The big pitch: College star from Japan tries big leagues

Robert Boothe
Robert Boothe
TOKYO (TR) – Numerous learning experiences await every rookie working his way through the minor leagues. For Robert Boothe, last season with the Ogden Raptors, a rookie league team within the Los Angeles Dodgers system, featured challenges different from those of his teammates.

Born to an American father and Japanese mother in Japan, Boothe was in new territory — and it had nothing to do with the fact that the northern Utah city of Ogden has only one sushi shop near the ballpark.

A game in late June included an on-field brawl after Ogden’s leadoff man was plucked with the second pitch of the game from the starting pitcher for the Idaho Falls Chukars. A scuffle resulted with both benches emptying. “I heard that if one goes we all go,” remembers the burly 23-year-old right-handed pitcher during an interview from a coffee shop in Tokyo just prior to his departure for this year’s spring camp.

Amid the ensuing pileup, popularized on YouTube, Boothe raced from his seat on the bench and saw his catcher, Jessie Mier, getting pummeled from behind. Boothe pulled the attacker off Mier so as to drag his teammate free from the scrum. “I was surprised,” says Boothe, sporting a thin line of stubble under his chin and cheeks and spiky dark hair. “This situation exists in Japan but it is much more apparent in the United States.”

The right-hander received a one-game suspension and a quick insight into baseball as it works stateside, just one step on the path he hopes will end in the big leagues.

Robert Boothe
Robert Boothe
Fellow countrymen like Daisuke Matsuzaka of the Boston Red Sox and the Dodgers’ Hiroki Kuroda both had extensive careers in Nippon Pro Baseball before making the jump. Boothe, however, wanted to leave at an early age and not wait the nine years required for free agency in NPB. “The level of excitement, the ability of the players, and the intensity of the game pushed me to the U.S.,” explains the hurler.

Having been raised in western Tokyo, Boothe speaks only a little English — an issue that was somewhat troublesome from the start of spring camp at Vero Beach, Florida. “The point of camp is to practice; it is baseball,” he says. “But you still have to communicate with your teammates and friends. I was a little uncomfortable. But eventually guys started coming over to me and things were easier.”

Upon Boothe’s arrival in Florida the Dodgers felt a few tweaks were needed to his delivery. “My leg was coming outside of my shoulder,” says Boothe, whose repertoire consists of a fastball, change-up, splitter, and slider. “They shortened it, and had me come inside more.”

For Japanese standards, Boothe is imposing on the mound, standing tall at 192 cm. But in the U.S. that is an average height. “Pitchers tend to be shorter, so they are taught mechanics for delivering from a lower position,” he says of Japan.

From the stretch position, the Dodgers wanted Boothe to focus on shifting his weight back, believing that he could develop more power by getting his front leg a little more off the ground and driving off his back hip.

His heater, which now tops out at 153 kilometers per hour, was impressive early in his career, starting with his days at Hachioji Jissen High School. “His best pitch was his fastball,” explains Mitsuru Nishida, who was a coach at the time but is now the manager. “His off-speed stuff got hit so I thought he should stick to the over-powering fastball.”

Boothe went on to develop an interest in fireballers like Randy Johnson, Roger Clemens, and Bartolo Colon. “Finesse wasn’t of much interest to me then,” explains Boothe, whose large, 100-kilogram frame is well-suited for letting it rip. “I wanted to throw the ball through people.”

He later starred at Asia University, whose history with the Dodgers goes back to the 1960s, when then manager Akihiro Ikuhara moved to Los Angeles to work in various capacities with the club, a relationship that lasted over two decades and led to an induction into the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame. Boothe was a member of the AU team that won the Autumn All Japan Collegiate Championship in 2006.

Boothe pitched on the All Japan College All Star team that traveled to Holland in the summer of 2007 for the six-team World Port Tournament. Though a handful of NPB teams showed interest in him, he signed with the Dodgers in December of that year.

After an extended spring training session, Boothe found himself with the Raptors in June. His first start provided mixed results. Boothe yielded four runs and six hits over five innings, yet he walked just one and struck out eight. He realized quickly that his once over-powering fastball was now quite hittable. “A pitcher throwing 150 kph in Japan doesn’t have too much worry about throwing a first-pitch fastball,” Boothe says. “Of course, approach is important because batters do have good bat control. But in the U.S., there are so many good fastball hitters.”

For consulting purposes, there was Takashi Saito, then the closer for the Dodgers but now a member of the Red Sox. With two seasons under his belt following a career with the Yokohama BayStars, Saito gave the youngster advice in person (at spring camp) and occasionally on the phone on how to pitch to major-league hitters.

Unlike the initial experience of Boston setup man Hideki Okajima during his rookie year in 2007, the slightly different characteristics of the ball were not a problem for Boothe. “It is certainly slicker,” he says of the MLB ball, which is as well larger. “but none of my pitches were more difficult to throw.”

Cultural peculiarities included trips to Walmart for large quantities of bacon and sausage — a cheaper option than the local Carl’s Jr. or McDonald’s — the 10-hour bus rides between minor-league cities, and American slang (to the Japanese ear “socks” and “sucks” ring similar). The occasional outing for sushi and an in-room rice cooker helped smooth things a bit, and so did his interpreter, Daisuke Matsumoto, in handling media inquiries.

Boothe’s record of 2 wins and 5 losses and 6.89 earned-run average over 12 starts was less than spectacular, but he never lost motivation. “The first half of the season I felt good,” he says. “The Dodgers had me throwing solely out of the stretch to work on my slide step. My balance was on, my control was good, and my command and speed were there.”

In the second half, Boothe was allowed to go to his windup, a position in which he felt a bit off balance. “I lost some velocity and my change-up wasn’t effective,” he explains. “Guys weren’t going for it, and my splitter wasn’t dropping.”

Encouraging though was his 61 strikeouts over 64 innings and a subsequent invitation to attend the Arizona Instructional League, which is held in September and October for select players from minor league teams.

This offseason was spent training in Tokyo, with Boothe focusing on his balance and throwing with a more relaxed release to coax more movement from his fastball. In the Tokyo suburbs near Asia University, he has become something of a local celebrity among former classmates and instructors. “Everybody wants a piece of him,” says his father Glenn.

Where the Dodger hopeful will play this year following spring camp is not certain. But he is ready for the challenge. “It’s all up to me, my effort and how I throw,” Boothe says.

Note: This article originally appeared in the spring 2009 issue of Tokyo Journal.

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