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Click here to see a short YouTube video of Leicester being interviewed for Japanese television.

A league of his own
Jon Leicester
Jon Leicester
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 Japanese uniform.

“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.”

Former Tiger Jon Leicester, shown above pitching for the Baltimore Orioles, is regaining his form as a member of the Orix Buffaloes in Japan.
Former Tiger Jon Leicester, shown above pitching for the Baltimore Orioles, is regaining his form as a member of the Orix Buffaloes in Japan.
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.

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 drafted.

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

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