Scott Mathieson: A Canadian fireballer in Japan

How a kid from Langley, B.C., went from being 
a big-league afterthought to a star on Japan’s best team

This piece originally appeared in Sportsnet magazine.

 

The biggest challenge for an itinerant North American in search of something familiar in the vast crowdedness of overwhelming, disorienting Tokyo, might be breakfast. It all feels a little off. Cold, undressed noodles are a staple. There is rarely a pancake, waffle or potato product to be found. The bacon is flash-fried or boiled and there’s seaweed in the eggs. Then there’s the cheesy, sour aroma of natto, the web-like fermented soybean dish that comes with everything. To say it’s somewhat of an acquired taste would be an understatement.

But those in the know are aware of a restaurant called Bubby’s—tucked into an unassumingbusiness park next to Metropolitan Expressway No. 3 in an area of the city known as Roppongi—which has a menu that at least approaches what North Americans might expect to start their day. That’s where we find Scott Mathieson: professional baseball player, former top MLB prospect, the first Canadian to win a Japan Series title, and connoisseur of a good breakfast. Looking every bit the understated British Columbian in a baseball cap, T-shirt and jeans, Mathieson slumps his large frame in a too-small chair as he digs in to Bubby’s famous Abe Lincoln Platter. It comes with two well-cooked eggs, a single piece of crispy bacon, a side of pan-fried hash browns, fruit and a large, fluffy pancake. Plus—and this is really the kicker for wayward Canadians carving out an existence in a place like Japan—the staff places a solid glass container of pure Canadian maple syrup atop the restaurant’s wooden tables as your feast arrives. Only 8,000 kilometres from Canada, you couldn’t feel closer to home.

Mathieson’s server today is a slight man who doesn’t look a day over 20 and immediately recognizes his patron as a member of the Yomiuri Giants, the country’s most popular professional sports franchise and, for all intents and purposes, the New York Yankees of Japan. The first-place Giants haven’t scored a run in 35 innings, and although that is no fault of Mathieson’s as a reliever in the team’s bullpen, the server still feels the need to utilize this rare opportunity to hold a member of the team accountable. “Why no hitting?” the server questions, more politely than sternly, getting right to the point as he lays down cutlery.

“Yeah, it’s brutal, huh?” Mathieson responds, bashfully. “Did you watch the game last night?”

The server, completely unaware of the meaning of what was just said and possibly regretting entering this interaction altogether, blinks a few times at Mathieson and opts to simply stare at him, smiling. After a five-second pause that feels long enough to be a feature film, Mathieson attempts to break the stalemate, drawing a rectangle in the air to represent a television and pointing at the space in the middle, saying “Koshien,” which is the name of the 77-year-old stadium where the Giants just played a three-game series with the rival Hanshin Tigers. The server’s eyes light up and he nods excitedly. “Let’s go Giants,” he says, before briskly walking away.

This is not an uncommon exchange with a member of the Tokyo public when you’re a 29-year-old ballplayer from Langley, B.C., with a fairly limited Japanese vocabulary that doesn’t stretch too far past assorted pleasantries and simple requests. You get used to these awkward interactions: the children in small Japanese towns who stare at you in astonishment; the restaurant orders, taxi-driver directions and washroom-location queries that go awry. You have no choice but to get used to it all when this faraway place is essential to your livelihood. When your promising big-league career is derailed by injuries and a system seemingly working against you, sending your existence spinning off to a country you’ve only seen on TV. When you look at those damning numbers—the years left in your arm, the limited available spots on a major-league roster, the number of kids drafted each year to compete for them—and figure the odds just won’t work for you. You don’t really have a choice.

But at least you found a decent breakfast. It reminds you of home.

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It wasn’t that long ago that Scott Mathieson was a top prospect for the Philadelphia Phillies, thought by many to be a mid-rotation major-league starter or, at worst, a big-armed late-inning reliever. The club selected him in the 17th round of the 2002 draft and he was ranked the fifth-best Phillies prospect by Baseball America in both 2005 and 2006, when he made his major-league debut. Mathieson bounced between the majors and triple-A that season, but it was widely believed that with an overpowering fastball sitting in the mid-90s and three reliable out pitches, the 22-year-old had a bright future ahead of him.

