Longtime Carolina Mudcats fans might remember Randy Messenger as a tall, hard-throwing right-hander who helped the team to the Southern League championship in 2003, the year future American League MVP Miguel Cabrera was a star.
In 2004, the “Big Mess” was the Mudcats’ closer, posting 21 saves and a 6-3 record before he moved along on baseball’s escalator. Messenger’s resume after those two seasons in the Triangle reads like a Greyhound signboard – with stops in Albuquerque, N.M.; Fresno, Calif.; Tacoma, Wash.; and Jupiter, Fla., among stints with the Florida Marlins, San Francisco Giants and Seattle Mariners.
Today, Messenger, 33, is an absolute rock star in the major leagues, a true household name as the baseball playoffs begin and the stakes increase. He is mobbed in public and seldom gets through dinner without an autograph request.
Say what? Who?
The Big Mess is a big deal – in Japan.
His most recent contract, worth $15 million with incentives over three years, is the largest ever for an American in the Nippon Professional League, according to his agents, Matt Sosnick and Paul Cobbe.
When the U.S. ambassador to Japan, Caroline Kennedy, tossed out a ceremonial first pitch at a game in Tokyo this year, Messenger met her pregame and helped guide her through the motions.
Messenger recalled the Japanese press lapping it up when he and a sumo champion appeared in public together. (The mass of photographers politely asked his wife to step out of the photos.)
But first thing first: Baseball in Japan is like college football in the South. The fans are absolutely nuts about the game – especially fans of Messenger’s team, the Hanshin Tigers.
The Tigers are based in Osaka, Japan’s second-largest metro area. They stand in as the Japanese equivalent of the Boston Red Sox, a foil to the New York Yankee-like Yomiuru Giants, who play in the Tokyo Dome on Japan’s east coast.
Go to a Tigers game in Japan and you are greeted with a brass band, leading raucous cheers and songs tailored to each player that are sung throughout the game. Fans wave large team flags and banners, the kind typically seen only in the end zones after a touchdown on Saturdays in the U.S.
The most boisterous fill up the outfield seating, where they move together, sort of like the Cameron Crazies at Duke. It’s a Game 7 of the World Series playoff atmosphere – all the time, for every pitch.
For Messenger, the fans basically end up yelling his name in a chant Mess-en-ger! Mess-en-ger! That’s better than what happened when he first arrived five seasons ago, after an unremarkable big-league career, and saw his nickname garbled into the “Big Mouse.”
The fans bang plastic noisemakers constantly, and they implore their players to perform. One fan likened what transpires at times to that of a jockey in horse racing who loves his horse but still breaks out the crop in the home stretch. The fans say this brand of cheering is using the “crop of love.”
Messenger’s Tigers play home games in an old stadium with an all-dirt infield and 50,000-plus watching.
Tigers fans fill up opposing stadiums, too. They have their own seventh-inning stretch (held at the top of the seventh as the away team), complete with vast numbers of long yellow and white balloons they release into the air after they sing the team song in unison. Yes, there is a team song. It is sung with verve.
Messenger said a buddy visited once and found the experience jarring.
Messenger did, too, early on, but said over dinner recently that he has since adjusted to the intensity.
People back home have no idea what it’s like, Messenger said.
“Crazy,” he said. “That’s the only word for it.”
The game day atmosphere is in contrast to the workday scene in Japan’s business districts, where salarymen in mostly white collared shirts and black dress pants make their way to towering office buildings in near silence.
At a recent game against the Yokohama Bay Stars, the announced attendance was about 16,000. It felt like 30,000.
“The noise they can bring – it’s like, huh? Are you serious?” Messenger said, cracking a smile.
Messenger was a reliever in the U.S. big leagues, winning four games and losing 12 with three different teams across five seasons.
In 2007, he pitched for the San Francisco Giants as the world watched slugger Barry Bonds chase Hank Aaron’s career home run record. On the night Bonds tied the mark with 755 career home runs, Messenger gave up a 12th inning single that lost the game. He also pitched three nights later when Bonds broke the home run record.
In Japan, Messenger converted into a starting pitcher and has been a major success. He has posted double-digit wins in each of the past four seasons. As this week’s final regular season games approached, he was leading the Central League in wins, with 13, and strikeouts. In Japan, the teams play 144 games versus the 162 teams in the U.S. play.
Messenger’s win count this year could have been even better – six times this season he left a game with his team in the lead only to see the win later squandered. On Tuesday, Messenger threw for eight innings, giving up only three hits and one run, but the Tigers lost the game, 1-0.
He is sixth best in the league in average runs given up per nine innings.
Messenger’s Tigers are bound for the playoffs later this week, and their postseason hopes will rest in good part on his arm. After the season, Messenger said he will fly home as soon as he can to Tennessee, where he has a house near the Great Smoky Mountains – and few realize what a star he is abroad.
Asked about his Mudcats days, he brightened, recalling the ’03 championship season and playing with Cabrera, Dontrelle Willis, Josh Beckett, Danny Bautista and others who had good careers in the majors in the U.S.
He said he ate a lot of barbecue back then, and enjoyed living in Knightdale and Raleigh and driving to the Mudcats’ stadium in Zebulon. He said he realizes most fans were more interested in promos, such as “Thirsty Thursdays,” than they were in watching him play, and that’s what makes minor league baseball fun.
Now, he’s eating an adventuresome mix of Asian foods in world-renowned restaurants with a team-assigned interpreter at his side all of the time.
“It’s still hard to beat a pulled pork sandwich from the South,” Messenger said.
Appearances in public can be difficult, and it’s not easy to hide in Japan. He is 6 feet 6 inches and weighs about 260 pounds. He said he has tried to go incognito at times by wearing a hat, but that rarely works. He mostly tries to embrace the stardom.
Practice, then home
Messenger had interest from some U.S. major league teams when his contract was up last year, but he re-signed with the Hanshin Tigers in the record deal.
Playing in Japan has its perks: The team is housed together in a high-rise, and Messenger negotiated a sweeping view from the 28th floor with a relatively large four-bedroom apartment. Travel is mostly by bullet train.
As a starting pitcher, he doesn’t go to every game, either.
On days he isn’t pitching, he heads to the stadium for some stretching or practice but then leaves by game time. That’s how it works in Japan for starting pitchers.
He has watched many of his team’s games in hotels and restaurants on the road or at home with his family, which includes three children and one more child on the way.
“It’s definitely been nice to be home much more,” he said. “But it’s different to not be at a game with your team.”
On days he starts, it’s the opposite: He stands in the center of a rocking stadium and feels the intensity.
“Japanese baseball is different,” he said. “A great experience.”
And a long way from Zebulon.