Why you should care

Because sometimes the climb to the top never ends.

As Casey McGehee walks to the plate, Rakuten Golden Eagles fans begin a personalized chant for their beloved third baseman. They are waving signs depicting McGehee’s likeness, holding up three fingers for his uniform number and letting their voices be heard. Ganbatte, Japanese for “do your best,” and Casey McGehee are the only terms he recognizes as he steps into the box.

Japan isn’t exactly the place major league baseball players go to resurrect their careers — rather, it’s where faltering players go to flail quietly into that good night. Thirty-two-year-old McGehee, however, has made it not only from Japan and back to the U.S. but onto the field with the reigning MLB champs, the San Francisco Giants, as the season kicks up this year. The Giants could hope he’d hit “more than a handful of home runs,” says Ray Flowers, a fantasy baseball host on Sirius Satellite Radio. This first year in AT&T Park may be the start of several healthy years as a starting third baseman and a strong batsman for one of the top teams in the league.

It’s been a long four years since McGehee’s career was, essentially, on life support. He peaked in 2010, driving in 104 runs for the Milwaukee Brewers. But the following season, his batting average dwindled to a miserable .223, and his slugging percentage fell 118 points. By the subsequent season, he was contributing so little that the Pittsburgh Pirates (not exactly known for superstardom) shipped him midseason to the New York Yankees, where he performed even more poorly. This is a well-known career fade-out story. He was about to head down a humiliating route: dropping from the majors to the minors or at best subbing on a major league team. So what do you do when you’re about to lose your home in the big leagues? Hop a plane to Japan, even knowing, as he told OZY he did, that he was “realistically probably not coming back.”

McGehee may have learned from Japanese baseball’s emphasis on hitting for a solid average over constantly going for home runs.

Baseball in Japan, of course, isn’t like basketball in Lithuania or soccer in the U.S. It’s not a curious foreign import but a national sport — has been since the 19th century, in fact, when an earnest English teacher brought the sport over. That makes for an athletic-talent trade across the oceans, with American teams recruiting ballplayers from the Pacific (the first to make it to the major leagues was Masanori Murakami, in 1964). But that doesn’t mean it’s a stomping ground for the talented: Ask anyone from Andruw Jones, a five-time All-Star, who found himself relegated to the East after 17 years, to Tom Selleck’s former-star character in Mr. Baseball, who bristled upon landing on Japanese soil.

Ironically, though, it was Jones and his ilk who may have helped McGehee resurrect his career. After picking Japan, McGehee narrowed the choice down to Rakuten, in large part because the team had just added Jones, his brief erstwhile teammate from the Yankees. As Rakuten’s two American hitters — who had to rely on a translator — they stuck together. It wasn’t about just the spoken language or even cultural norms, though: Japanese pitchers had some different tendencies, from style of pitch to speed and other patterns, distinct from those McGehee and Jones, a longtime Braves center fielder, would have been used to. McGehee gladly imbibed his idol’s advice on reading the pitchers.

Japanese ball is famous for being, in some ways, tougher than its American counterpart. Practices are longer; players have to arrive much earlier to the field before games. Kaz Nagatsuka, a sports writer for The Japan Times, says McGehee may also have learned from Japanese baseball’s emphasis on hitting for a solid average over constantly going for home runs. And then there’s the media-glare theory, says Nagatsuka: Being in quiet Rakuten, away from the critical media eye he labored under at the Yankees, may have given McGehee a pressure-free zone to get back in the game.

Born to slightly hippy-ish parents in very hippy-ish Santa Cruz, McGehee grew up hitting balls in the backyard under his father’s watchful eye. He played baseball at Fresno State for three years before getting drafted in the 10th round in 2003. Now married, he took with him his wife and two kids to Japan, where they quickly settled in. McGehee’s son, Mack, who suffers from cerebral palsy, was 5 years old, and his daughter, Cooper, was 3 when they first moved. Which, for McGehee’s wife, meant taking the little boy to hospitals, often over long distances, and navigating a foreign medical system — all while trying to make it to some of her husband’s games.

Of course, McGehee’s future is far from rosy or even secure. Flowers figures that expectations won’t be too high for McGehee, given he’s replacing the Giants’ Pablo Sandoval, who hasn’t been terribly productive recently anyway. Flowers adds that McGehee is a little unreliable still; his performance fell precipitously after the All-Star break last year, and he doesn’t hit the ball in the air or on a line often enough. “That’s horrible if you’re trying to be a run producer,” Flowers says. But as McGehee now knows well, nothing gold can stay. “I just got a whole new appreciation for not only how hard it is to get to the big leagues — but how hard it is to stay there,” he says.

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