Then on Sept. 2, 2006, Mathieson threw the sixth pitch of a start against the Braves and felt his arm start to burn. He had torn the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow clean off the bone, about as bad an injury as a pitcher can suffer. Later that month, Mathieson underwent Tommy John surgery with Dr. Lewis Yocum in California and, despite an initially dour prognosis, a year later he was working his way back to the show. But during a rehab start at double-A Reading, he threw a pitch and felt his entire arm go numb. He looked down at his hand and his fingers were locked in a bent position. Mathieson had popped his ulnar nerve out of place and needed further surgery to reroute the nerve away from the high-stress areas of his elbow. Phillies doctors said he would be ready for next year’s spring training, where he was still expected to compete for a spot in the rotation. No big deal; setbacks happen.

But next spring things got improbably worse. When Mathieson threw his very first pitch at Phillies camp in Clearwater, Fla., the ball flew out of his hand sideways as his elbow started screaming at him. He went for an MRI with Yocum, who said he saw small tears running through the tendon in his elbow where his UCL used to be, a problem that could only be corrected by another Tommy John operation. That was hard to hear. But worse, Yocum was saying the surgery wasn’t worth it and he would never pitch again.

Mathieson, understandably, was crushed. Everything he had ever worked for was gone. He took some time to figure things out and, on the advice of teammates, decided to go for a second opinion with Alabama-based Dr. James Andrews. “Yeah, that’s torn,” Andrews said, bluntly. “What do you want to do about it?” Mathieson didn’t know what to think. “Can you fix it?” he asked.

“Oh yeah, I can fix it,” Andrews said. And so he did.

By June 2009, after what amounted to more than two and a half years of surgeries and rehabilitations, Mathieson climbed back on a mound in Clearwater and pitched two scoreless innings—striking out the side in one—for the Phillies’ rookie-ball team. The first pitch he threw was 96 mph, and he looked every part the dominant pitcher most scouts believed he could be before he got hurt. But no one was there to see it. The club didn’t send any personnel to watch the start; Mathieson’s return to the mound hardly registered at all. This became a theme over the next three years as he posted the best numbers of his career. Mathieson became a cult hero with Phillies fans and media, who revelled in his story of determination and perseverance in the face of an incredible collection of injuries that have ended the careers of other pitchers. But the organization’s brass seemed to have moved on; Mathieson felt like he was wasting space.

After three seasons of dominant minor-league pitching with only a handful of opportunities to prove himself in the majors, Mathieson sat down with Philadelphia assistant GM Scott Proefrock and told him he wasn’t happy. He was out of options, which meant he would have to make the Phillies out of training camp, something he didn’t see as a reality as long as the current coaching staff—especially pitching coach Rich Dubee, whom Mathieson did not get along with—was in place. Proefrock said he had a cash offer from a team out west—it turned out to be the San Diego Padres—who were interested in bringing him in to be a reliever. He also had a cash offer from a team out east. Like, really east.

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In 2010, the Yomiuri Giants of Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball League had contacted the Phillies about purchasing Mathieson’s rights. They were looking for a hard thrower to add to their bullpen and Mathieson fit the profile. But Philadelphia got greedy, asking for $2 million just for the right to talk to their long-suffering minor-leaguer, which was more than the Giants were willing to pay. Following the 2011 season, the Giants inquired again and found that the asking price had dropped to $700,000, which is exactly how much the club had paid him over his 10 years in the organization. The team simply wanted to cut its losses.

Mathieson was hunting in Illinois with Oakland A’s outfielder Brandon Moss when the call came in from Shun Miyamura, the head of the Giants’ New York outpost. The team had bought his rights and was prepared to offer him a one-year, $850,000 deal—plus incentives, and with a team option for a second year. Soon after, the pitcher and his wife, Jennifer, met with Miyamura at a restaurant in Florida to talk shop. There were some sneaky tripwires to negotiate out of the contract (one granted the Giants an extra option year if he hit any of his incentives, and another prevented Mathieson from playing for any other Japanese team for three years if the Giants cut him), but Mathieson agreed to sign.

