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Spare a Thought

Kei Igawa's struggles as a Yankee are small potatoes relative to what he and his countrymen must be going through. (AP)

It's been a long time since most Yankee fans had to think about Kei Igawa. He hasn't pitched in the majors since June 27, 2008, hasn't been on the 40-man roster since about a month after that, and isn't likely to be coming to a ballpark near you anytime soon, unless you live in Scranton. At this point he's just an expensive organizational soldier a contract blunder on the order of Carl Pavano, a forgotten man buried in the minors.

Or at least he was until last Friday. Igawa hails from Oarai, a port city which was hit hard by the devastating tsunamis which followed in the wake of the massive earthquake which struck Japan. Unable to reach his family in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, the pitcher learned a day later that they were alive, but living out of car. Further details about his family's plight have been minimal, but he's one of two Japanese ballplayers who have particularly been on my mind for the past week. In a free piece today at Baseball Prospectus, I shared my thoughts on the duo, and traced their careers:

In the aftermath of last Friday's massive earthquake in Japan, as I pulled away from the spectacle of the shocking footage on television and helped the Prospectus staff gather information on the ballplayers affected by the disaster, I found myself gravitating towards the stories of two pitchers who happened to be at more or less opposite ends in my personal pantheon. The Brewers' Takashi Saito hails from Miyagi Prefecture, whose capital is Sendai, more or less the epicenter of a massive earthquake that measured 9.0 on the Richter scale. The Yankees' Kei Igawa is from Oarai, a port city engulfed by the subsequent tsunami.

While reports filtered in from Japanese players such as Daisuke Matsuzaka, Hideki Okajima, and Koji Uehara, all of whom had been able to locate their families in relatively timely fashion following the disaster, neither Saito nor Igawa could say the same. Quite understandably, both players left their respective teams while making further efforts at contact. They've since located their loved ones, though their lives certainly haven't returned to normal, and neither have those of their fellow Japanese players here in the US.

In the greater sense, this isn't really about baseball, but in a small way, the Japanese players we follow and root for serve to humanize the tragedy. By which I mean that if a similar number of Russians or Icelanders or Indians were affected by a disaster of the same scale, it might remain a more abstract notion without the connection that we as fans have with a group of players who have bravely chosen to ply their craft as strangers in a strange land half a world away. And so I've been thinking about this particular pair of pitchers.

Igawa failed spectacularly at the major league level. The three-time Japanese Central League's strikeout leader's stuff was lost in translation, as stateside hitters crushed his suddenly average fastball and erratic offspeed stuff. But in the wake of the earthquake, none of that mattered to this disgruntled fan; Igawa the man was as much in my thoughts as Saito, a personal favorite from his days dominating for the Dodgers (I once said I preferred Saito to the electrifying Eric Gagne, the man he replaced), and one who similarly struggled to locate his family in the immediate aftermath of the quake. Whatever beefs I had about Igawa's performance — and I was actually lucky enough to witness his one major league moment in the sun, the day he tossed six shutout innings against Boston in relief of injured Jeff Karstens to halt a seven-game losing streak — are trivial by comparison.

My heart goes out to both pitchers, as well as to all of those in baseball's family whose own families and friends have been affected by the disaster. Given their international reach, this cuts deeper as far as the Yankee family goes, and I'm hopeful the team and the media who follow it will keep us apprised of Igawa's plight.

I expect the players directly affected by this will carry around a heavy burden in the coming days, weeks, and months. Let's hope that the games both here and in Japan — where there's debate about the possibility of moving opening day — can provide a diversion and a means of healing and unity for players and for fans, just as they did in the U.S. in the wake of September 11. We need the power of baseball now as badly as ever.