Two years ago, when 30-year-old Matt Keough stepped off an airplane in Osaka, he was surprised to find a delegation of baseball fans at the gate, assembled to welcome him to his new team, the Hanshin Tigers.
One of the fans, Keough remembers, held up an enlarged black and white photo of a similar arrival 18 years earlier, when his father, Marty Keough, arrived in Japan for the 1968 season.
In the photo, holding Marty Keough’s hand, was his 12-year-old son, Matt.
“We’re the first (American) father-son team to have played in Japan, and a lot of Japanese fans mention to me how they remember Dad over here,” Keough said recently, seated in the living room of his hilltop home in Kobe.
“Things have changed quite a bit since Dad was here--not only the country, but the way they play baseball, too.”
Keough, 32, who lives in Coto de Caza during the off-season, is in his second season with the Hanshin Tigers. He spent nine years in the major leagues, with the Oakland A’s, New York Yankees, St. Louis Cardinals and Houston Astros. Marty Keough, 54, who lives in Irvine, played 11 years in the majors and finished his career in Japan in 1968 with the Nankai Hawks.
“I was here with Dad that year, but I don’t remember much,” Keough said. “But he’s told me how tough it was, how playing pro ball here was almost like joining the Marines. He spent part of spring training running through the woods and chopping wood, stuff like that.
“It’s still much tougher than it is in the U.S., and if the Japanese do have a fault, it’s that they work the players--particularly the pitchers--too hard. At the end of the season over here--which is only 130 games--the hitters’ batting averages go way up because the pitchers are all worn down.”
Keough explained how he ended up in Japan.
“I was right in the middle of the owners-players collusion on free agency and salaries,” he said. “In 1986, I was looking at maybe a $100,000 salary if I stayed with Houston,” he said.
“I went to the winter meetings that year, and no one would talk to me. I was throwing well then, my fastball was in the high 80s, low 90s. And not one club would talk to me.
“Then the Japanese showed some interest in me, partly because Dad had played there, and partly because Joe Coleman, who scouts for Japanese clubs, knew I was ready to make a move. And the money they offered me . . . well, it wasn’t a hard decision.”
Keough, who makes “a little more” than $500,000, is also supplied with a large home, medical insurance, two automobiles and other benefits.
Dan Grigsby, Keough’s Los Angeles attorney, said the presence of Keough the Younger in Japan is an illustration of how international economics have changed the profile of U.S. players recruited to play in Japan.
“When Bob Horner went over there for last season, that changed everything,” Grigsby said. “That showed everyone that the Japanese would no longer necessarily settle for end-of-their-career, or over-the-hill Americans.
“They made a real run at (Yankee reliever Dave) Righetti. I heard the offer went up to $10 million for two years and $21 million for three years.”
Negotiations for Keough, Grigsby said, were formal in the extreme.
“Two executives from the Hanshin club, Ta Honda and Seishi Fujie, called me in the winter of 1985 and 1986 and asked me for permission to go to Puerto Rico and watch Matt pitch, if you can imagine that.
“The game they wound up watching, Matt pitched a 1-hitter for five innings. They didn’t talk to Matt then--they’d told me they wouldn’t--but they called me that night from Puerto Rico and made an appointment to see me in L.A. the next day.
“We had a meeting and they offered low, around $200,000. I told them I was sorry they’d traveled so far, but that their offer wasn’t nearly enough for Matt to uproot his family and business and go overseas.
“So they asked for another appointment, the following day. They came back with a substantially increased offer, and as we put the contract together they threw out stuff like a guaranteed number of first-class, round-trip airplane tickets per year, a furnished house, cars and free medical coverage.
“Then, when we signed the contract, they said Jeanna (Keough’s wife) should go over first and pick out her linens, towels, sheets and dishes.
“The way they put it, was: ‘We wouldn’t think of providing Matt and his wife with a house with used dishes.’ ”
The Keoughs in Japan story has a theme: Go with the flow.
“The key to being happy over here is to arrive with the attitude that you’re not going to be playing American baseball here,” Keough said.
“A lot of guys, they’ve come over here and fought changes, had the attitude that, ‘This is how I did it in the States, and this is how I’m going to do it here.’ ”
Keough discussed some major differences between U.S. and Japanese pro baseball:
Travel: “There’s no airplane travel at all over here. All of the teams in the league are near the Shinkansen (bullet train) line, so when we go to Tokyo (350 miles), we go in a chartered Shinkansen car, in about 3 1/2 hours.”
