An excerpt from In Search of Millionaires: The Life of a Baseball Gypsy by Bob Fontaine Jr. and Taylor Blake Ward
Japan is an interesting place to scout players. They play a different style than others in the world, show great discipline, and have a true appreciation and passion for baseball.
Japan has a major league of their own. Scouting in a professional league is fun with the atmosphere inside the ballparks. Fans wave flags, blow trumpets and horns, and chant throughout the game’s entirety. It creates a loud and exciting environment to watch a ballgame.
Watching players do their pregame activities can be quite interesting. They have two batting cages on the field pregame so two hitters can hit at one time, with all other players doing other baseball activities.
My first time in the Tokyo Dome, I saw guys my size hitting balls out regularly and then realized there were no dimension numbers on the outfield walls. The next day I measured it off myself, walking from home plate to the wall. They were much shorter distances than in the U.S. That is a practice I used when I would go to see a power hitter and questioned the numbers.
They play an aggressive brand of baseball and even though they play more, pitchers throw more. Players have been able to come to the United States and not only compete, but in some cases become stars like Ichiro Suzuki, Hideki Matsui, Hideo Nomo, as well as current day talents like Shohei Ohtani, Masahiro Tanaka, and Yu Darvish.
One of the most exciting and different high school game experiences I ever had was when I went to Osaka to see Yu Darvish pitch in the National High School Baseball Invitational in 2004.
I was with Seattle at the time. Bob Engle, our international scouting director, and Ted Heid, our Pacific Rim supervisor, along with many others in our international department, felt we had a chance to sign Darvish out of high school. I went to give them another opinion. In most cases, you wouldn’t expect to spend a week in advance to see a pitcher, but you did in Japan.
When I arrived in Osaka, I was met by two of our young scouts from the region and they were going to take me around while I was there. The first day, we went and watched the team workout and saw Darvish throw a bullpen session. Right away you could see this was a special arm.
It was a long practice, like they all would end up being. When we got to the hotel, I was so hungry that I told the two guys we were going across the street to eat at Outback Steakhouse.
I could tell they were a little nervous when they looked at the prices on the menu. Things can be expensive in Japan, especially for travelers. I asked them if they wanted a beer, and they just looked at me. I then asked if they wanted appetizers, and again, they just stared. Finally, I said, “I’m ordering. Bring us a beer each and three appetizers and then we will order.”
They ordered, and even though the meal was expensive, it broke the ice. We had a wonderful time, and they taught me much about the customs of Japan.
There were nights we ate the local cuisine and I think I provided more entertainment for them and the staff of the restaurants than anything else. Watching me try to eat with chopsticks certainly provided more food on the walls and ceiling than I got into my mouth. I did try, at least.
They were both very respectful young men, and I appreciated their approach, but when I took them back a week later, they didn’t hesitate. This time they ordered beverages, appetizers, and a meal.
We watched Darvish’s team practice every day for six days at six different sites, and he threw off the mound each of those days, a practice you never see in the United States. The practices were as interesting as they were intense, and the coaches were tough. At one point in the practice, players would stop, and bow to the coach.
Since we weren’t supposed to be at these practices and because I stood out, we had to stay hidden, which I loved. One practice while hiding behind a tree in the outfield, a ball was hit to the fielder closest to me and he just butchered it. The ball rolled out by where I was standing behind the tree, and as the player got near, I yelled to him, “You have to make that play, Meat!”
Our two scouts freaked and said I couldn’t do that, and we had to move places. I couldn’t help it. The kid needed to make the play.
The last day in Osaka was the day Darvish was going to pitch in the tournament. Our game was in the afternoon at Hanshin Koshien Stadium. It is like their version of Fenway Park. It is an old stadium with a dirt infield, and with horrible weather and a lot of rain that day, the field staff worked hard to keep it playable.
This tournament is a huge event that is televised nationally and played in front of big crowds. The day we were there, they had bad weather. About 35,000 people were in the stadium, which holds 55,000. It’s a very impressive and competitive venue.
We got to our seats down the third base side right near the high school cheering section. They had a huge group all waving flags and dressed alike with a horn section. It was entertaining for a while, but their theme song was the music from Popeye the Sailor Man. The drummers and horns never stopped with all supporters chanting and yelling the theme song. It’s a wonder how they watch the game. After nine innings of that, I could scream.
Darvish didn’t disappoint. He had such a fluid delivery with a loose, free, and quick arm. He threw five pitches from different angles and could throw strikes from each angle. It gave him what looked like 15 pitches, as well as the ability to change speeds on each pitch. The ball was live out of his hand with a great finish to his pitches.
He ended up throwing about eight innings and probably well over 125 pitches before they took him out of the game. His team lost, but he was very impressive.
I turned in a report saying that if he were in the amateur draft in the United States, he would be in the top part of the first round. He was probably as polished and confident as any high school pitcher I have ever seen. He was so good and did so many things other kids cannot do at that age. It was unbelievable.
I was disappointed when we couldn’t sign him, but it didn’t take many years before he was pitching in MLB. He has pitched nine seasons through 2021 and is recognized as one of the best Japanese-born pitchers in major league history.
Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from the memoir of legendary baseball scout Bob Fontaine, Jr. The book, In Search of Millionaires (The Life of a Baseball Gypsy): The Bob Fontaine Jr. Story (written with Taylor Blake Ward), is a baseball purist’s dream, and we highly recommend it to any baseball lovers who would like to hear the tales of a dying breed: the traditional baseball scout. If you purchase the book via this link, JapanBall receives a small commission from Amazon; thanks for your support!