by Tyler Handlan
SURPRISE — Texas Rangers relief pitcher Tony Barnette will soon begin his second season in the major leagues at the age of 33.
It’s unusual, but considering that he has chased his baseball dreams from Alaska to the Pacific Northwest to Arizona to Japan to the major leagues, it was worth the wait for Barnette.
Born in Anchorage, Alaska, Barnette went to high school in the state of Washington and spent two years in the junior college circuit at Central Arizona College in Coolidge.
He spent one season at Arizona State, where he said coach Pat Murphy tested his mettle.
“He really puts guys up against a wall and kind of sees what they’re made of,” Barnette said. “At the time, I was probably battling against him a lo. But looking back now, he really challenges guys. And I think I took that from Arizona State. He pushed me to new levels that I didn’t think I really could get to.”
Barnette was drafted in the 10th round of the 2006 Major League Baseball June Amateur Draft by the Arizona Diamondbacks and spent four years playing at various levels of minor league ball in their organization.
After spending 2009 season with the Diamondbacks Triple-A affiliate in Reno, Barnette decided he needed a change.
It took him to the Nippon Professional Baseball Organization on the other side of the globe. NPB is the highest level of Japanese baseball, and Barnette spent six seasons with the Tokyo Yakult Swalloss .
“Japan was great. I’ve got a lot of fond memories of Tokyo and just the people that I met,” Barnette said.
After some initial struggles, he immersed himself in the Japanese culture and began to flourish on the Diamond.
“I think I made it harder on myself than I probably should have,” he said. “I was probably a little stubborn in my age. At 26, I kind of came over there thinking I probably have the world by the tail. I was proven wrong pretty quickly.”
In his first season, Barnette threw a career high 79.2 innings as a reliever, and recorded an unflattering 5.99 ERA.
Aside from problems with his baseball performance in year one, Barnette said that his personal life underwent a dramatic change.
He said it tested his relationship with his girlfriend — now his wife — Hillary Jones-Barnette, but the couple became closer through the experience together.
“We grew as people in the Japanese culture,” Barnette said. “We went
through the middle part of our adulthood in a foreign country, isolated together.”
(Video by Michael Baron/Cronkite News)
Barnette made the jump from the NPB to the Rangers, but he said he and Hillary continue to be influenced by their time in Japan.
“Me and my wife, we always joke around in Japanese, even to this day, answering the phone like a Japanese person would,” Barnette said. “We say certain things in Japanese that our daughters even today say.”
Barnette now hopes to build on his first year in the majors. As a 32-year-old rookie, Barnette appeared in 53 games for the Rangers and had a 7-3 record. He threw 60.1 innings, all out of the bullpen, and compiled a 2.09 ERA.
Rangers manager Jeff Banister said it took Barnette time to adjust.
“Very early on in a lot of the drills, he was sprinting all over the place,” Banister remembered of Barnette’s first spring with the Rangers.
Barnette, hoping to demonstrate hustle and value, ran at full speed from one drill to the next.
Banister said he talked with Barnette about taking things slower and maintaining a positive attitude. Barnette finally settled in.
“He came in with the skill set to pitch, it’s just the confidence for him to know that he can pitch at the major league level,” Banister said. “Last year at this time there was still some question. The anxiety and energy level were all over the place. He’s calmed down now. He works specifically on his craft. He knows that he can pitch at this level.”
Barnette has the confidence of Banister and his staff More important, he has confidence in himself.
“I just want to fit in where I get in,” Barnette said. “For me and the bullpen and stuff like that, it’s just being flexible down there, being able to pick up innings whenever they need me. I just want to be that guy where it doesn’t matter what inning it is, they feel comfortable calling my name out of the bullpen.”