Jim Traber Finds Comfort a Long Way From Home


The night Jim Traber's wife, Joan, suffered her miscarriage, the husband of a Japanese neighbor drove 40 minutes to the hospital to deliver household items and provide support.

"He sat down and knelt and held my hand," Joan recalled recently from the family's Osaka, Japan, apartment. "He said, 'No words, there are no words to say for you.' He just held my hand."

That touching gesture was typical of the Trabers' new life in Japan, a life they describe as superior in many ways to the one they led when Jim was a struggling first baseman for the Orioles.

Traber, 28, is the starting first baseman and cleanup hitter for the Kintetsu Buffaloes. He survived two grueling months of Japanese spring training and is batting .391 (9 for 23) with no home runs, one double and four RBI in six games.

"When I came over here, I was hoping it would be good," he said. "It's probably 100 percent better than I thought it would be, especially for my family. The people here have just treated us so well."

The Japanese neighbor's heartfelt response to Joan was the most extraordinary example; Joan said she had met the man only three times, because he works from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.

But every day, it seems, something nice happens to the Trabers, who receive assistance from three Japanese interpreters and live in an apartment complete with a FAX machine, all furnished by the club.

Sometimes it's little things, like the elderly Japanese woman who walked into an ice cream store and bought a cone for their 2-year-old son, Trabes, after Jim and his wife had refused.

And sometimes it's bigger things, like the neighbor who left work to accompany Joan on a 3-mile bicycle ride to the post office, where a package of Jim's cherished chewing tobacco was waiting.

"I told Jim, 'I want you to do well; I wouldn't mind staying another couple of years,' " Joan said. "It's unbelievable. I'm going to have a hard time when I go back home."

Traber's step-daughter, Alicia, 9, attends a Japanese school, while Trabes is learning gymnastics and Japanese songs. Their baby-sitter is so good, Jim and Joan plan to leave the children with the sitter when they visit Australia at season's end.

"Trabes is a wild man," Traber said, laughing. "Everyone in Japan loves him. He has blond hair. There's no such thing as that over here. When Trabes walks down the street, they all pat him on the head."

The Trabers enjoy Japanese food, but if they long for a burger, there's always McDonald's down the street. Joan said they spend more nights out than they did in the United States. They've already seen five American movies.

Before arriving in January, both Jim and Joan read, "You Gotta Have Wa," a book that details the horrors American players experience in Japan. Now, Traber calls such reports "absolutely false."

Yet, he conceded baseball in Japan is different, with its boot-camp spring training, "tremendously long" games and deference to managers, who are known for using pinch-hitters in the third inning.

Traber, of course, pleaded his case for more playing time to Frank Robinson with the Orioles, but that's not necessary now. "You don't talk to the managers here," he said. "You're very respectful."

He was a .227 hitter with the Orioles from 1984-89, and last year he batted .209 with just four homers and 26 RBI. To save his career, he signed for one year with Kintetsu for approximately $350,000.

An interpreter sits on the bench with Traber and American teammate Ralph Bryant during games. So far, the language barrier has prevented Traber from becoming Kintetsu's clubhouse wag, but give him time.

Traber informed everyone his nickname was "Whammer," but he lamented, "They can't really say that. They can't announce my name right either. It's Tsu-Reh-Bah. (Except for the letter 'n', consonants are followed by vowels in Japanese)."

Spring training consisted of 10 days at Saipan, an island near Guam -- "It was probably 105 degrees every day," Traber said -- and then the club moved to Hyuga, a small Japanese town. It was a long way from Miami, where the Orioles occasionally have time for a round of afternoon golf.

"One day it rained and we couldn't practice, so we ran 15 laps around -- get this -- three soccer fields," Traber said. "It was probably about four miles long. I made that. I was hurting at the end, but I made it."

Traber was listed as 6-feet, 213 pounds with the Orioles, but his weight often was an issue. Like other Americans, he didn't have to run as much as his Japanese teammates in camp -- "they go all day," he said -- but he still strained his left quadriceps and missed two weeks.

His treatment? Acupuncture.

"It really helps," Traber said. "They do all these different things. I don't know what they're doing, but it works."

Now that the season has started, Traber boards a commuter train to games at one of Kintetsu's three home parks. The ride lasts no more than 35 minutes, he said, and other passengers can't help but notice the bearded American. "Nobody in Japan wears a beard," Traber said.

The games, he said, are endless affairs that make three-hour epics between the Orioles and Texas seem fast-paced. "There are lots of meetings," Traber said. "You get lots of signs from the coaches. The pitcher takes a long time to get his signs."

But, he added, "The players over here are getting better and better. There are some guys who can play in the big leagues and a handful who could be stars." Traber did not reserve the same praise for Japanese umpires. "They're even worse than in the United States," he said.

Another big difference is rainouts. The home team decides when conditions are suitable for playing, but weather isn't always the deciding factor. "If their pitchers aren't ready, forget it," Traber said. "We've had two games rained out, and neither day it rained."

Also, rain-shortened games are official even if an inning is not complete. The other day, Traber said American import Mike Diaz hit a two-run homer to break a 3-3 tie with Kintetsu in the bottom of the eighth. It started pouring, and the game was called immediately.

"It's a lot different," Traber said. "I can see how some people cannot adjust. There are some things that bother you. But if you kind of let things roll off your shoulder, you'll be OK."

The big thing is, he's playing every day, and his family is happy. Joan said she probably has more friends than she did in the United States, where she and Jim shuttled between Rochester and Jim's hometown, Columbia. "These people have no fear," she said. "They ring my doorbell."

Joan said she was eager to learn Japanese, but her new neighbors are even more eager to learn English. The language barrier does present one problem, however: It will prevent Jim from singing the Japanese national anthem.

A professional singer, Traber performed the American anthem the night of his major-league debut. "I've been listening to their anthem," he said. "I don't think I can sing it. It's kind of weird. And they play it only once a series, not once a game."

He said he misses his Orioles teammates, but not his spot on the team's bench. Joan videotaped the Orioles' 6-4 loss to Detroit Friday off Japanese television, but Traber said, "All I got was (Randy) Milligan hitting that double off the right-field wall."

Milligan is the first baseman who drove Traber to Japan.

Maybe, just maybe, everything worked out for the best.

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