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For many Phillies, playing overseas becomes rebirth

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Tokyo 2020 Hold First World Press Briefing Ahead of Hosting the Summer Olympic Games Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

Philadelphia is everything an athlete could want in a home city: the jubilant throngs, the pits of despair, the sliced or chopped meat products that are definitely not made out of former athletes who wronged the fan base somehow. Around here, they call it “passion.” Everywhere else, they call it “brain worms.” Whatever it is, it makes this place fuse with its ball players in a way that’s incomparable to anywhere else.

But that hasn’t stopped guys from finding out what “anywhere else” was like. It’s not like Philadelphia is the perfect place for every athlete; just the most elite, generational ones. Philly really has a soft spot for guys who are really, very good at baseball. That’s what makes it special: Sure, we’ve got a lot of love to give. You can even have some, if you’re a six-time all-star who helps his team reach and win the World Series. It helps if you then compliment us, and tell us how special we are.

Former and current Phillies have traveled far and wide to see what baseball has to offer on foreign shores. Some have flamed out of the majors and found new life abroad, others have seen their careers extended, others have acted as ambassadors. Whatever the reason, they have found the experience enriching and invigorating.

Just ask former Phillies pitcher and wildlife enthusiast Tom Hilgendorf:

“There was Tom Hilgendorf, who was playing in South America one winter when a monkey bit his child. Hilgendorf caught the animal and knocked its head off with a baseball bat.”

—Terry Pluto, Cleveland Plain Dealer, September 6, 1981

And why shouldn’t they? Have you seen baseball played in other countries? It may be smaller than in America, but it’s a far more lively affair, with marching bands, and dancing and personalized theme songs, like Hyun-soo Kim’s.

As we speak, Rhys Hoskins and Carlos Santana have landed in Japan to take part in MLB’s 2018 All-Star Tour with Nippon Professional Baseball from November 8-15. Hoskins and Santana will attempt to do in Japan what they could not do in the U.S. this season, which is “make baseball look cool.”

It’s a hefty task, in certain parts of the world. In places like the U.S. and Japan, the sport has obviously solidified its prominence. Other places, like New Zealand, have seen it grow in small patches. But baseball will always want to spread itself around as much as possible, allowing inhabitants of foreign nations to glance out their kitchen windows, see the likes of Hoskins and Santana playing ball in their yard, blink in confusion, and then go back to what they were doing.

But the opportunities playing abroad offers individual players have been robust. Many former Phillies have used the opportunity to explore, expand, and restart their careers.

The World Baseball Classic has sent Phillies players all over the world, including most recently Odubel Herrera, Hector Neris, Edubray Ramos, Jorge Alfaro, Nick Pivetta, and Pat Neshek. But nobody compares to Jimmy Rollins in 2009 when he crushed the WBC, becoming the only American named to the All-Tournament roster, thanks to his .417 BA, 1.250 OPS, and 4 SB in 24 AB.

But the WBC is a quick blip on the baseball radar, often avoided or even despised by players who’d rather use the time to get their reps in during spring training. The players who have breathed new life into their careers have gone over to Japan, Korea, or anywhere they could get a few at-bats. But sometimes, they’re just doing it because they don’t want to get off the field.

Scott Mathieson has been pitching for the Yomiuri Giants of the NPB since 2012, with a 2.36 ERA and 3.75 SO/W over 408.1 IP in that span. His goal upon reaching Japan was to appear in 60 to 70 games a season, accepting any role offered to him in order to get and stay on the diamond. Starting? Sure. Relieving? Sure. Can we put you out there for two outs in the ninth, then stick another guy in there so that he gets the save instead of you? “It didn’t matter to me; I embraced that,” Mathieson said.

Unfortunately, the 34-year-old flamethrower had left knee surgery in late August and missed the rest of the 2018 season; frustrating for a pitcher who has already undergone three surgeries. But that wasn’t going to stop him from commenting correctly on the 2-2 tie in which Game 1 of this year’s Japan Series ended.

Mathieson’s former Phillies and Yomiuri Giants teammate John Bowker has bounced around the globe, sharing his sub-.200 BA with the world. He played in Japan from 2012-14, finding the time to give the Piratas de Campeche of the Mexican League 89 AB as well. In 2015, he returned to AAA ball in the International League before returning to Japan with the Fukushima Hopes of the Baseball Challenge League, reportedly hoping to stay in Japan for 2018.

Here he is pretending to weep over a foul ball landing on his windshield.

And Darin Ruf... Darin Ruf may have the sweetest deal out of any of them. Ruf made a name for himself by chasing the Eastern League Triple Crown in 2012, when he wound up with 48 home runs.

He joined the Phillies as they entered and stayed in a state of awkward transition, unaware of the pieces they had and unsure of how to arrange them. Ruf’s powerful AA numbers never translated well in the big leagues, and the Phillies tried jamming him into a corner outfield spot as well as platooning at first him with Ryan Howard as he aged out of the game. But Ruf headed to Korea, after his contract was sold from the Dodgers to the Samsung Lions in February 2017. There, as a KBO rookie, he led the league with 124 RBI and 31 home runs. No stadium could contain him.

The fans so appreciated his talents that, after he was re-signed for 2018, the Lions held Darin Ruf Day, as his team celebrated his terrifying power with personalized souvenirs, a tribute video and his fans begged him to never leave them.

It’s an impressive feat for Ruf, as the success of MLB players overseas isn’t guaranteed, even if it appears to be at first. Nobody learned that harder than Gabe Kapler in 2005.

Kapler had just won a World Series with the Red Sox in 2004, and was the first man off the historic roster after signing with the Yomiuri Giants due to a lust for adventure and also because he wrote a report on Japan when he was a child.

The pre-season went well; Kapler homered a couple of times, saw steady numbers, and in general appeared capable of hitting NPB pitching. It turned out, however, that he may have fallen victim to a bit of trickery; a “false spring,” as one columnist explained:

When the bell rang for opening day, however, [Kapler] was lost and could not seem to get a hit even if his life depended on it. What happened, I suspected, was the pitchers had been toying with him in the preseason, not throwing their best stuff and searching for his strong points so as to avoid them when the true season began.

He slashed .153/.217/.261 in 38 games while reportedly looking “confused” at the plate. By 2006, he was back in Boston.

And so, MLB sends its latest deployment across the world in an attempt to further its brand. But in doing so, it gives players a tantalizing look in a foreign land, broadening their perspective. Will Rhys Hoskins be the next Red Devil? Will Carlos Santana set an NPB walking record and get his own theme song? Well, hopefully they’ll do a few more things in MLB first, but it’s satisfying to know that there’s a place where a thrice-operated pitcher or an almost-Eastern League Triple Crown-winner can stay in the game.