Sayonara, For Now: Why I’m Playing In Japan

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The Mariachi band was louder than any boombox you could have put in that locker room. It felt like there were 30 of them. And the locker room was tiny. You could barely fit enough lockers for 25 guys in there, let alone fit our whole team, the Mariachi band and the ice tubs filled with 40-ounce Pacificos.

The band was jamming. Trumpets. Maracas. Nylon guitar strings strummed so hard and so fast you thought they were gonna snap. Pacifico spraying everywhere. Those guys didn’t do champagne.

It was 2005 and I was playing Winter Ball in Mexico.

We had just won the Caribbean World Series.

You guys know me — I’m patriotic as hell (‘Murica!) — but in that tiny locker room in Mazatlán, I jumped right in the middle of everything, M-E-X-I-C-O across my chest, and started raging.

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I’d won a junior college title. I’d won a Triple-A title. I’d won an Arizona Fall League title. But this was different. Because, for the first time, I realized, Wow. Winning is worldwide. It was just a very different feeling.

Since then, I’ve been fortunate enough to play for a lot of great teams — very different organizations. I played for the youngest MLB organization in the Rays. For the oldest organization in the Reds. I played in our nation’s capital. When I was a kid, I went to bed wearing Oakland A’s pajamas. Then I got the opportunity to wear an Oakland A’s uniform. I played in front of — and helped bring a World Series to — arguably one of the best fanbases in all of sports, in Boston. Then I went back to Oakland, Atlanta, and finally, last year, to Kansas City, where I was a part of my second World Series-winning team.

In my career, between the Minors and the Majors, I’ve visited and played in just about every city in America where they play pro baseball. I’ve literally been everywhere. So as a free agent this offseason, I thought, This time around, let’s do something weird here and pick a city I know ZERO about. Someplace I haven’t been. Let’s jump the Pacific Ocean and see what’s going on over there.

That’s why I’m going to Japan … to join the Rakuten Eagles.

***

When I got drafted by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in the 18th round of the 2001 draft, I thought they had the wrong “Gomes.” My brother was the two-time high school All-American and the two-time Junior College All-American. Not me. I was barely hitting fifth or sixth in the lineup after two years at Santa Rosa Junior College.

I didn’t expect to get drafted.

I had two contracts on the table: one from the Devil Rays, the other from the U.S. Marines. I was at a crossroads. I wanted to play baseball, but the Marines had always been my fallback option if I didn’t make it in baseball, or if I didn’t think I could make it. I didn’t have any money and I didn’t have any college scholarship offers to continue my college career. It was Tampa Bay or the U.S. Marines.

Living in California, I didn’t know much about Tampa. And I didn’t know much about the Devil Rays. All I knew was that they played the Yankees and Red Sox. And that, if I made it to the big leagues, I’d be playing for Lou Piniella. And that was enough for me.

I was right about the making it to the big leagues part. The $100-million part, not so much.

So I signed on the dotted line.

And I’m glad I did.

It was in Triple-A Durham that I first heard about the possibility of playing in Japan. There was a scout — I forget his name — who used to watch me a lot. And one day, he said, “Have you ever thought about playing in Japan?”

I was a young kid, so I was thinking, Japan? I’m probably gonna make it to the big leagues and make $100 million. Ha! Japan …

I was right about the making it to the big leagues part. The $100-million part, not so much. Not everybody is a $100-million guy. When you get to the big leagues, you learn about the business of baseball pretty quickly.

But one of my biggest lessons was after the 2008 season when I got non-tendered by Tampa.

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By 2009, signing late into the winter was becoming more and more common. It used to be that teams wanted to lock in their guys early and get their rosters set. But by then, signing in late-February was the norm for a lot of guys. I signed with the Reds that year — in late-February.

The following season, the business bit me again — when the Reds non-tendered me. I found myself back in the same position I was in the year before.

Unsure of whether or not I wanted to wait again until February to find an MLB team, I remembered that old scout from Durham. Have you ever thought about playing in Japan? And the idea of playing in the Nippon Professional Baseball league in Japan became option 1A. So I started doing some homework.

Here’s what I learned:

Free agency is a lot different over there. They like to set their rosters early. So if you start pushing that panic button in late January or February and you think Japan is an option, it’s really not. They don’t do the long negotiations like we do here. There’s no free-agency frenzy. Only a few guys a year become free agents.

Also, if you’re from the Major Leagues, it doesn’t matter how bad you want to play in Japan. They have to really want you. They don’t just take scraps from the big leagues here. They have plenty of talented players of their own.

They don’t need or want Major League leftovers.

***

I didn’t just slap a blindfold on and throw a dart at a map and it landed on Japan. Playing in Japan is something I’ve thought a lot about.

The offseason’s not over yet. There’s still time for me to get a big league offer to continue my MLB career. So I don’t have to go to Japan. I’m choosing to go. I’ve won World Series titles in Major League Baseball. But I want to win a championship somewhere else — somewhere I’ve never played before. I want to jam-pack my baseball IQ. People think that bouncing around from team to team in MLB is a bad thing, but I’ve loved it. I’ve gotten to experience different cities and learn from different people and pad my baseball passport.

Firefighters fight fires. Painters paint. Baseball players play baseball. Anywhere.

Just the GM/manager combos I’ve been able to play under and learn from — Chuck LaMar and Lou Piniella in Tampa, Walt Jocketty and Dusty Baker in Cincy, Mike Rizzo and Davey Johnson in D.C., Billy Beane and Bob Melvin in Oakland, Ben Cherington and John Farrell in Boston, John Hart and Fredi Gonzalez in Atlanta, Dayton Moore and Ned Yost in KC — that’s a pretty solid cast of baseball minds, and I got to learn from every one of them.

I also learned so much from watching the guys in Winter Ball in Mexico. I learned how different cultures approach the game — and how they play the game.

The way I see it, you’re gonna be out of this game for a lot longer than you’re gonna be in it, and I want to experience everything this game has to offer while I’m fortunate enough to play it.

Firefighters fight fires. Painters paint. Baseball players play baseball. Anywhere. It doesn’t matter what country you play in or what organization you play for. Winning is the same everywhere. Winning is worldwide. I was happy as hell to play on the dirt fields in Mexico, and in the Minors, and in the big leagues. And I’m gonna be fighting like hell to try and win a championship in Japan, just like I did everywhere else I’ve played.

It’s not JV over there. Just watch the World Baseball Classic. These guys can compete with the best in the world, and win. They’re legit.

And on top of that, it’s a new adventure for me and my family. My wife Kristi has been an angel from above, letting me chase my dreams and build my baseball resumé, and hopping all over America to do it. And this move is no different. It’ll be exciting to share this experience with her and the kids, and to give our family an experience I never had when I was growing up: a chance to learn a different culture and experience something crazy and weird and different.

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That being said, I don’t know what’s going to happen. The plan is to go over there and compete for a championship with the Rakuten Eagles. But you never know. Maybe somebody gets hurt over here in the big leagues. Or an organization trades away a couple of outfielders and there’s a big hole that needs to be filled. I might get a call.

Maybe I’ll see you guys again come August … Maybe I won’t.

But we’ll worry about that when the time comes. For now, I’m 100-percent focused on winning a championship in Japan.

Until then? Sayonara, ‘Murica.

And Rakuten — let’s rock and roll.

JonnyGomes

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