Sports

Far East-bound: TJ grad Barnette makes the jump to Japan

Thomas Jefferson grad Tony Barnette recently signed a contract to pitch this season for the Tokyo Yakult Swallows of Japan’s Central League. Barnette spent the last four years in the Arizona Diamondbacks minor league system after throwing at Arizona State University.  - Courtesy photo
Thomas Jefferson grad Tony Barnette recently signed a contract to pitch this season for the Tokyo Yakult Swallows of Japan’s Central League. Barnette spent the last four years in the Arizona Diamondbacks minor league system after throwing at Arizona State University.
— image credit: Courtesy photo

The game of baseball has taken Tony Barnette to pretty much every corner of the United States.

During his four-year career in the minor league system of the Arizona Diamondbacks, the Thomas Jefferson High School graduate has called places like Missoula, Mont., South Bend, Ind., Mobile, Ala., and Reno, Nev., home.

Things are about to get a lot more cosmopolitan for Barnette this baseball season. The national pastime is taking him halfway across the globe.

The 26-year-old officially signed a contract to pitch next season for the Tokyo Yakult Swallows of Japan’s Central League. The Swallows officially announced Thursday that they had inked the right-handed pitcher to a one-year deal.

“I would have never imagined this in my wildest dreams,” Barnette said. “This is a once in a lifetime experience and a great opportunity.”

After graduating from TJ in 2002, Barnette moved on to pitch at Central Arizona Community College before a two-year stint at Arizona State, where he threw at the 2005 College World Series.

Following his collegiate career, Barnette was a 10th-round selection by the Arizona Diamondbacks in the 2006 Major League Baseball Draft and has steadily risen through the team’s farm system. He started out at the rookie ball level in 2006, pitched in the Single-A Midwest League in 2007, the Double-A Southern League in ‘08 and spent the entire 2009 season playing for the Reno Aces of the Triple-A Pacific Coast League.

In Reno, Barnette finished with a team-best 14 wins with a 5.79 earned-run average in 29 starts for the Diamondbacks’ top-level minor league franchise.

Barnette’s best outing came June 21 against the Tacoma Rainiers at Cheney Stadium. During the game, Barnette threw eight innings of one-hit ball.

During the 2008 season, Barnette finished 11-7 with a 3.87 ERA in 27 starts with the Mobile BayBears and ended tied for the league lead in strikeouts with 133.

According www.japanball.com, the Yukult Swallows will pay Barnette 50 million yen ($518,100) next season, plus performance bonuses. The money situation was a big reason why Barnette choose to re-route his baseball career to Tokyo for the 2010 season.

“I will be making way more than in the minor leagues,” Barnette said. “A lot more. They gave me a chance to financially stabilize myself and get to go over and play baseball.”

It’s still up in the air if he will play more than one season in Japan, he said. Barnette signed a one-year contract with the Swallows, but does have a vesting option for the 2011 season.

“They are not joking around over there,” Barnette said. “Japan takes their baseball very seriously. It’s not going to be a cakewalk.”

The Japan experience all started about a month ago when he was contacted by a representative from the Swallows. Barnette listened and things were ramped up after he went unselected in last month’s Major League Baseball Rule 5 draft.

The Rule 5 draft aims to prevent teams from stockpiling too many young players on their minor league affiliate teams, when other teams would be willing to have them on their Major League roster. A minor leaguer becomes eligible for the Rule 5 draft after four years of service.

“I was kind of skeptical at first, but then it started getting more serious after I went unpicked in the Rule 5 draft,” Barnette said. “Then they put a serious offer on the table and I accepted.”

Spring training for the Swallows will kick off Feb. 1 in Okinawa, an island off the coast of Japan. The Central League’s regular season starts in April.

“I know zero Japanese,” Barnette said. “I have gotten the flash cards and a couple books. I can count up to three. To be honest, I don’t think my nerves have set in that much. I think it will get real to me when I’m boarding a plane to Japan. Right now, I’m basically getting ready for another baseball season.”

Barnette does still have the dream of someday pitching in the Major Leagues, but says he just couldn’t pass up moving to Tokyo for at least one season.

“I want my family and friends to get over there,” Barnette said. “I don’t want to experience this alone. It’s a once in a lifetime deal. I get an all-expenses paid trip to Japan. I’m going to take in the culture and dive into the Japanese lifestyle. It’s a great opportunity.”

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