The more I think about it, it’s actually pretty fitting that my last swing of the bat as a professional ball player may have happened in Japan.
And the way it all went down was just about perfect — a moment I’ll never forget.
Game 5 of the 2021 Japan Series against the Yakult Swallows. My wife and two boys were at the stadium, sitting right by the dugout, so I’d been talking with them the entire game. I didn’t start, and I wasn’t sure that I was going to get an at bat. But after Yakult scored three runs in the eighth to tie the game at 5–5, our manager called my number to lead off the ninth.
Scott McGough on the hill. Two balls, no strikes. I get an inside fastball. The type I’d seen a million times over the course of my 19-year pro career. And….
I absolutely barreled it.
When I got back to the bench, I could already hear my wife screaming from the stands. My kids, too. After I made it to the end of the dugout and was done celebrating with my teammates, my family was right there at the railing. Going nuts. They’re over there jumping up and down and yelling their heads off.
It was just pure, unadulterated joy. I can still see that scene in perfect clarity if I close my eyes.
I’ve been fortunate enough to have had an amazing career, no doubt. Being drafted by the Seattle Mariners in 2003 and making my debut in 2006. Getting traded while trying to win a championship for the Cardenales de Lara in 2008 and then going to Baltimore where pure magic happened for 11 majestic years. Then finishing my MLB tour with the Arizona Diamondbacks and having the chance to be a lot closer to my mother (who recently passed), who lived in Phoenix with her husband, Kenneth, my stepfather. I’ve had some truly incredible experiences.
But, to me, nothing beats that moment with Orix.
Not just because I came up big for my team (it happened on November 25, so after that Ben Verlander tried to get everyone to call me Mr. Thanksgiving!), or because we went on to win the next two games and take the series (we didn’t). But because it was me, my wife and my boys in the middle of a once-in-a-lifetime adventure, all of us together … absolutely having the time of our lives.
I would’ve never imagined I’d be a part of something like that Thanksgiving Day moment when I began my baseball journey.
Coming up, I just wanted to play ball for a living, and that was it. Anything beyond that was going to be gravy. And since I got drafted out of high school, I was so young at the very beginning. In fact, about 15 years before that homer against the Swallows, back in the U.S., I was just a teenager running around at spring training with the Mariners in Arizona, trying to stay out of Ichiro’s way.
This was 2006. I’d recently switched positions, from shortstop to centerfield. And those first few practices of the spring were tough for me. Not because I was having trouble tracking fly balls or making the throws, but because — as the centerfielder, the captain of the outfield — I found myself having to take charge during drills and call off Ichiro.
I couldn’t do it. I just couldn’t.
It was like my voice wouldn’t work or something. Because my mind knew what was up. It was like: He’s better than you, bro. That’s Ichiro! He’s the best there is.
So for the first few minutes, I’d just be out there letting Ichiro catch everything — deferring basically.
But Ichiro … he knows how things work. He sees what’s going on, and after a few drills he pulls me aside.
“Hey,” he says, “If you can get to it, call it. Call me off.”
I can’t tell you how big of a relief it was to hear that. Then as he’s turning to jog over to right field, he shares one more thing.
“But please don’t run into me. Don’t hit me, O.K.?”
I just smiled and nodded, and it was all good.
I learned a ton from Ichiro early in my career just by watching him work during those spring training practices. He seemed to do everything with a sense of purpose. And with precision. Big things, small things, it didn’t matter. He just had this focus about him, and it all seemed to be geared toward getting better each and every minute he was out on the field.
I didn’t really know where that came from, or what it was about, but it definitely made an impression on me.
Then, when I got over to Japan and began practicing with the Orix Buffaloes, everything suddenly made sense.
Then COVID hit. And, like the rest of the world, my plans went in the trash can.- Adam Jones
As an older guy, I honestly wasn’t ready for the level that teams practice at in Japan. In America, we work our tails off during spring training, and then when the season gets rolling, it’s basically all about the games. But in Japan, every day, every practice, is like the most focused spring training practice of the year.
There’s no fooling around. It’s all about getting better. Pitchers are doing fielding practice three or four times a week … in July. Infielders are taking thousands of ground balls even during the later part of the season. It’s baserunning drills, bunting practice, and on and on. Everything is all about trying to reach perfection when it comes to every element of the game.
So what I’d been watching Ichiro do back in the early 2000s was actually grounded in something at the very heart of how baseball is played in Japan.
And once I arrived and began practicing with Orix, it was so much fun to immerse myself in the fundamentals of the game again. After having played for almost two decades in MLB, being able to learn and study and compare how another country does baseball was fascinating.
When I first decided to play ball overseas, I was thinking that it would be a chance for everyone in my extended family to visit and spend time in Japan and learn all about a different culture. We’d all travel and see the sights and experience all we could. It was an amazing plan. I was proud of it.