It was the biggest decision he had ever made. He reached the critical point that awaits nearly every young man who chooses athletics as a professional pursuit: He had to do the brutal math. He figured he had at least five years left in his arm. He could have spent those years trying to fulfill the only dream he’d ever had. Or he could abandon it and use his remaining youth to make as much money as possible. In the end, cash ruled the day. In Tokyo, he’d be making three times what he would in MLB.

But he knew that if he went to Japan and struggled, he would quickly be demoted or released, effectively ending his baseball life and robbing him of the only thing he’s ever done for good money. Mathieson joined the Phillies straight out of high school and doesn’t have a college education. He certainly doesn’t lack intelligence, but he does lack the pieces of paper most employers require when looking for new hires. “It’s nerve-racking,” Mathieson says. “You’re going over there, you don’t know what to expect, you don’t know what you’re getting yourself into, you don’t know if it’s going to work out. It’s not a good feeling.”

Jennifer didn’t have a good feeling, either. Two days before Mathieson was due to head to Japan, the couple went to Disney World with her sister and her sister’s husband. It was supposed to be a fun goodbye outing before Mathieson left for 10 months. But Jennifer felt sick all day and even though she powered through much of the afternoon, she wasn’t getting any better. So, on a whim, the couple went to a pharmacy and purchased a home pregnancy test. “It’s not like I was hoping it would come back negative,” Mathieson says. “But we probably could have timed that a little better.”

It was all a little overwhelming. Scott and Jennifer had talked about having a kid but decided it would be best to wait for the off-season, when they would return to their home in Florida. But the timing and execution of these things can be tricky, so Mathieson ended up entering the most important season of his career having to also negotiate the specifics of the most important event of his adult life. “I have no idea what to even expect of Japan as a person, let alone having a baby there,” Mathieson says. “I’m imagining it being born in a barn or something.”

Finding a doctor was the primary order of business, something the team was accommodating enough to assist with, setting the couple up with an American-educated, English-speaking doctor—“He spoke better English than our doctor at home”—who handled the births of several of the Giants’ kids and even delivered two of the Emperor’s grandchildren. And on Sept. 22, the same night the Giants clinched the Central League title, Mathieson left the team to be with Jennifer as she went into labour. A healthy boy named Lane arrived just after 1 a.m. and Mathieson held his son in his arms before the infant was swept off to the nursery for the night so Mom could get some sleep. Jennifer stayed in the hospital for five days after the birth—customary in Japan—and was given classes in English on how to care for the baby. Mathieson set up a cot next to his wife’s bed and went straight from the ballpark to the hospital to sleep after games.

Soon Lane was going to the games to visit Dad, little legs dangling from the forward-facing carrier Jennifer wears, eyes wide, taking in the sights and sounds that fill Tokyo Dome on game night. Even for an adult, the hyper-revelry of Tokyo Dome can be a tad distracting—whether it’s the massive, bug-eyed orange mascots prancing around the stadium, the beer girls in brightly coloured uniforms floating up and down the aisles, serving suds from keg backpacks, or the legions of crazed fans in the outfield bleachers, banging drums and screaming at the top of their lungs throughout the game, shouting player-specific chants of encouragement when the Giants are at the plate. Lane only makes it until about the third or fourth inning before he’s rubbing his eyes, grabbing at Mom’s chest or a nearby arm and burying his face in it, slowly falling asleep. “He’s a pretty happy baby,” Jennifer says, holding the back of Lane’s head as she swaps in a new bib. “He doesn’t cry too much. The drool can be a bit of an issue. But we come prepared.”

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Mathieson’s first season with the Giants probably couldn’t have gone any better. He appeared in 40 games in 2012, striking out more than a batter an inning and posting a 1.71 ERA. He gave up just one home run all year, overpowering hitters with his mid-90s fastball and even setting the Tokyo Dome record with a 100-mph pitch. No one in the league threw harder, and watching batters not used to facing pitchers with that kind of velocity often looked downright unfair. That and Mathieson’s intimidating mound presence made him an instant fan favourite and one of the league’s most feared pitchers. Mathieson is jovial and friendly off the field, but he’s a different animal on it. He was in the middle of the Canada-Mexico brawl at this year’s World Baseball Classic and has a habit of shooting the most profane trash talk you’ve ever heard to hitters he feels are acting out of line. Once, in a minor-league game in the U.S., he actually charged a batter after hitting him. During a game in Japan this past April, when two Giants were drilled in the same inning by the opposing pitcher, the call went to the bullpen to get the big Canadian up and throwing so he could enter the game and retaliate.

