Farewell to Aaron Guiel, who worked miracles in Japan
*Aaron Guiel (Langley, BC), shown posing with a future Yakult Swallows fan, had retired after 19 years due to a back injury./Benjamin Parks photo.
By Todd Devlin
All things must come to an end, and while it wasn’t easy for him to let go, Aaron Guiel retired last month after a 19-year professional career. “Bittersweet” is how the 39-year-old described it, particularly since his last season was virtually wiped out by a back injury.
“I still feel I can play and there’s some fight left in me, but with my back situation this is the best thing,” said Guiel, who had been a member of the Tokyo Yakult Swallows of the Japanese Central League since 2007. “After 19 years, it’s time to move on.”
Among active Canadian players, only Matt Stairs had more experience as a pro than Guiel (Langley, BC) when the 2011 season began. Drafted in the 21st round by the California Angels in 1992, Guiel spent parts of five seasons in the big leagues (2002-2005 with the Kansas City Royals, and 2006 with the New York Yankees), where he hit .246 with 35 home runs and 128 RBIs in 307 games. The former national team member, who proudly represented Canada at the World Baseball Classic, World Cup and Pan-Am Games, also spent nine seasons at Triple-A, where he hit a combined .288 with a .396 on-base percentage, 143 home runs and 490 RBIs in 733 games.
But after the 2006 season, he fell off the map — or so it would seem.
“I always joke that when you go over there [Japan], you disappear,” Guiel said. “You become a bit of a forgotten player. You might as well pull the plug on reporting or media coverage. If it wasn’t for Facebook, people would have just assumed I had retired.”
But far from it. Guiel spent five seasons in Japan, where he was one of the Swallows’ most popular players. And while his foray into Japanese baseball may have started out as one big experiment, the end result was a significant chapter in Guiel’s career, and one that he looks back on with fondness.
“It was a very big leap of faith,” Guiel said. “But it turned out to be much better than I ever thought.”
Pursuing a career in Japan was something Guiel had thought about long before he joined the Swallows as a 34-year-old in 2007. During his time in the Royals’ organization, he’d been approached by multiple Japanese teams and scouts while in the minors. But it seemed every time Guiel was ready to pull the trigger, he was called back up to the big leagues. His Japanese plans were then put on hold.
Following the 2006 season, everything finally fell into place. The Yankees non-tendered Guiel at the end of the year, and the outfielder was immediately presented with an offer by the Swallows. He had a pair of major-league offers on the table (from the Colorado Rockies and Philadelphia Phillies) as well, but Guiel opted to sign a one-year, $900,000 (US) contract with the Swallows with a club option for a second year.
“The [Japan] offer was for substantially more money,” he said. “With a wife and two kids, the financial part was the most important. I thought about it, and knew that if I was going to benefit financially, it probably wouldn’t be from going up and down in the big leagues. It would be from going to Japan.”
In doing so, however, Guiel knew he’d likely never play in the majors again. He thought it over and decided he was at peace with that.
“I hadn’t had a career like Justin Morneau or some of these other great players,” Guiel said, “but I had a career that I was proud of, and I could go to Japan and still have pride in what I had done.”
Guiel’s skill-set and career trajectory seemed ideal for the Japanese game, which is why he’d been so heavily recruited. The combination of very good numbers at Triple-A, multiple years of experience in the big leagues and, perhaps most importantly, home run power, made Guiel a great fit for Japanese ball clubs. At the same time, it was a lucrative opportunity that would allow him to play at a high level of baseball every day.
“The guys that are stars, obviously they don’t even think about it because they have their careers laid out for them in the United States,” Guiel said. “But for players like myself, it’s a great opportunity.”
Once he suited up for the Swallows in 2007, Guiel became the seventh Canadian to play pro ball in Japan in the last 20 years (the others: Stairs, Rob Ducey (Cambridge, Ont.), Mike Johnson (Edmonton, Alta.), Aaron Myette (New Westminster, BC), Todd Betts (East York, Ont.), and Nigel Wilson (Oshawa, Ont.), the only other Canuck to play more than two seasons).
In Tokyo, Guiel didn’t have to look far for a Canadian connection. During the slugger’s first week in Tokyo, he met Rob Smaal, a reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, from Nanaimo, where Guiel went to high school. In fact, the two had played for the same Little League coach.
“I got an email from Dick Simpson, my Little League coach, saying it was great that two of his favourite players from the old days would both be in Japan,” said Smaal, who played for Simpson first and jokes that he “paved the way for Guiel’s pro baseball career.”
“I was at Jingu Stadium for a pre-season game that year, and I walked up to [Guiel] during batting practice and said, ‘Dick Simpson says Hi.’ We’ve been pretty good friends ever since.”
It was Smaal who suggested Guiel tap into his Canadian roots by playing the Tragically Hip as his ‘walkup’ music prior to his at-bats at Jingu.
“I had quite a few comments about that,” Guiel said. “People would come to the games and have no idea I was Canadian. And then they’d hear that, and a light bulb would go off.”
