Traber thrives in a foreign world Japanese baseball suits former Oriole

December 24, 1990|By Bill Glauber

Picture this: Jim Traber in Japan. Fumbling with the language. Foraging for a meal more substantial than sushi. Struggling against a system where obedience isn't requested, it's demanded.

Imagine the baseball power hitter in a game where the strike zone is a suggestion and the sacrifice bunt is a first-inning weapon, where workouts consist of jogging, lifting, throwing, and swinging. And that's just before lunch.

But a strange and wonderful thing occurred during Traber's first season in Japan. The Whammer discovered Wa, the unity and team spirit that guides Japanese baseball. He learned the language. Savored the rewards of dining on noodles and grilled meats. Even made an effort to get along with his manager for the Kintetsu Buffaloes of the Japanese Pacific League.

OK, so he didn't exactly train as hard as his teammates. All right, he did gain 15 pounds. Still, Traber batted .303 with 24 home runs and 92 RBI.

"I'm a survivor," he said. "I like to play the game. And I'm tough."

Traber is back in Baltimore celebrating the holidays with his family. But in two weeks, he will return to Osaka for his second Japanese season. Although he has learned to adapt the Japanese style, he remains a rugged individualist, bent on playing the game his way and unafraid to voice his opinion.

"I play for the cheapest team in Japan," he said. "Everyone knows that."

But the Buffaloes, a team owned by a private railroad, did pay Traber $300,000 last season, and gave him a $150,000 raise up front for the 1991 season. That's a huge pay boost for Traber, who ended his 2 1/2 -season Orioles career by making $100,000 in 1989.

"Not anyone can go over and survive in Japan," Traber said. "They play a different game of baseball. They bunt in the first inning and pinch-run in the sixth. If you're the type of person who holds a grudge and can't let things around them not affect them, don't go to Japan. If you can roll with the punches, then the money is right for you."

Traber didn't immerse himself in the Japanese culture. But he made an effort to adapt. His wife, Joane, 10-year-old stepdaughter, Alicia, and 3-year-old son, Trabes, joined him for the journey east. They lived in downtown Osaka in an $850,000 house that was described as a mansion, but, he says, was no larger than a cramped American two-bedroom apartment. They had a car, an interpreter and a satellite dish.

"I got the culture shock," said Joane Traber, who is nine months pregnant. "One day, I cleaned the oven with toilet bowl cleaner. It works real good. I also confused a bottle of starch for soap powder. I ruined the whole load."

Despite the problems in reading the labels of household goods, the Trabers made friends and say they genuinely enjoyed the lifestyle. Even more important, Jim Traber rediscovered his swing while continuing to improve his skills fielding at first base. The left-handed hitter left the Orioles with a .234 lifetime average with 23 home runs and 91 RBI.

"I went over with the attitude that I would play every day and prove I could hit again," Traber said. "Not everyone will admit it, but everyone in baseball, including Wade Boggs, spends the off season wondering if they can still hit."

Traber proved he could hit -- and follow orders. Privately, he doubted the wisdom of the conservative Japanese playing style. But publicly, he willingly submitted to the Japanese system of playing for one run.

He became a star. Kids followed him off trains. Adults stared at him. Fans of all ages wanted to shake his hand. Whenever he hit a home run at home, fans would even rush up to his wife and shout congratulations.

"I felt like a Cal Ripken-type person," Traber said. "It felt like my high school or college days. It was good for your ego."

But Traber admits he plays for the money. He is trying to save enough to purchase land and a house along a golf course in South Carolina. To remind himself of the goal, Traber has a message flashing across the screen of the Stairmaster that stands in his living room: "Think of our land and new house!!!"

Traber, who turns 29 Wednesday, is attempting to remain in shape during the off-season. He plays basketball three days a week with former Orioles teammates, and works out in the gymnasium at Cal Ripken's home. Recently, Traber received a black eye making a save against Bill Ripken during a game of floor hockey.

Ask him, and Traber admits he misses the major leagues. The career of Cecil Fielder is an inspiration for all the Americans in Japan. Fielder was a castaway who refined his swing in Japan and returned to America to hit 51 home runs with the Detroit Tigers. If it could happen to Fielder, it could happen to anyone.

"I'd like to prove to people that I could play in the big leagues again," Traber said. "But if the opportunity doesn't arise, then I have to go on and take care of my family. Ego has nothing to do with this. I just want to play."

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