Mathieson took over as the team’s closer during the season, saving 10 games and pitching nearly every day as the Giants padded their lead atop the Central Division standings. The Giants battled through the playoffs—including a comeback from a 3–1 series deficit—to win the team’s 22nd Japan Championship Series on the third day of November. Mathieson, who closed throughout most of the playoffs, pitched a scoreless eighth inning in the series clincher—the team didn’t want a foreigner throwing the final pitch of such a momentous game—becoming the first Canadian to win a Japan Series. He got his ring earlier this year, a keepsake he says he values infinitely more than the one he got when the Phillies won the World Series in 2008. It’s diamond-shaped with the Giants logo in the middle, sitting atop a sea of white and orange diamonds.

After the season, the Giants picked up Mathieson’s option, boosting his salary to $950,000 and making him the first foreigner in eight years that they’ve brought back. Six MLB teams contacted Mathieson’s agent about his availability, but without a mutual option, he was bound to the Giants. Not that that’s a problem. This year has gone similarly well, as the Giants sit atop the standings again and Mathieson sports a sub-3.00 ERA.

The Canadian couldn’t be happier pitching in Tokyo. But being a foreign ballplayer in Japan isn’t always ideal. If you aren’t producing, Mathieson says, the team won’t hesitate to bury you in the minor leagues. Even something as insignificant as a pulled muscle could be used as reasoning for an extended trip to the minors, where there are a bevy of homegrown players more than willing to snap up the foreigner’s job. In Mathieson’s first spring-training game with the Giants last year, he walked two batters and hit another in the head. The team sent him to the minors and left him there for the first two and a half weeks of the season before calling him up and watching him throw 22 scoreless innings to begin his Japanese career.

Spending time in the minors in Japan is a lot like being stuck in eternal spring training. The focus is purely on working out, running bizarre drills and participating in endless amounts of eyewash, unlike the minors on this side of the Pacific where the focus is on playing games and winning. The anticipation of intense competition is what gets professional athletes out of bed in the morning, which is also why the abundance of off-days worked into the big-league schedule—every team has at least one a week—is incredibly frustrating for foreign players. Teams will also take some liberties with the four foreigners they are permitted to carry on the roster that they likely wouldn’t with homegrown stars. After originally agreeing to allow Mathieson to pitch for Canada in this year’s World Baseball Classic, the Giants, who were already sending seven players to the Japanese squad, asked him to skip it at the last minute. This didn’t go over well with Mathieson, who let the team know he’d be going whether they liked it or not. The day before he left, a member of the team’s front office asked him, “You’re coming back, right?”

He did. But upon returning, he had a gruesome allergic reaction, causing him to break out in bright red hives on the right side of his torso. The team doctors didn’t know what it was or how to treat it, sending him to a hospital where he was hooked up to an IV and had blood drawn. Five hours later, he was hooked up to another IV and underwent one of the most painful experiences of his life as doctors pushed a thick fluid from the IV bag through his veins. Mathieson screamed at the doctors to take it out and found someone who spoke English to ask about the procedure, learning, much to his dismay, that they were giving him a treatment for hepatitis C. A few days later, a box of Benadryl arrived from the United States; Mathieson took it for a day and the hives disappeared. He now suspects it was all caused by the detergent in his bed sheets.

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Baseball players—those strange, superstitious, obsessive people—are creatures of habit. That is no different if you’re playing for a high school team, in the major leagues or for the best team in Japan. Thus, the bulk of Mathieson’s days in Tokyo, where he lives in a three-bedroom Roppongi loft the team provides for him, ultimately fall into a comfortable routine. First, there’s a brief walk from one soaring condominium to another, where he meets up with John Bowker, an American-born outfielder who quickly became Mathieson’s best friend on the team. Bowker played parts of four seasons with three different major-league teams before making a decision similar to Mathieson’s, heading east in search of a bigger payday. He’s built like a pit bull and eats like one, too.

