Remembering Tony Solaita
The SK Wyverns of South Korea’s KBO signed former Oriole and Ray Luke Scott today for a reported $300,000, but probably more like $1.3 million (the KBO has a $300,000 cap on what first-year foreign players can be paid, but few, if any, KBO teams actually honor the cap). Scott hit .241 with a .741 OPS last year in 91 games with the Rays, so he’s still a legitimate major leaguer and probably could have caught on with an MLB team as a left-handed pinch hitter in 2014.
Scott turns 36 next June, and I think he realizes his professional career is near the end. As such, he’s probably looking to cash in with one or two more high paying years in the Far East and have some new and exciting experiences in the process. He’ll be the first player with 100+ home runs in the majors to play in the KBO, and I’m sure he’s being compensated accordingly.
The Scott signing got me thinking of past American players who cashed in on their last few professional seasons by going to Japan’s NPB to play. You don’t see quite as many of these players as you once did, as NPB has gotten better at recruiting younger players, who if they succeed right away in NPB, will hang around for a few years. However, Andruw Jones, who played for the Rakuten Golden Eagles this past season at age 36, is one recent example.
Anyway, I got to thinking about Reggie Smith, who played his last two seasons with the Yomiuri Giants at ages 38 and 39 in the early 1980’s and is featured heavily in Warren Cromartie‘s great book Slugging It Out in Japan. I looked Reggie up on japan baseball daily’s data warehouse, which contains stats for all NPB players up through 2010 or 2011, and in the process I happened to come across the NPB stats for Tony Solaita.
Solaita was the first Samoan-born player to play in the major leagues. He came the U.S. at age 9, which is where he learned to play baseball. He attended high school in Daly City, California, just south of San Francisco.
Solaita was pretty good left-handed hitter, but he didn’t hit lefties too well and probably didn’t play a lot of defense, because he spent his seven year major league career almost exclusively as a platoon player. He had his best year for the 1975 Royals, when he slugged 16 HRs and had an .884 OPS over 93 games.
When Solaita became a free agent after the 1979 season, he signed a four-year deal with NPB’s Nippon Ham Fighters. In four seasons in Japan, Solaita blasted 155 home runs, reaching the 100 HR mark in the fewest games of any hitter in NPB history. He also hit four consecutive home runs in a game, and tied an NPB record with five strikeouts in a game.
Solaita is featured prominently in Robert Whiting’s (Whiting was Warren Cromartie’s ghost writer on Cro’s autobiography) You Gotta Have Wa, another great book about Japanese baseball in the 1980’s. Solaita was the strongest man in the NPB of his day and had a hot temper. One day when he felt that the Lotte Orions’ (now the Chiba Lotte Marines) pitchers were throwing at him, Solaita brought out his interpreter for a conversation with the Orions’ catcher. Solaita allegedly said, “Listen, you no-good son of a bitch, if you have a pitcher throw at my head again, I’ll f#$%ing kill you!” Without missing a beat, the interpreter told the catcher in Japanese, “Mr. Solaita asks that you please not throw at his head any more. It makes his wife and children worry.”
After his four seasons with the Nippon Ham Fighters, Solaita retired from baseball, having lost the joy of playing the game during his time in Japan. A few years later, he visited American Samoa for the first time since he’d left as a child, and he liked it so much, he moved his family there, where he opened a butcher shop and began teaching baseball to the local children. Ultimately, and with the help of his brother, he established youth leagues containing some 600 children.
Sadly, in 1990 at the age of only 43, Solaita was murdered by a young ne’er-d0-well who Solaita had confronted over vandalism to his property. You can learn more about Tony Solaita at this website dedicated to his memory and from SABR’s biography here.