By Gregg Bell
The Associated Press
SEATTLE (AP) — The Mariners’ experiment of having the first Japanese catcher in the major leagues has ended two years early.
Kenji Johjima opted out of the final two seasons and $15.8 million of his contract, allowing him to sign with a Japanese team.
Seattle general manager Jack Zduriencik said Monday the decision came somewhat unexpectedly over the weekend, and that it was solely Johjima’s.
Zduriencik said the Mariners did not pay any money to buy out their former starting catcher, who said last season he was struggling to accept Seattle benching him in favor of rookie Rob Johnson.
Johjima’s contract gave him the right to end it by Nov. 15 for the purpose of finishing his career in Japan. He gave up salaries of $7.7 million next year and $8.1 million in 2011.
“After lots of very deep thought and deliberation, I have decided to return home to resume my career in Japan,” Johjima said in a statement. “I have had a wonderful experience competing at the major league level. The last four years have been extraordinary, with great teammates and great coaches. I will always be indebted to the Mariners organization for giving me the opportunity to follow my dream.
“This was a very difficult decision, both professionally and personally. I feel now is the time to go home, while I still can perform at a very high level.”
Adam Moore, just 25, becomes Seattle’s only other current catcher besides Johnson, who will be recovering from surgeries to both hips and his left wrist at spring training. Moore made his major league debut Sept. 17 and appeared in six games.
“It does leave a void,” Zduriencik said, adding that his offseason priorities have now changed to address the catching situation. “My understanding was for him to be part of his organization for the next couple years. He made a personal decision to return and play close to home.
“ ‘Joh’ made the decision that a lot of players make. He has 14 years in as a professional. Sometimes, guys choose the opportunity to play close to home. … We have to respect and honor that,” said Zduriencik, who before this season replaced Bill Bavasi — the man who originally signed Johjima in Seattle.
Seattle, run by titular franchise chief and Japanese billionaire Hiroshi Yamauchi, had re-signed the 33-year-old Johjima in April 2008 to a $24 million, three-year extension covering 2009–11.
Veteran starters complained about how Johjima handled games. And when Johjima wasn’t injured this year, the Mariners chose Johnson’s leading of the pitching staff over Johjima’s offense. By the end of the season, Johjima only played when Seattle’s newest and youngest pitchers started.
Johjima hit .268 in his four seasons with Seattle, with 48 homers and 198 RBIs in 462 games. He holds the AL record for hits by a rookie catcher (147 in 2006). His 18 homers in his first season tied the Mariners’ record for most by a catcher.
Johjima slumped to .227 as part of Seattle’s 101-loss collapse in 2008. He hit just .247 in 71 games this year.
He signed with Seattle for $16.5 million and three years in 2005, after playing 11 seasons with Fukuoka of Japan’s Pacific League and winning seven consecutive Gold Gloves for defense. He had almost no grasp of the English language upon his arrival, and he and the team went to great lengths to bridge the communication gap. Even before he signed with Seattle, he had a live-in English teacher at his home in Sasebo, Japan’s southwestern-most island.
The Mariners included in Johjima’s contract a full-time interpreter. His key role was to help Johjima go over scouting reports before games.
Many major league teams have gotten used to communicating with Japanese players in their clubhouses. But none of Johjima’s predecessors — including perennial Mariners All-Star Ichiro Suzuki — had to review scouting reports on opposing hitters and then relate game plans to pitchers.
When asked to assess how the first Japanese catcher handled English-language pitchers during his milestone tenure in Seattle, Zduriencik said, “You know, pitchers have responsibilities and catchers have responsibilities, too. His dynamic with the pitching staff was fine.”
This is the second time in five years a Japanese-born player has left the Mariners with time left on his contract.
Kazuhiro Sasaki, Seattle’s career saves leader, did it before the 2004 season. ♦