SURPRISE – It was a doctor’s office in Japan where Chris Martin and his wife were told they were having their first child.
In what started as an effort to resurrect his career, a stint in Japan became a time in Martin’s life that he will cherish for a long time.
Most major leaguers take a typical route to the big leagues — paying their dues in the minor leagues.
Long bus rides, 3-star hotels and empty stadiums fill their journey until they get that call to play in the bigs.
Martin and fellow Rangers relief pitcher Tony Barnette decided to go a different route, each spending time in Japan playing in the Nippon Professional Baseball League.
Martin was fresh off the disabled list with the Yankees, and with a glut of young pitchers already in New York’s plans, Martin was reading the writing on the wall.
“I could see my time with the Yankees dwindling away,” he said.
After the 2015 season, Martin signed with the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters, who were willing to buy out his Yankees contract, and spent two seasons pitching for the club.
The Japan-based team was willing to pay Martin enough to be able to give him and his wife some financial security, which was able to help him focus on baseball.
Even though Martin’s wife wasn’t a big fan of the move at first, the couple decided to take the chance after some advice from Martin’s agent.
It was a monetary decision for Barnette as well. Expecting to make the triple-A minimum salary, it was tough for him to turn down the half-million dollars the Tokyo Yakult Swallows offered him.
Being wanted also was very important for Barnette.
“That is the ultimate goal, to play for a team that wants you, and at the time, they were the ones that wanted me,” Barnette said.
Barnette signed with club in 2010 and pitched for the Swallows through 2015.
Moving to a new city can be tough, let alone to a new country.
Both Martin and Barnett struggled at first, especially with the public transportation in Japan. Neither came from areas where you needed to commute by subway or bus.
For Martin and his wife, being alone was the toughest part of the move.
“It was really lonely if you were by yourself because it was Japan, so you didn’t know the language (and) it was hard to make friends, but once you started figuring out where to go it made it a lot more enjoyable,” Martin said.
Once Barnette figured out you have to “hop in with two feet” and assimilate yourself with the culture, things got easier for him.
“The hardest part was (to) stop being stubborn and not letting go of the way I acted and went about my business stateside,” he said.
Barnette spent six years in Japan, and he said the experience changed him not only as a player, but as a person too.
The difference between playing in Japan and spending time in the minors is the desire to win, according to Barnette. In the minor leagues, most players concentrate on developing themselves in hopes of getting to the big leagues.
“The opportunity to play at a higher level, the opportunity to perform for a team that is trying to compete for a very important championship (was part of the appeal),” Barnett said.
Barnette mentioned that the atmosphere night in and night out was essential for his development.
“Getting in front of those crowd sizes, 50,000 plus a night in certain stadiums, it can be daunting, and it was at first.
“But you learn to deal with that when you get in those high-pressure situations where 50-60,000 people are screaming at you in a dome (and it) becomes comfortable, and I think that is a big part of being a professional athlete — being able to handle the pressure when the lights are on and the stakes are high.”
Martin experienced those high-pressure situations when his team won the 2016 Nippon Series, which is the equivalent to the World Series here in America.
“I was a setup (man) slash closer, big fans, a lot of crowds, a lot of pressure on you, especially coming over as a foreigner you have to be the guy,” Martin said.
“I just went over there and got to experience big situations and trying to win games.”
Martin says having an open mind is the key to success for playing in Japan.
“If you are going to go over there and expecting it to be the same as over here and you are not able to open up and take in some of the culture, you are going to struggle.”
Barnette would absolutely recommend players go over and expand their game.
“If you are looking to expand your game or expand your knowledge of the world, and expand the way baseball is played around the world, it was very eye-opening to me and it was a great tool to get back to the big leagues.”