Then COVID hit. And, like the rest of the world, my plans went in the trash can.
It ended up being my wife and our two boys in an apartment … the four of us figuring everything out together. At first, it was rough. Just struggling with lots of little things that you don’t think about, or take for granted, back home — it was impossible to find gas stations, the beds were too small for me, I couldn’t read any of the signs, stuff like that. There were definitely a few days there at the beginning when I was wondering what I’d gotten myself into.
But looking back on it now, that setup, and being isolated like that, it made us grow a lot stronger as a family. Because it was just us.
Our kids were four and six at the time, and back home we had all these people helping us every day — my folks, my wife’s parents, nannies. That all went out the window when we moved to Japan. And it was actually pretty great.
The pandemic hit when we were going through spring training for the 2020 season, and when the league commissioner postponed the start of the season for six weeks, that gave my family an incredible opportunity to acclimate ourselves. The weather in April that year was glorious — cool mornings, 75 degrees around mid-day — and we’d just hop in the car and go exploring. We’d be driving around Kobe and Osaka one day, and then head to Kyoto to hike Monkey Mountain the next.
At one point, we went to see the deer in Nara. And there you buy these little cookies to feed them. But since the area had been lacking normal tourist traffic, when the deer saw those cookies they became really aggressive. One even bit my wife in the butt!
Every day was a new adventure. We never knew what to expect.
Before I knew it, we’d roll up to a restaurant and I’d be able to order in Japanese.- Adam Jones
Because of COVID, the cities were all cleared out of tourists from other countries, so it was almost like we had them to ourselves. We were able to walk around without much trouble or crowding at all, checking out parks and museums and restaurants along the way. (My restaurant recs: Jojoen is unbeatable if you like BBQ. Also, there’s this ramen place called Gashoken that’s absolutely amazing. It’s actually so good that I want to figure out how to bring it to the United States.)
I just tried to soak it all in and learn as much as I possibly could. My interpreter was this amazing O.G. named Yoshitaka Fujita. They call him “Fuji” over there. He’s been doing this for 39 years with guys who come over from the U.S, and he was wonderful — just such an interesting person. From the very beginning, I became Fuji’s shadow. I was always following him around and asking him question after question — about Japanese culture and traditions and history, and about the history of the Orix team, about his life story, basically everything. Fuji … he meant so much to me. We became real friends. I still text him all the time. He taught me so much.
And you know what? After a few months, things started to sink in. It was like: Hey, I actually know what that sign means now! Or, I think I actually know what that guy just said! At one point I was fortunate enough to meet the absolute legend, Sadaharu Oh. And I’m proud to say that I was able to greet him and introduce myself in Japanese — Hajimemashite! — so I was able to show him respect in that way.
Before I knew it, we’d roll up to a restaurant and I’d be able to order in Japanese.
It was the coolest thing ever.
My wife and I had a blast for sure, but my kids absolutely loved everything about our time in Japan. And to me, that’s the best thing about all of this.
My children got to experience a whole different way of life in Japan, and learn about a culture that they would’ve never been exposed to otherwise. They were fully immersed, and they loved every minute of it.
This experience means that my children are going to be so much more knowledgeable and well-rounded going forward. They’ve seen and done so many cool things, at such a young age, and in my opinion that’s better than any material things we could’ve given them. My kids have tons of friends in Japan now. They learned together with those children, and appreciated their background. They ate meals with them. It’s just been so amazing to see as a father.
When I was a kid, all my friends lived right down the street. That was my whole world. We went to the park in the neighborhood.
My kids? My kids have climbed Mt. Fuji. They know more Japanese players than they do American players. When they play Little League, they’re imitating Japanese hitters. I have coaches coming up to me like: “What’s up with that big leg kick before the swing? Where’d that come from?”
My whole family benefitted so much from my time in Japan.
We had the time of our lives. And we could not be more grateful.
To the people of Japan, the fans over there, please just know how much we appreciated your kindness, support, and love. That’s something that we’ll all never forget.
We can’t wait to come back.
I feel incredibly lucky. I gave every day my all. And it’s been a hell of a run.- Adam Jones
Now, in terms of when that will be … I’d love to keep playing. I really would. But if my time has indeed come to an end, and that last blast against Yakult is indeed my swan song, you know what … I’m good with that. Baseball has given so much to me over the years. It’s taken me to so many places, allowed me to see and experience more than I could’ve ever imagined.
So hitting a homer in a huge situation in the Japan Series really could be the perfect sendoff for someone like me.
I feel incredibly lucky. I gave every day my all. And it’s been a hell of a run.
Sending my love to you all and wishing you the best!