ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – There is an endearing element to Munenori Kawasaki that made his demotion to triple-A Buffalo to make room for Jose Reyes such a gut-wrenching move for the Toronto Blue Jays on Tuesday night.
The 32-year-old shortstop of modest skill but ample heart and gregarious nature is unique in so many ways, and the connection he made with teammates and fans during the two months he covered for his all-star counterpart is why so much mourning greeted what would typically be a celebrated transaction.
This was so against the norm, manager John Gibbons felt the need to call the team together after a 5-1 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays to inform them of the decision. Starter Mark Buehrle, a veteran of 14 big-league seasons, said “I’ve never seen that. Usually you come in the next day and look at the guy’s locker and go, ‘Oh, that guy got sent down, this guy’s coming up.'”
“This is the part of the game that sucks,” he added. “Between the fans and the guys in here, everybody’s fallen in love with this guy.”
Yet there was Kawasaki bouncing around a sombre Blue Jays clubhouse with a smile plastered on his face, getting a big hug from Emilio Bonifacio and an even bigger one from Reyes, to whom he bowed.
He gladly agreed to meet with media, saying repeatedly “I love you guys,” in a four-minute session that was a strange cross between touching and zany, and like so much about Kawasaki, different in a delightful way.
Take for instance, his answer in English when asked if he had a final message to the fans that have embraced him: “I am now hungry.”
The gathering laughed, and when the question was translated into Japanese, Kawasaki cracked up and said, “My bad” before answering in his native tongue.
“Well, it’s not as if I died,” he said through an interpreter. “I’m still a baseball player, it’s just that tomorrow the field will be different, but I’m still around and I’m still here to help the team when they need it, and it’s been a terrific experience.
“I really appreciate everybody and I love everybody.”
The way everybody embraced him back defies logic.
Kawasaki has limited range, poor arm strength and little to offer at the plate, yet his tenacity and boundless energy made Blue Jays fans repeatedly chant his name during games.
On Friday, after he hit a game-tying home run in the seventh inning of what ended up a 7-6 win over the Baltimore Orioles, several Blue Jays joined in the chants – all for a guy batting .225.
“I can’t believe it, I absolutely can’t believe the way I’ve been accepted by the players here and by the fans,” Kawasaki said. “This one strange Japanese guy to come here and be accepted the way I have has really been an unbelievable experience. … “To play before the best fans and the best teammates for two months has been an incredible experience for me and I appreciate everybody from the fans to the players who helped me through these two months.”
Several teams in Japan tried to lure Kawasaki back home this off-season but he wanted to stay in North America and eventually he signed a minor-league deal with the Blue Jays in mid-March. Reyes’ sprained ankle opened a spot for him on April 13, and he made the most of his opportunity.
The Blue Jays are believed to be paying him between $500,000-$600,000 in the majors and about $12,000 a month in the minors, and hold a $1-million option on him for 2014 which if declined allows him to become a free agent.
“I love the game of baseball, I’m just one lucky guy to be able to play the game and to be able to play the game in this environment,” he replied when asked what he showed about his game the past two months. “I don’t feel like I came here to show anybody anything other than how much I love the game of baseball, I’m going to continue to do that, and to feel like I’m just one lucky guy.”
Lost amid the emotion of Kawasaki’s departure is how much stronger Reyes will make the Blue Jays lineup. And given that there were no obvious candidates for demotion in the eight-man bullpen – Juan Perez or Dustin McGowan could have been sacrificed but both are out of options and probably wouldn’t clear waivers – the right decision was made.
“It’s tough to do, he’s a big part of this team but the way it sets up, we want to keep our pitching intact,” Gibbons said in explaining the decision. “It’s tough, you feel for the kid, he did a tremendous job for us.”
Asked how Kawasaki took the news, Gibbons said, “he’s an old pro, he understands. He loves these guys as much as they love him. He’ll be back, trust me on that one.”
Fans and players alike will be waiting.