- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 26, 2015

VIERA, Fla. — In the world of baseball, Japan is often the last frontier. It attracts aging veterans and fizzled-out prospects, the players who are tired of busing between the minors and majors, the guys who have given up on their big-league dreams in favor of one last big contract.

“Typically, it’s a dead end,” said Erik Schullstrom, an American scout with the Hiroshima Toyo Carp. “Usually guys go to Japan and that’s kind of the mindset.”

Few American players have returned from Japan and succeeded, according to Schullstrom, who played in Japan before becoming a scout. The short list includes three-time all-star Cecil Fielder and Rangers right-hander Colby Lewis. Recently retired infielder Chad Tracy also played in Japan before joining the Washington Nationals as a reserve.

Now, Kila Ka’aihue is trying to add his name to the list.

After spending the better part of the past two seasons playing overseas, Ka’aihue signed a minor-league contract with the Nationals in January. He is among a handful of players still in camp competing for a spot on Washington’s bench. Behind Ryan Zimmerman, there is a logjam of players all vying for a similar role as a power-hitting, backup first baseman, including Tyler Moore, Clint Robinson, Mike Carp and Ka’aihue.

Though Ka’aihue’s chances of making the Opening Day roster are slim, he has had impressive moments of power this spring, including a couple mammoth home runs. He has also shown a willingness to play in the outfield, a relatively new experience for him. In 27 spring at-bats, he is hitting .222 with three home runs, eight RBI and four walks.

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“I feel good,” Ka’aihue said Thursday afternoon at Space Coast Stadium. “There’s a lot of good guys here. Everybody has their reasons for making the team, and everybody’s done what they need to do to make this team. I feel like I’ve done as much as I could, and I feel good about it.”

At one point, it was unclear whether Ka’aihue would even have such a chance. The native Hawaiian was once considered a top prospect in the Kansas City Royals organization but couldn’t move past others at the position — Billy Butler among them — so Kansas City traded him to the Oakland Athletics in September 2011.

Ka’aihue started in Oakland for a spell until he was abruptly released in June 2012, only a few days before his wife, Blair, was due to give birth to twins. Ka’aihue said he was expecting to be placed on paternity leave. The move sent ripples throughout the clubhouse, with many of the first baseman’s teammates speaking up on his behalf.

“Everyone is in shock,” an anonymous player told the San Francisco Chronicle at the time.

“Total horse [manure],” another player told the Chronicle.

Ka’aihue declined comment at the time but on Thursday described the ordeal as “kind of a messed-up situation.” He spent a brief time with the Reno Aces, Arizona’s Triple-A affiliate, before accepting an offer to play with Hiroshima, a team in the Nippon Professional Baseball league. Ka’aihue said he made the move to Japan primarily in order to provide for his family.

“I went there strictly because of the money they gave me,” he said. “The opportunity to make that much money, that fast — I couldn’t pass that up. I hadn’t seen that much money in my 12-year career, and they were going to give it to me in a year and a half. I went there purely for the money, purely for my kids. It was a very selfish decision, but it was the right one.”

Ka’aihue was always on Hiroshima’s radar, according to Schullstrom. The club’s owners loved the first baseman’s swing and needed a power-hitting bat in the middle of the lineup in the middle of the Japanese season.

Schullstrom, who has been a U.S.-based scout for nearly a dozen years now, still remembers the fanfare that accompanied Ka’aihue’s arrival. He hit three home runs in his first two games, according to the scout.

“He was the toast of Tokyo,” Schullstrom said. “He was front-page news.”

Ka’aihue hit .258 over parts of two seasons in Japan with 25 home runs and 85 RBI. Alongside stretches of success, he also had periods in which he struggled, spending part of his time in the farm league, Japan’s equivalent of the minors.
Americans who have played in Japan say it’s a completely different version of the sport. “It looks like baseball, but it’s not,” Ka’aihue said. Yet in a way, he said that helped him develop.

“I saw a lot more off-speed [pitches],” he explained. “Rarely saw fastballs, which was good for me now that I think about it, because I had to learn how to hit off-speed. That’s what I took the most from being over there.”

After two seasons in Japan, however, Ka’aihue said he was ready to come home. The Nationals gave him an opportunity to compete for a bench job, and the 30-year-old is among a group of veterans still working to win it. Manager Matt Williams said he has been impressed by all of candidates for the backup first baseman job.

“The fact that T-Mo came into camp hot, he played winter ball, came in feeling comfortable is important,” Williams said. “Clint has played really well. Kila coming back to the States and getting back into major league camp and him playing extremely well in multiple positions has been a great thing for him. He feels good about it. Carpie’s been primarily at first or at the DH position, but his swing looks good right now. So, all of those things are good. I think they’re right where they need to be at this point.”

Ka’aihue has spent a lot of time over the past two months learning to play in the outfield, a relatively new position. Almost exclusively a first baseman during his big-league career, he’s played 40 innings in the outfield — more than the 37 1/3 he has at first so far this spring.

Regardless of what happens next week, when the Nationals will make their final cuts before Opening Day, Ka’aihue is comfortable with where he is in his career. In his eyes, Japan was not a dead end. It was just another step.

“I had the opportunity to come back, and I still have the opportunity to go back there if I want to,” Ka’aihue said. “I don’t think it’s a last stop at all. It was a blessing.”

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