Baseball Men - The Internationalist

Baseball Men - The Internationalist

Our exclusive ‘Baseball Men' interview series continues with Ted Heid, Seattle Mariners' Director of Pacific Rim Scouting

Peter Handrinos is a frequent contributor to Scout.com and author of the upcoming The Best New York Sports Arguments: The 100 Most Controversial, Debatable Questions for Die-Hard Fans'.

 

 

For all the talk of baseball's cherished traditions, the game has always been defined by pioneering breaks from the status quo.

 

Change has been a constant. Just 60 years ago, every one of the Major Leagues' rosters was lily-white. Little over 50 years ago, every one of its 16 franchises was located in a relatively tiny region defined by the Boston-Chicago-St. Louis-Washington axis. In just the last three decades, even, baseball was ruled by the reserve clause and ignorant of everything from interleague scheduling and wild card playoffs to new generation ball parks and internet-based broadcasting.

 

Traditions have been great, but it's the breakthroughs that have kept baseball vital. The modern day's newest upgrade has been in international recruiting, and Ted Heid has been one of the movement's foremost pioneers.

 

Since getting his start with the Seattle Mariners in 1994, Heid has been at the forefront of the game's outreach to the talented players to be found in Japan, South Korea, China, Taiwan, and Australia, first as a translator/assistant scout and then as the M's Director of Pacific Rim scouting.

 

Heid may be best known for his in recruiting Japan's Ichiro Suzuki and All-Stars like Shigetoshi Hasegawa and Kaz Sasaki over the years, but his impact has gone far beyond his own organization - he's shown how all of baseball can be enriched through dozens of dynamic new stars and the millions of new Asian-based fans who follow them. In that, he's helped the game break through once again.

 

Recently, Ted discussed his work in an ever-more internationalized Pastime:

 

 

When did you first get interested in baseball?

 

My father never had a lot of opportunities to play sports when he was growing up, but he always made sure that my brother and I could play. He passed on his passion for the game, and we played Little League and went through the local leagues. 

 

I'm sure you've heard the same thing from a lot of people - a lot of my summers were about jumping on the bike, pedaling through the neighborhood, the bat on the bike seat, the glove over the stingray handlebars.

 

I never get tired of hearing about it. They're Norman Rockwell moments.

 

(chuckles) Well, yeah. Off we went and played ball. My parents just said, ‘Be sure you're home before dark'. I have many fond memories of just playing baseball with whoever would show up before dinner. I had great opportunities to play in high school and then Brigham Young University.

 

I understand you started thinking about Japan while you were at BYU.

 

I'm not sure if you're familiar with our faith, but in the Church of Latter Day Saints, young men are given the opportunity to serve on a mission for two years. I was very fortunate to receive my call to serve in Japan, because I really took to the culture and the people. Growing up back in Seattle, I had already known people of the Asian persuasion, and I was also blessed with some facility in the Japanese language.

 

During the 1976-78 mission to Hokkaido, what was your sense of the locals' appreciation for baseball?

 

Well, I was sent off to a baseball heaven. I made a point of participating in local adult leagues in the mornings, and on the field and off, I hardly met a person who wasn't passionate about the game.

 

Just to take one example, over there, the local high school tournaments were televised live, in both the spring and summer. When I played on that level in Seattle, we had a real good program that went to the state tournament - we were lucky to get, maybe, 2,000 spectators per game in the state finals. In Japan, the equivalent game would have 60,000 in attendance, in addition to the many more in the TV audience. 

 

I'm curious - if you stripped away everything else but the action on the field, do the Japanese and Americans play baseball in essentially the same way?

 

Well, there was no question that it was the same game in, you know, all the familiar trappings - nine players on the field, nine innings, three strikes, three outs, that sort of thing. Japanese athletes had less size and speed than American athletes, but they did their best to make up for that in drilling and sound detail work and all aspects of the mental game.

 

In terms of equipment, the baseball itself was different - there were wider and fatter seams on the American ball. The Japanese had a soft, soft leather, rather than the horsehide you might have found in the States.

 

So, I'd say the game on the field was very, very similar but distinctly Japanese. As I missionary, I had conversations with many Japanese fans, and they honestly believed that they invented the game.

 

As you know, the conventional wisdom says that the Japan Leagues' quality of play has been somewhat below the Majors'. It's a place where fringe players like Tuffy Rhodes and Randy Bass have become big stars. How would you compare their pro leagues to MLB clubs?

 

It's often called ‘quadruple-A' for that reason, but there are also plenty of guys who go over there and fail. It's tough to make across-the-board generalizations [between Japan and the United States]. Think about the variation in the quality of play between the best team in the Majors and the worst. Think, even, of the type of game that you'll get from an ace starter's best effort, versus a fifth starter's worst effort.

 

On a given day, I'd say, a game in Yokohama can be the equivalent of a very good Major League game. On another day, it could resemble a Single-A California League game.

