For years, Anthony Bass believed that Major League Baseball players going to play in Japan signalled the end of their careers in North America. He, like many other scribes and athletes, thought that foreign baseball was easier and less demanding than its North American equivalent.
Now, he regards Japanese professional baseball as a vastly different, not lesser, challenge for players everywhere.
“A lot of people don’t realize how talented the players are in Japan,” he told Blue Jays Nation. “There were so many players I played against that could’ve easily played professional ball here.”
In the fall of 2015, the Texas Rangers traded him to the Seattle Mariners, who in turn tendered him a contract not long after. That winter, the Mariners signed three relievers — Steve Cishek, Blake Parker, and Donn Roach — leaving him on the outside looking in.
Even though he was committed to the Mariners, Japanese teams had been interested in him all winter, checking in at various points throughout the offseason. Conversations between his agent and Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) clubs really started to pick up near the end of December, leading Bass to ask for his release to sign with the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters.
With the Fighters in 2016, Bass, who grew up and went to school in Michigan, pitched solidly, posting an ERA of 3.65 in 103.2 frames, striking out 71 and walking 47 in 37 outings. Given NPB’s limit of four foreign players on a team’s 25-man roster, Bass played with only three other non-Japanese players — Brandon Laird, Luis Mendoza, and Chris Martin.
Perhaps the peak of his career in Japan came in the 2016 Japan Series, where Bass’ Fighters (who were led that season by Shohei Ohtani) bested the Hiroshima Toyo Carp to capture the championship in a thrilling six-game series.
Having been a workhorse all season long, Bass pitched in five of the series’ six games out of the bullpen (including games on three consecutive days), pitching a total of 6.2 frames in the span of seven days, ultimately picking up three wins.
In fact, Bass was asked by his coaches to pitch an additional inning in Game 6 to close out the championship. The Fighters may have been up by six runs, and he may have already tossed two hitless innings, but Bass declined to go out for a third inning, telling his coaches he felt like he was going to get hurt had he thrown another pitch.
“I was in a lot of pain after that last outing,” he remembers. “After we celebrated, I went back to my hotel room, opened up the mini-fridge, grabbed two Coke bottles, and placed them on my shoulder because I was in so much pain.”
Thankfully, Bass didn’t seriously injure himself, nor did his shoulder fatigue affect him long-term.
Eventually, he re-signed with the Rangers — one of the biggest risks of his career, a choice even riskier than going to Japan in the first place — and proceeded to play for the Reds and Cubs before re-upping with the Mariners in May.
Known colloquially as “T-Fish”, a nickname given to him by former San Diego Padres teammate Kyle Blanks, Bass joined the Blue Jays in October after being claimed off waivers and recently signed a one-year, $1.5 million deal to avoid arbitration.
His wife, Sydney Rae, who was born into a military family, and his daughter, Brooklyn, have been with him every step of the way, enjoying what he describes as his “crazy lifestyle”. Overall, he’s played for seven teams since making his major-league debut in 2011, with his longest stay in a single location coming with the Padres, the team that drafted him.
While his spot on the roster was likely freed up by the team’s non-tendering of reliever Derek Law, it remains to be seen just what role he’ll play in 2020. He certainly prefers to pitch in high-leverage situations, but he’ll simply contribute in any way he can.
Bass admits earnestly that there was a lot of back and forth in contract negotiations with the Blue Jays, even going as far as to believe the marriage might not work out at all. Still, the deal was agreed upon nearly 10 minutes before the non-tender deadline Monday at 8 p.m. ET.
“There’s plenty of talent [on this team] that everyone’s well aware of,” he noted. “I’m excited for the opportunity in Toronto.”
Notably, he’ll enter his new clubhouse to at least one familiar face — pitcher Matt Shoemaker, who was Bass’ high school friend and teammate at Trenton High School in Trenton, Michigan. Bass’ older sister even went on a spring break trip with Shoemaker, who is a year older than him. Though Shoemaker is generally reserved and doesn’t use social media all that much, Bass reached out to him immediately after he’d been claimed off waivers.
Standing ominously on the mound at 6 feet 2 inches tall and boasting a fastball that averages 95.2 mph, Bass acknowledges that the AL East is a tough division to pitch in. But, it’s that challenge and adversity that makes him want to be that much more dominant, and, more importantly, assist in building a winning team and culture in Toronto.
So, will he help the Blue Jays recruit players from NPB and convince them to come to Toronto? Maybe. He’s aware of the West Coast bias many Japanese players have, and can understand the fear and loneliness of walking into an unfamiliar locker room, but doesn’t want to overestimate his impact on his new team.
“I think they know who I am,” he said of some of the bigger names in Japanese baseball who are being pursued by major-league clubs. “Mentioning that I am on the team might make them more comfortable, because they can at least know who one of their teammates is.”