Global Sporting Integration Could Ease Transition for Asian Players Joining MLB

Ely Sussman@@MrElyminatorCorrespondent IDecember 19, 2013

We don't know precisely when Japanese right-hander Masahiro Tanaka will sign with an MLB team, but the consensus is that he'll thrive against major league competition.

Bleacher Report's Mike Rosenbaum raves about Tanaka's ability to change hitters' eye levels with his mid-90s fastball, which in turn makes his secondary pitches more unpredictable. Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs agrees that he's "an extraordinarily talented pitcher" who possesses a world-class splitter.

With Tanaka coming off an undefeated season for the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, ESPN's Buster Olney foresees him getting a nine-figure contract if posted this winter:

Estimates on where the Tanaka bidding would go, if he's posted for MLB teams, reach well over $100 million, because of his age (25).

— Buster Olney (@Buster_ESPN) December 18, 2013

But Han Gil Lee, the CEO of Global Sporting Integration (GSI), a newly launched consulting firm, stresses that numerous non-baseball-related factors will also influence Tanaka's performance once he brings his career to Major League Baseball.

“When a MLB team signs a player from Asia, the team is not simply adding a new member to its roster," Lee said in GSI's Dec. 2 press release (via Maven Communications), "it is bringing a person to start a new life in a foreign environment.”

As a native of South Korea, Lee can relate to players in this predicament. When he came to the U.S. as a 15-year-old exchange student, he had to adapt to this country's unfamiliar culture and values.

"I actually used sports as a method to integrate myself into the American society," Lee told Bleacher Report in a phone interview. "Baseball was a method for me to really overcome the language barrier—it got me closer to my American friends. 

"Then, when I got to law school, I always knew that I wanted to get involved in sports, and knowing my Asian background—I also have a lot of work experience in Japan, Korea and China—and recognizing the unique cultural differences, I wanted to come up with a business idea that could tie the cultural immersion with sports."

Lee has developed a six-pronged system that he believes will resolve any issues that could prevent an overseas athlete from competing at a high level. The areas of focus include:

  • Pre-departure preparation
  • Language acquisition
  • Nutritional education and support
  • Cultural merging
  • Training transition assistance
  • Contact with a sports psychologist who can speak the player's native language

Although Asian players like Yu Darvish (2013 American League Cy Young Award runner-up), Hideki Matsui (.282 career hitter, 2009 World Series MVP) and Ichiro Suzuki (10-time All-Star, future inductee in the National Baseball Hall of Fame) have excelled in the majors, there are also numerous examples of failed transitions.

Lee spoke in depth about Tsuyoshi Nishioka, an infielder who posted a nauseating .503 OPS in 71 games for the 2011-2012 Minnesota Twins. Nishioka left the team in September 2012, thus forfeiting the $3.25 million remaining on his contract, a drastic decision that attests to his frustration with the MLB lifestyle.

"He was a Gold Glove winner back in Japan," Lee explained, "and all of a sudden, when he comes to America, he has a tough time fielding regular ground balls."

From his conversations with baseball sources, Lee learned that grass surfaces were at the root of Nishioka's struggles. Through eight seasons in Nippon Professional Baseball, he had grown accustomed to the artificial turf of Chiba Marine Stadium. In fact, 10 of 12 NPB ballparks play on a similar synthetic material.

"We could've informed him that the fields are different," Lee said.

"The lawn textures are different. Therefore, you're going to have to start adapting now to a different game of baseball, instead of when you get to spring training. We believe there is usually a two- to three-month gap, before a guy comes over here to start playing, and we think that time is critical to adapting to a different practice, life and training method."

Left-hander Kei Igawa also flopped upon arrival. In May 2007, merely one month into his rookie season, the New York Yankees demoted Igawa to the minor leagues, and he spent the entire 2009, 2010 and 2011 with their Double-A and Triple-A affiliates.

The Yankees' $46 million investment—$20 million contract for Igawa plus a $26 million posting fee paid to the Hanshin Tigers—yielded a 6.66 earned run average and total of only 71.2 MLB innings.

Here's how Bill Pennington of The New York Times summed up Igawa's tragic tenure in the Bronx:

Plucked from a Japanese baseball all-star team roster in 2007 and introduced at a lavish news conference, Igawa was expected to be a staple in the Yankees’ starting rotation. He lasted 16 games, most of them regrettable outings that were sometimes spectacularly inept. Booed off the field, he was called one of the worst free-agent signings in Yankees history.

"His was a more complicated matter," according to Lee, "because he had trouble with nutrition, he had trouble with the training schedule, he had trouble with the culture, the language. In his case, I think the issue was even deeper."

Moreover, when Pennington met with Igawa during the 2011 season, he discovered that the pitcher was completely reliant on his interpreter, Subaru Takeshita. Nearly a half-decade after initially migrating to America, Igawa still needed Takeshita present at every game and by his side during every mound visit. The English that Igawa used with teammates was usually limited to "funny one-liners," according to then-Trenton Thunder catcher Austin Romine, per Pennington.

Pennington wrote that Igawa was "exceedingly private, almost reclusive." So much so, Takeshita only remembered entering his Manhattan apartment once over the course of a two-year relationship.

GSI points out that approximately 60 Asian-born players competed with one of the MLB franchises last summer, either in the minors or big leagues. That number is projected to grow in the coming years thanks to Tanaka and Korea's Suk-min Yoon (among many others), and this firm wants to help all of them overcome the challenges that Nishioka and Igawa could not.

But Lee admits that GSI cannot put its plan into action until it secures a contract with Major League Baseball, or at least with some of its individual teams. Ken Jacobsen, a veteran lawyer who serves as GSI's principal, attended the league's annual winter meetings from Dec. 9-12 to get the word out.

Jacobsen explained to agents that the firm has "no interest whatsoever in 'poaching' on their turf or soliciting their players," he told Bleacher Report. 

"Several recounted stories of having to retain interpreters for contract negotiations and other 'band-aid' approaches," so Jacobsen received "unanimous support" from them by presenting GSI as a "one-stop shopping" service that provides Asian players with every resource they need to get acclimated.

Jacobsen recalled meeting with major league executives back in March before GSI was fully formed. He expects to reconnect with them again after this holiday season to gauge their interest in building a relationship.

"If there is such an interest by MLB," he said, "we are prepared with the staffing and resources to offer either a pilot program or a more long-term program at spring training.

"We fully understand that getting someone to pay for GSI's services is the real challenge for us. Everyone acknowledges the need, but the various stakeholders think that perhaps someone else should foot the bill. That is why we think a pilot program sponsored by MLB makes the most sense, but we do not know where they will come out in all this."

Major League Baseball acquires much of its international talent from Venezuela, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Canada, Panama, Aruba, Nicaragua, Curacao and the Dominican Republic. Even Europe, Brazil and Australia are represented at its highest professional levels. Those athletes must also step out of their comfort zones, trust new coaches and alter their routines to meet their goals in America.

So why is GSI specifically geared toward the Far East?

"We don't want to bite off more than we can handle," Lee said. "Right now, our greatest expertise is with Asian players because of my personal background, my unique experiences coming from Asia, but we're totally open to the idea of expanding."


Learn more about Global Sporting Integration at the firm's website. 


Ely is a national MLB Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report and a sportscaster for 90.5 WVUM in Miami. He wants to make sweet, social love with all of you on Twitter.


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