 

From what I understand, they have outstanding pitchers, and their hitters are about equivalent in everything but extra-base power.

 

I'd say that's about right. If I had to point to a big difference, I'd say it's in the lack of big power bats. There's definitely more home run hitting on this side of the Pacific. Also, Japan's a smaller country, population-wise, so you can't expect the same kind of depth in the talent pool.

 

From your college-age experiences in the Far East, how did you eventually find yourself working in Asian scouting?

 

(chuckles) Oh, luck. Once I returned from the mission, I went back to BYU, got my degree in International Business / Asian Studies, and went into the family business in Seattle. As it happened, a very good friend from college became a professional golfer, and he later took me on his tours of the Far East, so I stayed up on the Japanese game that way. I eventually received an invitation to serve as an unpaid associate scout for the Mariners in Arizona, and since I had the time to spare - I was kind of semi-retired in the area - I said, ‘Sure'. 

 

There was no master plan involved. I just happened to be at the right place at the right time - I had a Japanese background and was working for the Mariners in the mid-‘90's, a time when the ownership decided that they wanted to focus on the Pacific Rim. One thing led to another.

 

I guess the most memorable result in your new job was the signing of Ichiro Suzuki. What were the origins of your interest in him?

 

Well, when Jim Colburn, the Mariners' director of Asian Scouting, brought me on board around ‘98, he asked who we might focus on in terms of Japanese scouting, and I told him a couple names came to mind. One was Kazahiro Sasaki, a closer with the Yokohama Bay Stars - I said there was no one like him. And, I said, ‘I don't know how we could possibly get him out, but there's another great talent, an outfielder for the Orix Blue Wave by the name of Ichiro Suzuki'.

 

Jim was just playing dumb - he knew the Japan Leagues far better than I did - but that conversation kind of got the ball rolling. I was basically told to find out everything I could about Suzuki. A little later, Seattle and Orix signed a liaison agreement for coach and player exchanges, so I served as an organizer / interpreter for a couple of years.

 

The Mariners were making a financial investment in that agreement, but I understand that your relationship became a lot more personal.

 

When Ichiro was coming back to LA or Arizona in the off-seasons, I got to know him very well. He was always asking questions - ‘What's the grass like?, ‘What's the dirt like?, ‘What are the wind conditions in that stadium?'.

 

I didn't always know the answers, but, more than anything, I knew that he had a desire to go to battle. I knew he had that inner makeup, that inner fire to be successful. After a while, I was willing to stake my reputation on his personal character.

 

I mean, you have to respect a man who's already national hero, but comes over to a new country, and for less money than he made at home. He did it simply because he wanted to prove himself against some of the best players in the world. He wasn't much older than my own kids, and he got to be almost like a son to me.

 

In bringing him over, were you worried more about the on-field challenge or the off-field adjustment to a new culture?

 

We tried to give Ichiro a full support group in both areas. To be honest, I wasn't worried about the language issue as much, because I knew about his desire to communicate and potential access to interpreters, including a Japanese-speaking trainer. I was with him in those first few months, 24/7, and it soon became clear that I wasn't needed for him to come across. Even when the words weren't necessarily attached to it, he had a spirit and an energy that anyone could understand.

 

Were you prepared for the Japanese media presence around the team during Ichiro's rookie year in 2001?

 

(chuckles) The year before, we'd signed Sasaki for the bullpen, and we kind of thought it would be the same thing all over again. It wasn't. It was a 100 times bigger. It started off huge, and just multiplied over the course of what turned out to be a 116-win season for the ball club.

 

But, to his credit, Ichiro handled it. He was already one of the biggest celebrities in his home country for years, so he had plenty of experience in dealing with the potential distraction. I can't say that it was always easy to accommodate the media crush, but whenever Ichiro saw a situation where reporters might be interfering with his teammates, he'd have me or someone else snap at them and get them back in line. It worked out in the end.

 

In making the clubhouse more international, did you see new frictions, be they based on different cultures or social attitudes or personalities?

 

As much as people wrote about the preferential treatment for Sasaki and Ichiro, there wasn't [any]. They became outstanding teammates. They went out of their way to fit in, and guys like Mike Cameron, Bret Boone, Edgar Martinez, Stan Javier, Dan Wilson, Norm Charlton, and Jay Buhner were such outstanding veterans. The new guys were compliments to their foundation.

 

When you have a foreign-born player, there's also a concern about resentment based on either nationalism or maybe even racism. Did that enter into your experience with Ichiro?

 

There was one incident in Oakland that got a lot of publicity, as you probably know, where fans threw stuff at him while he was playing in the outfield. It was a serious incident at the time, but looking back, I almost have to chuckle at the fact that he handled it so well.

 

What happened?

 

Well, he comes to me in the dugout and hands me like, 37 cents. I said, ‘Do you want me to hold this?'. He said, ‘No, it's coming out of the sky'.

 

‘What?'.

 

He said, ‘Yeah, they're throwing money'.

