Tribe Ignores Past, Reaps Reward

By Chris Kline
September 4, 2003

 

Becoming a professional baseball player wasn’t as easy as it could have been for Cleveland Indians minor league pitcher Kazuhito Tadano.

With a 93-94 mph fastball and three quality secondary pitches, the righthander was one of the most talented amateur pitchers in Japan last year. But when the 2002 Japanese amateur draft took place, Tadano wasn’t picked.

With no luck in Japan, Tadano headed to the United States, looking to sign with a major league organization. But despite top-notch stuff, he struggled to find any team willing to sign him.

There was some talk that a shoulder injury may have dissuaded Japanese clubs, and caused some major league teams to back away. But the revelation that Tadano (along with several of his college teammates at Rikkyo University) was paid to take part in a pornographic video that contained acts of homosexuality also played a big part in his difficulty finding a team.

“He should have been a top five pick over there,” said a major league scout who requested anonymity. “He gets it up to 93-94 (mph) and he throws four different pitches for strikes.”

Where other teams backed away, the Indians took a chance on Tadano, getting him at the bargain price of $67,000. It’s paid off up to now, as Tadano rocketed from high Class A Kinston to Triple-A Buffalo, dominating two levels along the way. And where some teams may have worried about Tadano’s teammates’ reactions, the revelation has not affected Tadano in the clubhouse.

Top Prospect

Tadano was one of the top college pitchers in Japan and had every expectation of being a high first-round pick in the 2002 draft.

But when the video was released in Japan prior to the 2002 draft, the word started getting out about Tadano’s involvement in Japanese scouting circles. Japanese newspapers also alluded to a top prospect whose draft status was dropping because of his participation in a pornographic video.

Tadano accepted the role in the film primarily to support himself while going to school, according to Indians general manager Mark Shapiro. The Yokohama Bay Stars, who had talked about making Tadano their first selection, backed off after Japanese newspapers reported about the video. The Bay Stars said that a shoulder injury meant Tadano was not worth the risk of drafting.

After being passed over in Japan, Tadano’s involvement in the video also apparently affected his signability by U.S. teams that scout in Japan. Numerous teams including the Twins, Padres and Braves were close to inking him to a deal, only to back off at the last minute.

“Some teams said they were worried about my shoulder injury,” Tadano said through interpreter Yoshi Hasegawa during spring training in March. “But I felt fine. I thought I was throwing well.

“(Signing with the Indians) was the happiest time of my life. It made everything–the long plane rides, the strange places and new faces and the difficulty of being in a different culture–all worthwhile. I had many more opportunities here (in the U.S.). I had to come where I felt like I had a chance to go out and compete for a job.”

Contacted through his interpreter this week, Tadano declined further comment.

While the video was not public knowledge, it was whispered about in scouting circles. Armed with Hasegawa, a fastball in the low-90s and a nasty slider, Tadano came to the States last spring and worked out for the Rockies and Diamondbacks. The righthander did not receive any offers and headed to Florida.

“It was quite depressing to come that far and be rejected,” Tadano said through Hasegawa this March. “Those were a lot of long nights, but we tried to keep focused and optimistic on where our journey would eventually take us.”

That’s where Cleveland stepped in, allowing Tadano the opportunity to work out with the team. Organization officials came away impressed with not only what they saw on the mound, but also Tadano’s work ethic, ability to adjust in the clubhouse and his conduct off the field as well.

“The initial opportunity for us came by seeing his talent with no contractual guarantees,” Shapiro said this week. “After we had a chance to talk to him and watch his interaction with other players, we made the decision to sign him. It was our assessment that the event in the past was an isolated incident. It was not a pattern of current or future behavior. He was young and made a one-time mistake.”

The Indians–the only club that offered Tadano a contract–signed him for $67,000. At the time, they made it clear that they would support Tadano when the video became public knowledge.

“Signing him was not like the traditional minor league signing,” Shapiro said. “The circumstances warranted support and management (of the situation). As soon as we went forward with an attempt to sign him, we knew there were certain elements that differed from a typical signing. We knew we needed to support him not only culturally, but at some point we anticipated supporting him through all the extra focus, attention and potential distractions that could come along because he was young and made this one-time mistake.”

Added farm director John Farrell: “We have always anticipated there to be a media blitz at some point and the closer he gets to the major leagues, (the news) was bound to come out. We were more than willing to take that challenge on.”

In The Clubhouse

Aside from a possible onslaught of publicity when word of the video got out, the Indians had more important issues to be concerned with, such as the reaction of Tadano’s teammates.

Tadano began the 2003 season in Kinston, where he overmatched opposing hitters, going 2-1, 1.89 with 28 strikeouts in 19 innings. Early in the season, Farrell and Tadano both addressed the team.

“There was an initial acknowledgement of his story, about his involvement in this one-time event,” said Farrell. “There was an understanding that he faced a tough road ahead and they truly felt for him. They admired the courage that he had to face up to the truth and openly discussed it with them.”

His Kinston teammates gave him plenty of support. After Tadano addressed the team, each player came to his locker to shake his hand.

“It took a lot for him to admit what he did,” Kinston closer Lee Gronkiewicz said. “But it took a lot more for him to say it in front of all of us. What matters is what he does on the field anyway–and you can’t take away anything he’s done on the field, that’s for sure.”

Tadano gave a repeat performance after being promoted to Akron on May 12.

“It was the same story in both clubhouses,” Farrell said. “Everyone appreciated (Tadano’s) honesty. They were more concerned with how to handle the situation from a media standpoint than anything else.”

The bottom line is that Tadano has flourished on the field this season. His numbers at Akron (4-1. 1.24 with 78 strikeouts in 73 innings) and promotion to Buffalo for one game have him riding the fast track to Jacobs Field.

“In the end, we felt confident that this isolated incident was not indicative of any future actions,” Shapiro said. Everything that has transpired since then has been evidence of that. It’s been a quality investment.”

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