In his first year with the Swallows (who play the role of the New York Mets to the so-called “New York Yankees of Japanese Baseball,” the Yomiuri Giants), Guiel hit .245/.381/.493 with a team-high 35 home runs and 79 RBIs in 142 games. Though happy with his home-run total, he was less thrilled with his average, or his 147 strikeouts, second-most in the league. According to Guiel, he had to learn the hard way that there was truth to the widely-held belief that foreigners, or ‘gaijins’, face a much larger strike zone than their Japanese counterparts.
“The strike zone [for hitters] is gigantic for foreigners,” Guiel said. “There are pitches that are sometimes eight, ten inches inside that are called strikes … balls that you have no chance of hitting.
“I actually heard from a teammate of mine, and this is a guy who doesn’t tell many lies, that one time after a strike call, he turned around [to argue] and the umpire told him, ‘gaijin strike.’”
Another thing Guiel quickly learned was that Japanese pitchers approached gaijins far different than the way they approached their fellow countrymen. Gaijins were seldom challenged, Guiel says, because pitchers did not want to be beaten by a foreigner. As a result, the gaijins saw far fewer pitches to hit.
“It’s not uncommon to see 3-0 curveballs,” Guiel said, “or for a catcher to set up a good two feet outside so that the pitch isn’t going to be close. They would rather put you on and pitch to the next guy behind you because they don’t want a foreigner to win the game. So you have to have a lot of patience and discipline.”
But despite the unique challenges faced by the foreigner, throughout his five-year career with the Swallows, Guiel embraced all that the Japanese game had to offer. He showed up to the ballpark with a smile on his face, and was quick to toss balls into the stands and sign autographs. Those qualities, combined with his strong throwing arm from right field and his home run power, made Guiel a fan favourite.
“He was absolutely a fan favourite,” said Seth Greisinger, a fellow gaijin and teammate of Guiel’s during his first season in Japan. “For one, he was an excellent player. But he also respected the fans, his teammates and coaches. And he took the time to understand the Japanese culture both inside and away from baseball. It may sound simple, but it’s not always that easy when you have to do it while in the spotlight and under a microscope.”
The fans gave Guiel a nickname: ‘Angel’, reportedly for the combination of his blond hair and good-natured demeanor. He had his own cheering section at Jingu and, as is customary in Japanese baseball, he even had his own personal ‘fight song,’ which Swallows fans belted out during his at-bats.
“It starts out with ‘Oh Canada,’ Guiel said, ‘but instead of saying ‘Oh Canada,’ they say ‘Oh Gaieru’ [Guiel’s ‘Japanese name’]. There was a guy out there with a trumpet that played ‘Oh Canada,’ and then the fans have their own words.”
Those words, translated to english, go like this:
“Oh! Guiel! You hit the ball!”
“Oh! Guiel! A home run!”
“Aa-ron Gui-el! The man who works miracles!”
“Toward the stands you launch, a timely blast!”
Check out the fight song in action.
“It’s slightly embarrassing,” Guiel admits. “It’s the Japanese culture. They love to have idols. As a baseball player, they prop you up like you’re working some sort of magic.”
But embarrassing or not, Guiel always appreciated the support. And overall, he says, his experience with Swallows fans was extremely positive.
“Their response to me was amazing,” he said. “Over there, if you have a smile on your face, people pick that up. They see that you enjoy what you’re doing, and it just takes off. Word gets around, and people really take to you.”
And they stuck with him through tough times too. In 2008, Guiel struggled after suffering an elbow injury that required surgery following the season. In 79 games, he hit .200/.306/.396 with 11 home runs and 35 RBIs.
He returned on a one-year deal — and a significant pay cut — in 2009, and bounced back with a strong season, hitting .267/.367/.533 with 26 doubles, a team-high 27 home runs, and 80 RBIs in 128 games. The resurgence was a perfect example of his resilience in Japan and his ability to overcome hurdles both on and off the field, a characteristic seldom seen in foreigners.
“The vast majority of foreigners are gone after one year,” Guiel said. “People think of it as a revolving door. In one foreigner, out one foreigner. So for me to be there for multiple years … it gets you a certain amount of respect.”
That respect extended to Swallows ownership, who rewarded Guiel with a more lucrative two-year contract heading into the 2010 season. But unfortunately, for both parties, that last contract was defined by injuries that kept the outfielder from having much success on the field. Bothered by back pain in 2010, Guiel struggled to hit .199/.350/.418, though he still led his team in home runs (16) and had 41 RBI in just 81 games.
Off-season back surgery followed in October, and Guiel returned to camp this season still in rehab mode. He saw limited action during the pre-season, including a game in Yokohama in which he was in the on-deck circle when Japan was hit with a devastating earthquake last March. When the regular season opened, he reported with the farm club and continued to rehab his back. But the injury plagued him all year, and he saw action in just 11 games for the Swallows in 2011.
And so ended Guiel’s 19-year pro career. In all, he played over 2,000 games and wore 15 different uniforms, including 12 in the minors and two at the major-league level, as well as the red and white of Team Canada. But when it came time to actually retire, Guiel said he felt honoured to do so in a Swallows uniform.
“It feels appropriate,” he said. “The Swallows brought me over [to Japan], and that changed my life and my career, so I think it’s only fitting.”