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Daily coverage of the Mariners during the season and all year long.

October 20, 2009 at 1:33 PM

Kenji Johjima gives Mariners an early Christmas present

Good to be back in town after four days covering the Arizona Fall League. Thanks to Larry Stone for filling in yesterday when the news broke about Kenji Johjima and third base coach Bruce Hines.
A couple of quick things I wanted to address about both, since a couple of stories I’d written suggested things would transpire differently than how they did.
When I spoke to Alan Nero, Johjima’s agent, back in September 2008, he confirmed to me that the “opt out” clause existed and would only take effect after the 2009 season. But Nero also went out of his way on several occasions during our conversation (he’d phoned me back from Japan at the time) to suggest the language in the contract stated that the opt-out clause could only be implemented in the event of something catastrophic happening to a member of Johjima’s immediate family that would necessitate a move back to Japan. In other words, he added, Johjima could not use the opt-out clause to leave simply if he was unhappy here.
Obviously, that’s not the case. Johjima has left and, last we checked, his family is doing well.
Nero yesterday suggested that the spirit of the opt-out clause may have been exactly that — only in an emergency — but that if a player wanted out, he’d eventually be allowed out.
I’ll buy that. It would have been a better story a year ago if Nero had just come out and told me straight that the clause would allow Johjima to leave if he wanted.
But then again, do you honestly think Jack Zduriencik, or Howard Lincoln, or Chuck Armstrong was going to pick up the phone and say: “Sorry, Alan, the wording of the contract means your client has to stay here and let us pay him $16 million to be a backup catcher.”
I don’t think so, either.

Now, it would be a different story had Johjima turned into Joe Mauer overnight and then tried to leave. The M’s might have tried to fight that one.
But in this case, Johjima’s departure amounts to an early Christmas gift handed the Mariners. Johjima saw the writing on the wall and did what he felt was the honorable thing. Not that he left $16 million on the table. He’ll be paid nicely by whatever Japanese team he plays for and let’s not rule out the possibility of some under-the-table golden handshake by M’s owner Hiroshi Yamauchi. I have no proof of one, but then again, is anyone going to provide a straight answer if we ask?
Safe to say, Johjima has left some seven-figure amount on the table. So, this marks a favorable end for the Mariners to what represents an unfortunate chapter in their history. I’m not talking about Johjima himself. He blazed a pioneer trail for Japanese catchers in circumstances that were difficult from the start. No, the unfortunate part didn’t happen until April 2008 when he was awarded the ridiculous contract extension that did little but fuel resentment of him in the clubhouse. An extension that apparently bypassed Bill Bavasi entirely and was handled at the upper levels of the club. It was a mistake that could have hamstrung the club for years but now, thanks to Johjima’s decision, can mercifully be put to rest.
The team is now saying it will have to go out and get another catcher, but this is hardly a chore. Go check out the pricetag for a catcher with Johjima’s numbers and defensive skillset and you’ll find a ton of candidates earning far less than he would have been. There were few tears shed in the front office over this move, that much I can guarantee. In fact, from a baseball perspective, I doubt there were any.
On a personal side, I always found Johjima to have sense of humor and — before everything went sour last year — to be open, friendly and generally happy. I don’t think he’s been very happy since, which explains his decision to leave. After all, he says he’s still at the peak of his career, which, if true, makes his reasons for leaving a little strange. Rob Johnson is coming off surgery. You’d think a guy at the peak of his career would want to stay and fight for that No. 1 job. A guy who was truly happy here would probably want to do just that. Anyhow, I’m not going to press it. He clearly has his reasons. Best of luck to Johjima in finishing off his career overseas. He played as hard as he could, battled back from injuries with a tough resolve and was ultimately not responsible for the team’s owner throwing a boatload of money at him. Can’t hold it against him for accepting. Any of us would have,
As for third base coach Hines, we wrote on the season’s final weekend that all of the team’s coaches would be rehired. I wrote that after speaking one-on-one with Don Wakamatsu, who told me it was his intention to re-hire everyone and make the announcement within a day or two of the season being over.
Obviously, that didn’t happen. The Mariners waited two weeks and then fired Hines.
Today, Wakamatsu offered me an explanation for the discrepancy.
Wakamatsu told me that, when we spoke on the Thursday before the season ended, his intention at the time was to bring all of the coaches back. He’d had some doubts about Hines, but figured all of his reservations could be worked out by keeping the entire staff together and maybe changing some responsibilities around.
Once the season ended, though, Wakamatsu had more time to think. This often happens in baseball and — freed from his daily responsibilities to the club — Wakamatsu came to the difficult decision that he’d be best off letting Hines go. The decision was not easy or quick. Wakamatsu had already told Zduriencik in the season’s final week that he planned on bringing all the coaches back and was getting pressed by the GM on that once the season ended and days began to tick by without an announcement.
So, that’s it. Wakamatsu says this was purely a baseball decision. There is no dark skeleton lurking out there. No mysterious “other” reason Hines was let go. Wakamatsu simply planned to — somewhat reluctantly — do one thing in the season’s final week, then changed his mind later on when given more time to think about it.
Hope that clears things up.
We try to get you accurate information as quickly as possible. And we rely heavily on what the principles tell us. When things do not go the way we tell you they will, we try to provide an explanation. Hope this does the trick.



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