Sweeney adapts to life, baseball in Japan
By Jake Thomases
The Journal News • July 4, 2008
Brian Sweeney didn't speak Japanese. He didn't know Japanese culture, and he sure didn't know about Japanese hitters.
He moved his wife and two young daughters, moved his life, across the ocean in 2007 because the Nippon Ham Fighters dangled a guaranteed contract, something he'd never put his signature to in 11 years of professional baseball.
All he had going for him in those early days in Hokkaido was the sport. It was a chance to stay in one place, to prepare and pitch without wondering if there was a bus outside waiting to take him back to the minor leagues. The Fighters had shown faith in a nomadic American without a plus fastball, and he wanted to reward that faith.
Weeks into his first season in Japan, the Yonkers native and Mercy College graduate was sent down to the minor leagues.
Even as he told manager Trey Hillman (now of the Kansas City Royals) that he understood - and he did understand; he wasn't pitching well - it was one of the most crushing demotions of his career.
He was 33 with a family in a strange land, surrounded by 19-year-olds doing running drills in the Japanese minor leagues. Quitting the game crossed his mind.
Yet he learned things down there, learned about Japanese hitters and how to get them out.
"They don't strike out much," he said. "Back home I could throw fastball-changeup and get guys out. I couldn't do that here. They keep their bat in the zone."
He worked on his curve and cutter, and straightened himself out enough to get called back up to Nippon Ham later in the year. He pitched effectively out of the bullpen, then as a starter from August on. It was enough to earn another one-year deal with the club.
"To this day," said Bill Sullivan, Sweeney's coach at Mercy, "as far as work ethic, in my 17 years here at the college, I don't know a person who was more committed than he."
From nearly hanging up his cleats, the 34-year-old Sweeney has become one of the more effective hurlers in the Pacific League. As of June 27, he was 6-2 with a 2.59 ERA, sixth best in the league and tops among foreigners, and .221 batting average against. A few relief appearances became a slot in a six-man starting rotation.
Not a bad spot for a guy to whom a one-year contract seemed like a lifetime. It's almost 100 percent that he'll come back if asked. Even though he still hasn't gotten used to the Japanese national anthem. Or how today in Hokkaido is like any other day.
"It's weird. I'm used to the July 4th festivities - fireworks, moments of silence for the troops," he said.
They had those things in America when he was bouncing from Lafayette to Portland to Seattle to Durham to San Diego. He pitched to a 3.49 ERA in 80 major-league innings, which still wasn't enough for the Padres to put him on their 40-man roster. When Nippon Ham came along with a contract, that guarantee was enough to leave everything but family behind.
His father, Ed, a retired fireman from Yonkers, saw him pitch twice during a trip in May. Both times he was named "Hero of the Game," a postgame tradition in which the recipient says a few words onfield after a victory.
Sweeney is starting to get recognized around Hokkaido's capital, Sapporo, the country's fifth-largest city. Stadiums of 40,000 routinely cheer his every pitch. (Fans are positive 99 percent of the time, Sweeney said, and their intricate songs for each player are something to behold.)
"It's amazing how nice people are here," he said. "I almost feel like they're trying to pull something on you."
Life outside baseball is getting easier, too. Ordering at restaurants is no longer always a matter of calling the team's interpreter, then handing the phone to the waiter. Always an adventurous eater, Sweeney has tried things like horse and raw chicken.
His wife Connie - "God bless my daughter-in-law," Ed Sweeney said - and daughters Ava and Mia, supportive from the beginning, come on road trips to explore the country.
Players are different. Sweeney thinks he can learn from them, and not just phenom teammate Yu Darvish, a lock to be in the U.S. in 2009. Emotions are kept in check. Tantrums and primal screams are almost never seen.
"I want to be more like that because sometimes emotions get in the way when you're pitching," Sweeney said.
The Fighters, two years removed from a championship, are in second place. Every game Sweeney pitches has meaning. Like those two times he beat the Hanshin Tigers, who, he mentions casually, declined to offer a contract after scouting him in 2005.
So far he's found the security and the stage he longed for. On returning to his apartment this offseason he realized it was the first time in his professional life he'd come back to a place with his stuff already inside.
"Ultimately," his Mercy coach said, "Brian Sweeney will be that guy that finishes on top, whether it's in Japan or the United States."
Reach Jake Thomases at firstname.lastname@example.org.