 

‘Did it hit you?'.

 

‘Yeah, this quarter hit me'.

 

I said, ‘You've got to be kidding me'.

 

He said, ‘No,' (chuckles), ‘Someone's got a good arm out there'.

 

I told the chief of security about it, but it didn't bother [Ichiro] too much. He said, ‘People in Japan throw things all the time'. I think he collected something like 90 cents that day.

 

Anyway, I think a lot of opposing fans weren't happy that a new guy was helping the Mariners beat out their local team. That goes without saying, but was there some kind of nationalist or racist edge [involved]? I don't believe so. I think, mostly, there was an underlying respect that a first year player was capable of putting up MVP-, All-Star-level numbers.

 

Did you sense any resentment, on the other hand, from Japanese nationals, for the fact that you were taking a superstar from their country?

 

No, incredibly enough. The fact that Ichiro came across the Pacific meant that they couldn't see him live back home, but, at the same time, the Mariners games were being broadcast across Japan. In some ways, they were seeing more of him than ever. A number of Japanese hopped on 747's and visited Seattle, anyway.

 

In terms of national pride, I think it was actually a plus. They liked the fact that a position player was finally taking on the Americans and doing quite well for himself. The prime minister, [Junichiro] Koizumi, was all over the place, saying what a great thing [Ichiro] had done.

 

In the years since Ichiro's debut in 2001, dozens of other Japanese and Asian players have made it on to Major League rosters. How would you describe the differences in scouting those international players, versus American players?

 

There are commonalities to traditional scouting, in that we need multiple, sharp-eyed evaluators looking at prospects, making sure we get objective opinions, and so forth. The big problem comes from the fact that the players aren't subject to the draft.

 

What happens, too often, is that big-money teams like the Yankees sort of sit back, let other teams do the leg-work in evaluating prospects, then swoop in and outbid us at the last minute, since we don't have any exclusive signing rights. It's happened more than a few times - Chien-Ming Wang is probably the most famous example. In my view, it's really, really unfair. We've gotten to the point where we're almost, like, cloak and dagger about scouting in some cases, just so we don't do too much to tip off our competitors.

 

Do you see a time when international players could be included into a Major League draft?

 

I wish I could. The foreign countries involved would never allow it - they already have their own professional leagues, their own professional standards, and they don't see any reason why they should abide by American-made rules on baseball contracts.

 

What can I say? It's a shame. Plenty of ball clubs have been discouraged from international scouting for the fact that they can't protect their investments. 

 

What do you see in the future of international scouting?

 

The outlook's mixed, it's fair to say.

 

The lack of a draft is discouraging, as I mentioned. The fact that baseball was voted out as an Olympic sport was very bad news, too, because so many countries' budgets are allocated based on Olympic status. That was a devastating blow in countries like New Zealand, because fledgling programs aren't receiving their fair share of funding to grow baseball.

 

At the same time, there's good news. It's encouraging to see how many good players have come along since Hideo Nomo and Ichiro and [Hideki] Matsui. All the Pacific Rim countries are pretty good about identifying their best players from within, then sending them out to international tournaments - you'll always see plenty of scouts at the regional and championship tournaments, especially the ones taking place in the States. The World Baseball Classic [tournament], most would say, was a very big positive for the participant countries, in terms of visibility and excitement.

 

The most important thing is to get more of a grass-roots presence, from Little League on up to college level, and Major League Baseball's doing a good job with that. Overall, no one can deny that baseball's becoming a more global sport.

 

In looking ahead, say, ten years from now, do you foresee baseball becoming even more diverse in its talent pool?

 

I believe so. It'll take a lot of work, but the potential is there. Australia, for instance, has a fine baseball infrastructure, and New Zealand's got some great people involved right now. The real plum is China - if we can find a way to get the Chinese government behind baseball in an important way, we'll have an entry into one-third of the world's population.

 

In the big picture, do you feel baseball does a lot to bring different nations closer together?

 

I feel it does. I certainly hope so. My professional loyalty is to the Seattle Mariners, first and foremost, but I'm very interested in serving as an ambassador of baseball, too. Most of my colleagues tend to agree, because we've seen the way that it can bring different people closer together.

 

Do any incidents come to mind?

 

Well, let me think about that one.

 

You know, I go to Hiroshima, to see the Carp play, on almost a yearly basis, and their ball park isn't too far from the peace park [dedicated to those who died in the World War II bombing]. That's a very, very emotional moment. That tends to put things in perspective, just on what's possible when countries can't compete [in sports].

 

There are other times, when I might be sitting in a subway in Tokyo, watching a dad and his wife and his two young kids go off to a ball game. They're sitting next to me, you know, all decked out, and they're talking about, ‘Maybe I'll get a foul ball'. It's nice. I might be thousands of miles from home, but I recognize it-  that's how it started for me, too. That's when the world's good.

 

 

The complete Table of Contents for the ‘Baseball Men' interview series can be found here.

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