Signing Uehara is an important start, but no more

ON BASEBALL

January 15, 2009|By DAN CONNOLLY | DAN CONNOLLY,dan.connolly@baltsun.com

Listening to Koji Uehara make quips through a Japanese interpreter and watching Orioles club president Andy MacPhail beam as he passed a No. 19 Orioles jersey to the team's newest starter during Uehara's introductory news conference at Camden Yards yesterday, one thought was prevalent.

Finally.

Finally, the Orioles have signed a Japanese player of note - or, really, any Asian player at all.

Finally, they weren't a day late and a yen short.

Finally, the Japanese will know the Orioles for something other than Cal Ripken Jr. As Uehara said, "That's about it," when asked the extent of his country's knowledge of his new team.

If Uehara, a right-hander, 33, who twice won Japan's top pitching award, is a success during his two-year contract here, it can only mean good things for the Orioles' foray into the Far East. Even his mere presence, however, is a victory for an organization desperate for any type of win, here or abroad.

"The Orioles don't enjoy a high profile [in Japan] compared to other clubs, and that's OK," MacPhail said. "But we've been told once you get your first signings, and players start to follow how their teammates are doing over there, it becomes a little easier in the future."

The Orioles can live without the highest of profiles in Japan.

Having any profile anywhere besides, say, Pratt Street is comforting.

Go back to the 2002 offseason for some international perspective.

Hideki Matsui, Uehara's Yomiuri Giants' teammate, was ready to come to the United States. Syd Thrift, then the Orioles' vice president of baseball operations, shifted into gear. Orioles gear. Glacier-paced gear.

Thrift told people he had "spies" checking out the burly outfielder.

Those spies ended up being club trainer Richie Bancells and former pitcher Rodrigo Lopez, who were part of the annual U.S. baseball tour of Japan. Meanwhile, the New York Yankees sent a cadre of scouts to watch Matsui play the game.

Once intrigued, Thrift faxed a letter to inform Matsui's people of the Orioles' interest. Meanwhile, the Yankees sent a group, including general manager Brian Cashman, to Japan to wine and dine Matsui.

The Orioles waited patiently and politely for a response.

Meanwhile, the Yankees signed Matsui.

This story isn't told to indict the late Thrift; it's to illustrate the club's previous attitude when dealing with imports. In fact, Thrift's pushing the fax button is about as creative and forward-thinking as the Orioles have been when it comes to foreign lands. Until this year, the Orioles have practically refused to acknowledge that baseball is played outside North America.

They weren't in the running for any of the previous Japanese players and just this year opened a new academy in the Dominican Republic after using a compound that was no more than fields and barracks. Legal entanglements in Venezuela have prevented them from making inroads in that country recently - and the club's farm system has never produced a Venezuelan above Double-A.

Only nine players on the Orioles' current 40-man roster, including Uehara, are foreign-born. Of those, only two - Dominican pitchers Radhames Liz and Wilfrido Perez - were signed and developed by the organization.

So the Uehara signing must be embraced - even if he becomes nothing more than a No. 3 starter.

But for this to be more than just a warm-and-fuzzy news conference, the Orioles can't stop here. This was an example of international scouting. Not international development. The Orioles need to do both if they have any chance of competing in the American League East.

Japan is filled with ready-level talent, but countries such as Taiwan and South Korea need to be mined. Right now, the Orioles have no full-time scouts in those places, including Japan. There isn't one in Venezuela, either.

That has to change - and as soon as possible.

Without giving specifics, MacPhail said the Orioles will bolster their presence abroad.

"There are a couple areas that we think we need to augment our pool of talent," MacPhail said. "At the same time, we have to be somewhat selective. Our resources are not unlimited."

MacPhail and international scouting director John Stockstill have earned the benefit of the doubt with the signing of Uehara. Two years ago, they wouldn't have even tried.

Two years from now, though, they need several of these stories. Not just the second in their history.

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