Upon the news that Andruw Jones will be plying his trade next season with the Rakuten Golden Eagles, I got to wondering if Jones might be the best major leaguer ever to play for a Japanese team. It's quite possible that I've missed someone great, but before you ask, I left Alfonso Soriano off because he began his career in Japan. Anyway, here are my top 10 major leaguers in Japan ...
1. Andruw Jones (60 Wins Above Replacement)
It's really, really, really close. But with a very small timeline adjustment -- I believe that players today are better than players from, say, 40 years ago -- Jones just aces the No. 2 man. He probably won't get much Hall of Fame support because a) so much of his value was tied up in his defense, and b) the ballot's going to be wildly overstuffed with great players when Jones shows up on it. But he was, for a number of years, a tremendous player.
2. Reggie Smith (61 Wins+)
Speaking of tremendous players, Reggie Smith was quite a bit like Andruw Jones. Outstanding defensive outfielder, didn't age particularly well, and was (in Smith's case) utterly snubbed by Hall of Fame voters. In his first and only appearance on the BBWAA's ballot, he got three votes and fell off forever. Late in his career, Smith had a lot of problems staying healthy, but was still an outstanding hitter in 1982, his only season with the San Francisco Giants and his last season in the majors. In '83 he joined Tokyo's Yomiuri Giants, and spent two injury- and controversy-filled seasons there.
3. Larry Doby (47)
Doby played for the Chunichi Dragons in 1962; it wasn't until 36 years later that Doby went into the Hall of Fame. I wasn't wild about his candidacy and I'm still not, but he probably did lose a major-league season or three because of MLB's color line.
4. Willie Davis (57)
Willie Davis is just another center fielder -- like Jones, and Reggie Smith, and Kenny Lofton -- who probably don't get enough credit for their defense. Not that Davis was an outstanding fielder. But he was good, and could hit too. Played in Japan when he was 37 and 38, then came back at 39 with the Angels for a last go-'round (which didn't go well) ... and after that he played in Mexico at 40. The man was just a baseball player, it seems.
5. Rich Gossage (40)
Gossage, of course, is in the Hall of Fame. You might think he should be a lot higher on this list. You might be right. According to Gossage's memoir, he and his family enjoyed their one summer (1990) in Japan with Fukoaka's Daiei Hawks, which takes up most of a chapter in the book. While a lot of gaijin have complained about the food, Gossage had no such problem ...
I developed a taste for the local cuisine, like udon, a soup with chewy noodles in broth. I munched on fish flakes with my beer, ate raw eggs, and even learned to like goldfish cocktails, where you swallow live goldfish. (Cleans the system, I was told.) I also tried octopus balls, which are pretty tasty and not to be confused with Rocky Mountain oysters...
One morning on the road, Corna came to the table complaining she'd had too many fish flakes with her beer the previous night. When my breakfast order of a raw sea urchin topped with a raw quail egg arrived, she took one look and made a dash for the ladies' room.
Gossage had gone to Japan because not a single major-league club showed any real interest, perhaps because his control had deserted him in 1989. But after his work in Japan, he was wanted in the States again, and pitched for four more seasons in the majors, finishing up with the Mariners in 1994, when he turned 43 just before the Strike ended the season.
6. Roy White (43)
Roy White has always been underrated, because he was a jack of all trades (well, except fielding) but the master of none. White, a Yankee throughout his major-league career, played decently in 1978 but poorly in '79, and the Yankees let him go. Still just 36, White went to Japan and spent three seasons with the Yomiuri .
7. Julio Franco (40)
Unlike just about every other player on this list, Franco went to Japan after a really good major-league season, with the White Sox in 1994. Just a guess: Franco didn't want to hang around in '95 and wait for the owners and the players to settle their little World Series-killing imbroglio. So in '95 he played for the Chiba Lotte Marines. Franco returned to the majors in '96, played well, didn't play so well in '97, and in '98 went back to Japan; he's probably the only guy on this list to do that, too. Franco's career got even more bizarre from that point (but you know where to find out more about that).
8. Frank Howard (34)
After a pretty good season with the Tigers in 1973, Howard went overseas in '74 to play with the Taiheiyo Club Lions. Howard, of course, was one of the largest players in major-league history, and would have been a great novelty for the Japanese fans.
9. Don Newcombe (27)
By his own account, Newcombe essentially drank himself out of the National League. But by 1960, his last season in the majors, his arm was dead (although he still pitched effectively when he was able to pitch). He spent 1961 in the minors, then went to Japan in '62 ... but purely as a hitter.
10. Don Money (33)
Largely forgotten now except in Milwaukee, Money annually ranked among the game's better third basemen for many years. No, he wasn't Mike Schmidt or George Brett or Graig Nettles or even Buddy Bell. He was really good, though. But after a truly awful 1983 campaign -- by then, he'd handed third base to young Paul Molitor -- Money spent a season with Osaka's Kintetsu Buffaloes before calling it quits.
Other notables include Clete Boyer, Davey Johnson, Mike Greenwell, Bob Horner, Matty Alou, Jim Lefebvre, Cecil Fielder, Warren Cromartie, Don Buford, Matt Stairs, Dick "Dr. Strangeglove" Stuart, Colby Lewis, and whomever I might have missed.