Choking back tears, former Softbank pitcher Toshiya Sugiuchi announced Dec. 19 that he would leave his beloved hometown team and transfer to the Central League's Yomiuri Giants.
He told reporters the move was the result of being slighted by Hawks' management.
An accomplished left-hander, Sugiuchi traded in his No. 47 jersey, which he had worn for 10 years for the 2011 Japan Series champion Hawks, for Giants' jersey No. 18, which has traditionally been reserved for ace pitchers in Japanese baseball.
At the news conference Dec. 19, Sugiuchi could barely contain the emotions he had been holding back for a year.
"I don't know how much I'm allowed to reveal, but the team told me (last year) that no other team would take me, even if I became a free agent," he said.
During salary negotiations with the Hawks last fall, a team official reportedly made those comments to Sugiuchi's agent. The team has not disclosed how or why that comment came about, but Sugiuchi said he began to feel distrustful of team management at that point and "began considering talking to other teams."
Sugiuchi's pride was especially hurt because he had publicly announced he would remain with the Hawks for his entire career as a ballplayer.
On Dec. 20, club director Itaru Kobayashi resigned from his post with the Hawks because it was apparently his remark that triggered Sugiuchi's transfer to the Giants.
"He wants to take responsibility for the team failing to retain Sugiuchi and for causing inconvenience to the fans," Hawks President Kazuhiko Kasai said. "They were careless, misleading remarks."
Kobayashi is a former Lotte Marines pitcher who graduated from the University of Tokyo. He became the third graduate of the prestigious university to join an NPB team, but quit two years later without having played a game for the top team. In 2005, he joined the Hawks' front office.
Last offseason, Sugiuchi signed a one-year contract worth an estimated 350 million yen, but he was disappointed in the club's evaluation of his performance. He felt he had shed his reputation of being an "every-other-year pitcher"--having a good season followed by a poor one--by stringing together four straight years with double-digit wins leading up to the 2010 season. His 16 wins in 2010 were second most in the Pacific League, one behind teammate Tsuyoshi Wada and Chihiro Kaneko of the Orix Buffaloes.
Still, he felt frustrated that he could not win the trust of team management. In 2011, Sugiuchi went 8-7 but posted a sparkling 1.94 ERA, among the best in the league. He also pitched well in the playoffs and Japan Series, shedding another label that he didn't perform well in clutch situations.
Sugiuchi obtained his domestic free-agent rights in April. During the negotiation process over the summer, he was given two choices--sign a fixed two-year contract plus performance-based bonuses, or agree to a four-year floating contract (in which the terms are decided each year).
"When I saw those conditions, it reaffirmed to me that team management really did make those comments last fall," Sugiuchi said.
He decided to exercise his free-agent option at that point on the assumption that he would change teams. The Giants were the only team to offer the 31-year-old pitcher a large-scale contract, reportedly four years for 2 billion yen.
Kasai handled the negotiations to try and keep Sugiuchi with the Hawks and he did make some compromises, but it was not enough to reconcile relations between the club and the pitcher.
"In my mind, one era has come to an end," said Sugiuchi. "I hope to build a new era starting next year."
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