Via Bill Pennington -
In the middle of a bright Manhattan summer afternoon, the Yankees’ $46 million pitcher steps from his fashionable East Side apartment building and slips into a waiting Lexus for a chauffeured ride to the ballpark.
But the car does not turn north for the five-mile drive to Yankee Stadium. The destination is instead Trenton, N.J., or Scranton, Pa., where for the last five years Kei Igawa has pitched for two Yankees minor league teams. Day after day, start after start, complete with the return trip to Manhattan.
Plucked from a Japanese baseball all-star team roster in 2007 and introduced at a lavish news conference, Igawa was expected to be a staple in the Yankees’ starting rotation. He lasted 16 games, most of them regrettable outings that were sometimes spectacularly inept. Booed off the field, he was called one of the worst free-agent signings in Yankees history.
After his last, losing appearance for the Yankees in early 2008, he was banished to the farm system and has not come back.
Except for his nightly returns to Manhattan. But Igawa’s unusual commute is only part of a long, strange journey.
The five-year saga is a story of a giant mistake of a contract and an overmatched pitcher, a huge organization digging in and a quiet, somewhat mysterious Japanese pitcher with a sense of honor and a durable love of the game. The Yankees made it pretty clear Igawa would never pitch again in the Bronx, but they were determined that he pitch somewhere for his $4 million a year salary. They tried to return him to Japan, too. Igawa refused to go, standing fast to his childhood dream of pitching in the American big leagues.
And so, the stalemate — remarkable, if almost entirely un-remarked upon — continues.
The Yankees let him gobble up innings before small crowds in distant outposts as a cavalcade of younger prospects push past him on their way to Yankee Stadium. Igawa never complains, and in a tribute to either willpower or lower level longevity, he has set farm system pitching records. And with just a few months left on his contract, he still dreams of the major leagues, if no longer as a Yankee.
Wouldn’t it be a hoot if Igawa signs with a team like the Padres next year and wins 18 games?