Mathieson and Bowker’s adaptation to life in Japan was a pilgrimage of some fascination for their teammates and coaching staff, who seemed at times to be waging a competition to see who could make the foreigners more uncomfortable. One night while out to eat, their teammates decided to have some fun, asking a waiter to slap down a live, squirming octopus on Mathieson and Bowker’s table. The server then butchered the creature right in front of them and offered up a raw tentacle to Mathieson, who gave it his best shot but couldn’t quite get the arm down because it kept suctioning itself to his cheek as his teammates doubled over laughing. On another outing at a sushi restaurant, a member of the training staff ordered the pair live pufferfish, which, if not prepared properly, can be poisonous. Mathieson furiously Googled the fish on his phone while the chef cut it up in front of him. When it was served, he had the pivotal choice of refusing the dish and, aside from offending the chef, never hearing the end of it from his teammates, or taking his chances. He chose the latter and lived to tell the story.

Japanese ballplayers are famously hard-livers, partying the night away in ritzy restaurants and karaoke bars, even before day games. But while many of their teammates are sleeping off hangovers, Bowker and Mathieson lift weights and talk baseball. After the gym it’s off to lunch at one of a small handful of nearby restaurants where the two have figured out how to order something recognizable before heading off to the ballpark.

Walking to the Tokyo Dome players’ entrance past the massive panes of glass that bend around the exterior of the stadium can be a tedious journey for a Yomiuri Giant. Fans decked out head to toe in orange and black start lining up for night games in the early afternoon, often laying down large pieces of cardboard adorned with pictures of the Giants cut out of the newspaper, or a homemade mat made of Giants colours to designate their spot in line. They then mill about, purchasing paraphernalia from one of several merchandise shops, or hanging around the players’ entrance hoping to score an autograph.

As a player, it can be hard to avoid; you mostly try to keep your head down and walk quickly. But Mathieson, a six-foot-three, 230-lb. Caucasian, doesn’t exactly blend in well anywhere in Japan. The fans see him coming from a block away. So he tries to stop and sign for a bit when he can—even when the requests are strange. Before a game in mid-April, one fan handed Mathieson a large piece of cardboard, asking him to sign his name as large as possible and write Giants under it. He then had Mathieson hold the cardboard up and pose for a photo with it. “Don’t you want to be in the picture?” Mathieson asked, to which the man grinned maniacally and shook his head, snapping two shots of Mathieson holding the autograph and then bowing as he took it back. “Good luck, Mathieson!” he shouted over and over as the pitcher disappeared into the stadium.

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Walking into the Tokyo Dome is a breathtaking experience—literally. Much of the facility resides under a thick layer of decades-old dust, which gets kicked up and circulated, giving the air under the yellow-stained bubble a dim haze. Inside the Giants’ cramped clubhouse, equipment is strewn everywhere; lockers overflow with a seemingly endless supply of cleats, batting gloves and workout attire, much of it still in its original packaging. The shower heads in the lavatories are no more than three feet off the ground, with small stools stationed in front of them. The toilets here are at least familiar, unlike the small holes in the floor found at some stadiums around the league.

After a thorough 8–1 stomping of the Hanshin Tigers, several Giants pass through the locker room and reconvene at Gonpachi, a spacious restaurant in Tokyo’s swanky Roppongi Hills that’s packed to the brim nightly. You may remember the absurdly bloody scene from the first Kill Bill film in which Uma Thurman methodically slaughters scores of tuxedo-clad henchmen in what appears to be a large Japanese banquet hall. That set was modelled after Gonpachi.

The restaurant looks like someone took a sprawling Japanese marketplace and crushed it into a modest-sized building. Wooden balconies and short, protruding rooftops run a lap around the main floor, where drunk nationals and tourists alike carry on, feasting on sushi and watching the chefs work in the wall-less island kitchen. The group settles into a dimly lit second-floor booth overlooking the restaurant’s buzzing main floor, ordering a line of large salads, a dizzying selection of elaborately stuffed sushi rolls, and rows upon rows of tender chicken and beef skewers. Say what you will about travelling in the crush of Tokyo; no one leaves hungry.

