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IMPORTED BY JAPAN, AGAIN : Like His Father Before Him, Matt Keough Goes Overseas to Further His Baseball Career

May 08, 1988|EARL GUSTKEY | Times Staff Writer

KOBE, Japan — Two years ago, when 30-year-old Matt Keough stepped off an airplane in Osaka, he was surprised to find a delegation of baseball fans at the gate, assembled to welcome him to his new team, the Hanshin Tigers.

One of the fans, Keough remembers, held up an enlarged black and white photo of a similar arrival 18 years earlier, when his father, Marty Keough, arrived in Japan for the 1968 season.

In the photo, holding Marty Keough's hand, was his 12-year-old son, Matt.

"We're the first (American) father-son team to have played in Japan, and a lot of Japanese fans mention to me how they remember Dad over here," Keough said recently, seated in the living room of his hilltop home in Kobe.

"Things have changed quite a bit since Dad was here--not only the country, but the way they play baseball, too."

Keough, 32, who lives in Coto de Caza during the off-season, is in his second season with the Hanshin Tigers. He spent nine years in the major leagues, with the Oakland A's, New York Yankees, St. Louis Cardinals and Houston Astros. Marty Keough, 54, who lives in Irvine, played 11 years in the majors and finished his career in Japan in 1968 with the Nankai Hawks.

"I was here with Dad that year, but I don't remember much," Keough said. "But he's told me how tough it was, how playing pro ball here was almost like joining the Marines. He spent part of spring training running through the woods and chopping wood, stuff like that.

"It's still much tougher than it is in the U.S., and if the Japanese do have a fault, it's that they work the players--particularly the pitchers--too hard. At the end of the season over here--which is only 130 games--the hitters' batting averages go way up because the pitchers are all worn down."

Keough explained how he ended up in Japan.

"I was right in the middle of the owners-players collusion on free agency and salaries," he said. "In 1986, I was looking at maybe a $100,000 salary if I stayed with Houston," he said.

"I went to the winter meetings that year, and no one would talk to me. I was throwing well then, my fastball was in the high 80s, low 90s. And not one club would talk to me.

"Then the Japanese showed some interest in me, partly because Dad had played there, and partly because Joe Coleman, who scouts for Japanese clubs, knew I was ready to make a move. And the money they offered me . . . well, it wasn't a hard decision."

Keough, who makes "a little more" than $500,000, is also supplied with a large home, medical insurance, two automobiles and other benefits.

Dan Grigsby, Keough's Los Angeles attorney, said the presence of Keough the Younger in Japan is an illustration of how international economics have changed the profile of U.S. players recruited to play in Japan.

"When Bob Horner went over there for last season, that changed everything," Grigsby said. "That showed everyone that the Japanese would no longer necessarily settle for end-of-their-career, or over-the-hill Americans.

"They made a real run at (Yankee reliever Dave) Righetti. I heard the offer went up to $10 million for two years and $21 million for three years."

Negotiations for Keough, Grigsby said, were formal in the extreme.

"Two executives from the Hanshin club, Ta Honda and Seishi Fujie, called me in the winter of 1985 and 1986 and asked me for permission to go to Puerto Rico and watch Matt pitch, if you can imagine that.

"The game they wound up watching, Matt pitched a 1-hitter for five innings. They didn't talk to Matt then--they'd told me they wouldn't--but they called me that night from Puerto Rico and made an appointment to see me in L.A. the next day.

"We had a meeting and they offered low, around $200,000. I told them I was sorry they'd traveled so far, but that their offer wasn't nearly enough for Matt to uproot his family and business and go overseas.

"So they asked for another appointment, the following day. They came back with a substantially increased offer, and as we put the contract together they threw out stuff like a guaranteed number of first-class, round-trip airplane tickets per year, a furnished house, cars and free medical coverage.

"Then, when we signed the contract, they said Jeanna (Keough's wife) should go over first and pick out her linens, towels, sheets and dishes.

"The way they put it, was: 'We wouldn't think of providing Matt and his wife with a house with used dishes.' "

The Keoughs in Japan story has a theme: Go with the flow.

"The key to being happy over here is to arrive with the attitude that you're not going to be playing American baseball here," Keough said.

"A lot of guys, they've come over here and fought changes, had the attitude that, 'This is how I did it in the States, and this is how I'm going to do it here.' "

Keough discussed some major differences between U.S. and Japanese pro baseball:

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