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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
(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
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
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.
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’.
He said, ‘Yeah, they’re throwing
‘Did it hit you?’.
‘Yeah, this quarter hit me’.
I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding
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
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
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
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
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
The outlook’s mixed, it’s fair to
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.