About halfway through dinner, as a too-drunk man in a tailored suit is carried out of the restaurant, his arms slung over his friends’ shoulders, Tigers outfielder Matt Murton passes the other way, sitting down with his translator at a table near the Giants’ party. Murton has played in Japan since leaving the Colorado Rockies in 2010, breaking Ichiro Suzuki’s single-season hit record in his first year with 214 hits in 144 games. He’s rumoured to be earning $9 million this season; he never made more than $415,000 a year in the majors.

Pleasantries are exchanged, and as he sits down, Murton strikes up a conversation with Mathieson and Bowker, the three of them sharing an unspoken camaraderie as foreigners playing outside their comfort zones. They talk about the wide strike zone in Japan—“Well, I like it,” Mathieson says—and how well the ball has been flying this year compared to last. Whispers abound that the league changed the composition of the balls after 2012, introducing a more buoyant version in order to increase offence. As is often the case, the league won’t comment on such matters. But with home runs up by more than 60 percent, players are left to speculate as to why a deep fly ball last season is now sailing into the bleachers.

Waitresses arrive with more sushi as the conversation turns to what playing in Japan does to you as a ballplayer—how the longer you stay, the less likely it is you can go back home. It’s true; pitchers throw softer in Japan, and with much more English on their pitches. Instead of hunting for fastballs, you start looking for splitters—every pitcher in Japan throws a splitter—and off-speed junk. You start wondering when the guy is going to drop a 60-mph curveball on you. Bowker especially struggled to adjust to the pitching in his first season and spent an extended period in the minors trying to figure it out before he finally got hot in the playoffs. Murton was quick to pick up the Japanese approach but realizes the drawback to long-term success here. “I’m not sure I could hit a fastball back home anymore,” he says. “Eighty-six is like 92 now.”

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Life in Japan has worked out better than Mathieson ever expected. Naturally, there is isolation, loneliness, culture shock. Not to mention the difficulties of raising a first-born so far from home. But Mathieson never complains. “It’s not how I would have expected my life to shake out,” he says. “But you make do.”

Lane is on Mathieson’s mind as he leaves the restaurant and heads east, back into the heart of Roppongi. The pitcher walks by glowing restaurants, pet stores and strip clubs with insidious men standing out front, employed to draw hedonism-seeking foreigners through the doors. He passes the legendary tourist trap Gaspanic and arrives at a tall, fluorescently illuminated store with a defunct roller coaster on top of it called Don Quijote. It is essentially Japanese Walmart. Narrow, dense and built straight up—as most everything is in Tokyo—the store sells every commonplace item you could want and every extraordinary one, too. There are shelves crammed with Coach and Gucci purses next to racks of live fighting fish and slugs, sold individually in small cups. Counters of toiletries lead directly into an impressively vast and diverse selection of sex toys.

Mathieson is looking for an electric razor, which proves to be the single consumer product the store does not carry, and Listerine, which he finally discovers after a long search leads him to the sixth floor. Heading back down the narrow flights of stairs to pay for his purchase, he comes across a display of Maple Leaf Creme cookies, the same ones your grandmother used to give you when you were a kid. “Oh man, I can’t believe they have these,” he says, grabbing a package. “I can’t not buy them.”

Returning home, Mathieson cracks the box open and starts eating, flipping open an iPad case to video chat with Jennifer and Lane back home. It’s 1 a.m. in Tokyo now, which means it’s noon in Clearwater, where his wife answers the call and, through the wonders of technology, watches as Mathieson dances a water bottle across the screen, bringing a smile to Lane’s face.

It’s early in the 2013 season and Mathieson hasn’t seen his wife and son since before spring training—a month and a half ago. In a few days, they will land in Tokyo and stay until the end of the season, but only after Jennifer has done the family’s taxes, taken care of a house in Florida that will sit empty for the next nine months, said goodbye to Molly the family dog and endured a 14-hour flight with a curious eight-month-old who has just learned to crawl. When they arrive, they will find a half-eaten box of Canadian creme cookies in the cupboard. Those baked goods, those delicious creamy maple leafs, are probably the closest thing to normal or familiar in Mathieson’s existence at the moment. They remind him of home.

This story originally appeared in Sportsnet magazine. Subscribe here.