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A Visa Doesn’t Pay His Bills

Times Staff Writer

Toshi Sasa has a lot in common with many of the players in the independent Golden Baseball League, one of the lowest rungs in the minors.

He played at a small college and was overlooked by big league organizations in the draft. And now, even as his youth fades at age 26, he has just enough optimism and hope to hang on to the dream that one day a major league team might give him a chance.

But there is one major difference that separates Sasa from his Fullerton Flyers teammates.

Whenever General Manager Ed Hart takes roll in the team clubhouse and hands out paychecks, Sasa’s name is never called.

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The right fielder from Osaka, Japan, plays for free.

Although baseball is his full-time job as well as his passion, it is not his livelihood because he was unable to obtain a work visa.

And by terms of his 90-day tourist visa, he is not allowed to accept pay for play.

So, while his teammates earn from $700 to $2,500 a month, Sasa relies on the generosity of his parents.

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“It’s a little tough for me because everyone is getting money from baseball,” Sasa said. “I think it’s more important to play baseball.”

No one gets rich from playing in leagues such as the GBL, which has six franchises -- Fullerton; Long Beach; San Diego; Chico, Calif.; Yuma, Ariz.; and Reno -- that play in college facilities and without any affiliation to Major League Baseball clubs.

Many players in such leagues will earn less over the course of a three-game series than a major league player receives in per diem -- $110 a day.

The game is the same, but the lifestyle is far different from the one enjoyed by the millionaire stars who will participate in the major leagues’ All-Star game today in Pittsburgh.

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Sasa is among a small group of players, mostly from Japan and Canada, who toil in the minor leagues as amateurs. About six of some 1,500 players in domestic independent leagues worked for free last year, according to information compiled by Kevin Outcalt, the commissioner of the Golden Baseball League. This year, he said, that number is probably higher because of the creation of another independent league in 2006.

“Now that the visa restrictions have become so tight, it has put players in the position where they get creative,” Outcalt said, citing the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks for the change.

Foreign players who are major league stars rarely face immigration difficulties, and minor leaguers whose contracts are with affiliated big league organizations are usually covered by sweeping visa requests made by their parent clubs. At the beginning of each season, major league franchises usually request 50 to 80 work visas that are distributed to teams throughout their development system, said Mike Teevan, a spokesman for Major League Baseball.

Independent league clubs typically are allowed only three work visas each, Outcalt said, leaving tough decisions for general managers hoping to infuse their club with international talent.

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The Golden Baseball League, only in its second year, is in an even more difficult situation. Because it is only recently established, the league won’t be accredited to issue work visas until next season at the earliest.

Sasa’s tourist visa barely covers the span of the Flyers’ 80-game season, which began June 2 and ends Aug. 28. The only amateur in the GBL, he turned down offers to play professionally in Japan, preferring baseball in the U.S. to a sports culture back home that he described as sterile and rigid.

“Maybe I’m stupid,” Sasa said in halting English. “If I had played in Japan it would have been easier to get money -- easier than here. But I like the smell of grass. I like American baseball.”

He tries to keep his expenses down, renting a room for $550 a month from teammate Rich Pohle and often dining at the same Japanese fast-food restaurant.

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“He loves the game and he just wants to play,” Pohle said, “I don’t think money’s important to him.”

Before road games, Sasa sits at his locker and carves open an avocado, digging out the pit and pouring soy sauce into the hollowed center. His teammates think that’s a strange snack. Before home games, Sasa bums rides with friends, insisting they drop him off at an authentic Japanese restaurant or sushi joint -- hard to come by in Fullerton.

But beyond his yearnings for a home-cooked meal, Sasa seems to have adapted well to American culture. Having played college baseball at Lewis-Clark State College in Lewiston, Idaho, he has picked up common clubhouse slang and vulgarities. He also downs Starbucks iced coffee before games and says he’s in the market for a big, Americanized sports utility vehicle.

On the field, Sasa is batting .293 in 75 at-bats, though injuries to his left wrist and elbow -- both incurred from being hit by pitches -- limited his performance early in the season. Still, he nearly qualified for the league All-Star game, even while the pain was forcing him to hit mostly with one arm.

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He never told his manager he was hurt for fear he’d be pulled from the lineup, jeopardizing his career.

“If I rest and somebody plays very well,” Sasa said, “I might lose my chance.”

And he can’t afford that.

Since he was a second-grader in Osaka, Sasa dreamed of playing baseball in the U.S. During rare visits, he attended Chicago White Sox games at Comiskey Park and quickly learned to admire the skill of major league players, who are paid handsomely for their craft.

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As opposed to not being paid at all.

“It’s tough,” Sasa said, “But it doesn’t matter. If I get to play baseball here, it’s my dream.”


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