Kevin Millar Takes .300 Average to Japan
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In a flurry of offseason moves that sent Tom Glavine, Jim Thome and Jeff Kent flashing across the transactions wire, it was easy to miss it this week:
``Florida Marlins _ Announced OF Kevin Millar agreed to terms with the Chunichi Dragons of the Japanese League.″
``I’ve never been the big name, the guy that people know,″ he said. ``That’s OK.″
Sure, he led the Marlins in hitting last season at .306, a year after batting .314. Sure, he totaled 80 doubles and 36 home runs in the past two seasons.
Sure, he was popular with Florida fans, the few that turned out. Showing up early for work, signing autographs and getting a uniform dirty will do that every time. The way he let his scraggly goatee grow during his 25-game hitting streak last year, they liked that, too.
``I can hit,″ he said. ``Plus, I come cheap.″
So why is this 31-year-old left fielder who took a long, hard road to the majors _ undrafted out of high school, unwanted out of college, undeterred throughout the minors _ about to take the longest road trip of his baseball life?
``Well, it’s definitely surprising,″ he said Thursday night from his home in Beaumont, Texas. ``I never thought it would come to this.″
First, know this: Financially, Millar did just fine.
He got a two-year contract from Chunichi that guarantees him $6.2 million and could be worth more than $10 million over three seasons if he exercises an option to stay for 2005. That should make him and his wife, Jeana, secure forever.
``Our responsibility to Kevin is to negotiate the best deal possible and present him options,″ agent Sam Levinson said.
Truth be told, Millar is among Levinson’s favorite clients. They’re even going to the Super Bowl together. So Levinson hated to see Millar go, especially halfway ’round the world, to a place he’s never been.
Blame it on the cost-conscious climate in baseball, a time when familiar outfielders such as All-Star Robert Fick, Shane Spencer and Jose Cruz Jr. were cut loose.
As a result, a kind of squeeze play unfolded.
Aware that he’d appear more attractive to Japanese teams if he was on a big league roster, the Marlins offered Millar a contract. He accepted and might’ve gone to salary arbitration and doubled the $1,050,000 he earned last season, more than Florida wanted to pay.
``I thought I was affordable,″ Millar said.
Meanwhile, Chunichi was interested. Millar was a good hitter with power, a hard worker and still in his prime, and the Dragons offered $1.2 million to the Marlins for him.
Now, Millar had never really considered Japan. But he wanted to play full time and realized his opportunities would be limited because the Marlins were about to sign free agent Todd Hollandsworth and were trying to add a backup, such as Gerald Williams.
It also didn’t help that he’d been branded a defensive liability. A third baseman by trade, Millar had been put in the outfield after one day of practice with Andre Dawson, and done his best to become, by his description, ``average out there.″
``We were not going to keep them both,″ Marlins general manager Larry Beinfest said, referring to Millar and Hollandsworth. ``The budget would not allow it, nor would the playing time.″
That left Millar a tough choice: Take the Japanese offer or risk being cut by the Marlins, albeit with one-sixth of his 2002 salary, and left looking for a job.
Time for some serious talks between Millar, his wife and his three agents, brothers Sam and Seth Levinson and former big leaguer Keith Miller.
``If some major league team had offered me $1.5 million and told me I could play every day, I probably would have taken it,″ he said. ``But to walk away from that much money on the table in Japan, I don’t think it would’ve been responsible for my family.″
This week, Millar, his agents, the Marlins and Dragons held a 41-hour negotiating session that got the deal done.
And in two weeks, he’ll pack his bags for the Super Bowl in San Diego, then head straight to Japan for spring training.
Maybe he’ll be back in the majors someday. He hopes so. Or maybe it won’t work out, and he’ll never hit the transactions wire again.
``My wife and I are looking at it as an opportunity, an adventure,″ he said. ``They say it’s different over there.″