In America’s great pastime, the grand old game of baseball, U.S.-born Jon Leicester
is finding he needs a translator.
After a circuitous route that included stops with the Chicago Cubs and Baltimore Orioles,
Leicester (pronounced Lester) finds himself as a relief pitcher for one of Japan’s
highest regarded teams, the Orix Buffaloes of the Pacific League. Listening to the
former Tiger hurler describe the Japanese version of baseball, it is a game that is
as different from the American version as it is similar.
“The language barrier is especially difficult,” says Leicester, who played for Memphis
from 1998-2000. “Many of the players here know a little English, usually just enough
to talk simple baseball strategy. I do have a full-time translator while I’m at the
field, which is a great help.
“The style of play is by far the biggest difference. I think it comes from a combination
of the culture, artificial turf we mostly play on and the relative isolation that
the league exists in. It is only recently that they’ve adopted a baseball closer to
that of a MLB baseball because many of the Japanese players were uncomfortable with
the ball used in the WBC (World Baseball Classic) tournament.”
Game day is much different, too, said Leicester, the first U of M player to don a
“Baseball here is by far their favorite sport,” he said. “The fans are very loyal
and always have nice things to say to you and usually sing and cheer the entire game,
very much a contrast to the U.S. They love their players here, which allows some to
play well beyond an age that might be easily replaced in the States. The umps are
different, and I’ll leave it at that.”
Leicester said Japanese teams are allowed four foreign players on the active roster,
and that he is the only American on the team. “The others are all Venezuelan.”
The Buffaloes’ team, based in Osaka and Kobe, is steeped in history with the likes
of Seattle Mariner Ichiro Suzuki and former Dodger Rookie-of-the-Year Hideo Nomo making
successful transformations to Major League Baseball. On the other hand, former American
League slugger Cecil Fielder used a stint in Japan for a comeback in the United States.
Fielder’s template is one that Leicester wouldn’t mind imitating.
|Former Tiger Jon Leicester, shown above pitching for the Baltimore Orioles, is regaining
his form as a member of the Orix Buffaloes in Japan.
Leicester, as Fielder did, began his pro career in America. He was drafted in the
11th round by the Chicago Cubs in 2000, and enjoyed his best year in the majors in
2004, finishing with a 5-1 record and 3.89 ERA for the Cubs. “A lot of promise” was
the tag scouts put on the younger right-hander. Traded to Texas and eventually winding
up with Baltimore in 2007, Leicester at times looked in command, but in trouble on
other occasions near the end of the season.
In a Sept. 21, 2007, win against the Los Angeles Angels, Leicester pushed his record
to 2-1 with a four-hit, six-inning shutout performance, a game in which his location
was superb. Ten days later, he looked sharp again in a seven-hit, 3-0 complete game
loss to the Texas Rangers.
His final start of the season in a Sept. 28 game against the Yankees proved rocky.
But the last out that he recorded — a third-strike call that caught Derek Jeter looking
— came on Leicester’s fastball that in some ways catapulted him thousands of miles
away. His 95 mph “go-to” pitch caught the eye of Japanese scouts after Leicester started
the 2008 season at Triple A Norfolk.
He said one aspect of the Japanese game might throw U.S. fans a curve.
“Games are nine innings, but extra innings can only go to the 12th inning. After that,
the game is called a tie. I find that crazy.”
Leicester said the season lasts for six months, as it does in the U.S., but with 144
games instead of 162. There is a championship series at the end between the Central
and Pacific league pennant winners.
Leicester said he started his second season with Orix in spring as the closer, collecting
10 saves in the first two months of the year, but is now the Buffaloes’ set-up man.
“Location is always a key for me. Throwing two of my pitches for strikes, and for
balls when needed, always gives me a chance to be successful. My velocity is always
above average here so locating it makes it much tougher on the hitters.”
While at Memphis, Leicester played for former coach Jeff Hopkins. On a team that also
featured current Florida Marlin Dan Uggla, he was primarily used as a starter and
as a designated hitter. He batted .298 and was tied for the team lead in doubles with
11 in 2000, and despite some shaky starts, showed enough talent on the mound to get
As far as getting back to U.S. baseball, the 31-year-old, who splits the off-season
in Arizona and California, said he is just taking it year by year.
“It was disappointing not to have made it back up to Major League Baseball in ‘08,”
said Leicester. “I felt like I had a good showing in the last month of ’07, but ultimately
all the Baltimore pitchers that were hurt that year — that gave me the chance in the
first place — came back the following year. I wasn’t very sharp in the beginning of
‘08 when I was pitching in Triple A. I was moved to the bullpen and really found my
form but by that time my chance was gone there in Baltimore.
“I do feel like I have the ‘stuff’ it takes to make it back to MLB. The toughest part
is being in the right place at the right time. Right now I’m here in Japan and I try
to focus on how I can help this team win.”
Off the field, Leicester said he could probably use a translator, too.
“The language barrier definitely leads to some strange situations, mostly cab drivers
taking you to the wrong place or being served food you didn’t think you ordered.”
— by Greg Russell