Calisthenics: “Before every game, no matter what, we do 40 minutes of calisthenics in front of our dugout.”
Spyball: “Stealing signs, strategy . . . the thinking part of the game is emphasized a lot more here. The starting pitchers are not announced before the lineup cards are exchanged at home plate. All the clubs have video cameras and guys with binoculars in the scoreboards, the dugouts . . . all the dugouts have TV monitors.”
Bunting: “If the leadoff hitter gets a hit or walks, it’s a 100% chance the next hitter will bunt.”
Days off: “For the Japanese players, there’s no such thing as an off-day. If no game is scheduled, they work out. If the Japanese have a fault, it’s that they work their pitchers too hard. They give me my four or five days’ rest, but the Japanese pitchers work more frequently. The Tigers don’t require Randy (U.S. teammate Randy Bass) and I to work out on the off-days, but all the Japanese players do.”
Media: “The media over here is 10 times more powerful than it is in U.S. pro sports. If our publicity guy comes to me and says, ‘A guy from one of the Tokyo papers wants to interview you tomorrow morning at 10,’ I can’t say no. For one thing, media companies are involved in ownership of some of the clubs.
“There are six national sports publications in Japan. One time Randy and I were playing golf, and we heard something in the trees above us. It was two Japanese photographers.”
Bus rides: “There are no facilities at Japanese stadiums for visiting teams. So you change into your uniform at your hotel, and you change out of your uniform when you get back.”
Smoking: “Your average Japanese ballplayer smokes two or three packs of unfiltered Camels every day. It makes for horrible bus rides. That’s one reason why the clubs let their American players stay at an American-style hotel and go to and from the stadium by themselves.”
The falling dollar against the yen isn’t the only reason why U.S. players--no more than two per team--are being paid top dollar, he said.
Bass signed a contract in February that calls for him to be paid $1.6 million this season and $2.4 million next season.
“The teams over here make trainloads of money,” he said. “The good tickets for our games are $30 to $35 each, and our attendance is outstanding. There are weeks when we have 58,000 in the park every night. Also, these people are marketing wizards--everywhere in Kobe you see Hanshin Tigers T-shirts, caps and trumpets.
“Last year, we won only 40 (Keough was the winning pitcher in 11 of them) out of 130 games and still drew 2.2 million.”
Keough said some Japanese pitchers are good enough to play in the United States, but don’t hold your breath.
“There are 8 to 10 (Japanese) starting pitchers in this league--including a few left-handers who can throw over 90 m.p.h.--who have outstanding breaking balls, split-finger fastballs, and they throw all of them for strikes. After that, there’s a huge drop-off.
“But there’s no reason why they’d ever want to pitch in the United States. First, they’d make a lot more money here. Second, by the time a baseball player in Japan reaches star class, he’s got the world at his feet.
“Some of them are star-class players before they reach the big leagues here. High school baseball games are on national television. Crowds of 50,000 at high school games aren’t unusual.”
Marty Keough, who scouts for the St. Louis Cardinals, is pleased his son has adjusted as well to Japanese baseball as he did 20 seasons ago.
“It was very regimented when I was there, it was a total discipline situation,” he remembered. “You did what they told you and didn’t ask questions. I remember they had an unbelievable work ethic.
“When I got over there for spring training and found myself running through the woods and chopping wood, I wondered why in the world I was doing it. But then I started feeling stronger, and I realized they have some good ideas about physical conditioning.
“Gradually, the Japanese have come around to our way of thinking on some things, according to what Matt’s told me. I can remember pitchers having to work every day late in the season, when it gets really hot in Japan.
“For a ballplayer, it’s a very regimented way of life, but Matt doesn’t fight it and he enjoys it. He’s learned how to speak a little Japanese (at the Canadian Academy in Kobe), and his ballclub and teammates appreciate his taking that extra step, I’m sure.”
Recalled Dan Grigsby: “The Hanshin Tigers held two weeks of spring training on Maui this year, and I went over. After practice, Matt was approached by some Japanese tourists, who knew who he was.
“They were kind of shy when they approached him, but when he started speaking Japanese to them, they were thrilled.”