Much like a hitter staring down a full count with the bases loaded late in a tight game, it's crunch time for Kei Igawa.
Igawa, a Japanese left-hander currently playing for the Trenton Thunder, a Double-A affiliate of the New York Yankees, is facing a major crossroads in his professional baseball career. His five-year contract with the Bronx Bombers expires this year. With this season coming to an end Sept. 5, there have been no talks of a contract renewal so far.
Igawa, who has played in just 16 games with the Yankees--and none in the past three seasons--since New York acquired him for the 2007 season, is dreaming of making a comeback in the Big Leagues as a middle reliever.
With Trenton, he has played in 16 games and has a record of two wins, two losses and one save. The minor league team doesn't offer the 32-year-old southpaw many opportunities to pitch because it gives priority to working with younger athletes. But Igawa doesn't let that bother him.
"Opportunities will come along if I don't give up," he says.
Igawa joined the Yankees from the Hanshin Tigers through the posting system in the 2006 offseason. The Yankees shelled out $46 million for Igawa, which included a $26-million posting fee paid to Hanshin for his negotiating rights. The deal had a total value of about 5.4 billion yen based on the exchange rate at the time, and there were big expectations from Yankees fans.
But in 2007--his first year--he posted a 2-3 record in 14 games. In 2008, he went 0-1 after appearing in just two games, and was effectively told by Yankees management in July 2008 that he was not considered a major contributing force. Igawa has been playing in the Yankees' farm system ever since.
Igawa still gets paid $4 million a year from the Yankees. Despite his fat paycheck, he hasn't been able to produce results. This has invited a lot of criticism from the U.S. media. A local media outlet called him the worst player in New York professional sports in the last decade.
This summer, The New York Times published a three-page feature story on Igawa and called him "one of the worst free-agent signings in Yankees history." The Times also quoted New York Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman as saying: "It was a disaster. We failed."
Igawa brushes aside such criticism.
"I don't let those comments get to me at all," he says. "If I start thinking about those things, I would be wasting my precious time."
For now, Igawa dreams of returning to the major leagues after his contract expires. But if he can't, he says he will "go back to Japan or some other country."
He says he will continue to play professionally as long as there's a baseball diamond on this Earth to play on.
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