Ahead of a Club meet and greet this month, former major-league pitcher Keona Kela discusses playing ball in Japan.
When Josh Donaldson stepped up to the plate before a raucous Toronto crowd in 2015, he was brimming with confidence.
It was the 13th inning of a pivotal MLB playoff game, and he was in the midst of a season that would bring him the American League MVP.
But 22-year-old Texas Rangers rookie pitcher Keona Kela had other ideas. He struck out the All-Star, silencing the Blue Jays faithful in the process.
Following that sporting high, Kela is now experiencing a far-less-enjoyable side of the game. Over the past two years, he’s undergone a grueling recovery from elbow ligament reconstruction. But having moved to Tokyo to join the Yakult Swallows in the Central League in December, the 30-year-old is enjoying the latest chapter in his career.
“Playing here was something I’ve always wanted to do,” Kela says. “I had the privilege and honor to play with Yu Darvish, and he said it would be something that I would truly enjoy.”
Since signing with the Swallows, Kela has fully embraced baseball here, noting that “the style is completely different, from pitch calling to hitters’ swing styles.”
Hitters in Japan look for “more quality swings” compared to the home run-heavy style of the majors, Kela says.
“It’s definitely not an easy league,” he says during an interview at the Club. “You need to be prepared to switch things up because what worked over there won’t necessarily work over here in Japan.”
Complicating Kela’s transition to Japanese baseball is his post-surgery pitching form.
“I feel like a newborn child having to reteach myself how to pitch,” he says.
The Los Angeles native is currently finding his feet pitching for the Swallows’ farm team in the Eastern League, where he says he is enhancing his repertoire with a changeup and a splitter.
“I’m pretty much having to reinvent myself, which has been a challenge, but I think these times of [discomfort] are going to sharpen me and just make me a better overall pitcher once it clicks,” he says.
It’s been a lesson in patience for a player who made the big leagues just three years after graduating high school. At a time when the average MLB player’s age was 26, Kela was contributing immediately as a top relief pitcher on a Texas Rangers team that went from worst to first and featured All-Stars like Adrián Beltré, Cole Hamels and Prince Fielder.
“I got to play with a tremendous amount of talent,” Kela says, “and I got to pick their brains on how to go about the game as a professional and how to stay even-keeled through the highs and lows.”
So how does he see his move to Meiji Jingu Stadium in the context of his career?
“I definitely want to use this as a stepping stone to potentially going back to America, but if I can be part of something great here, I wouldn’t mind staying,” he says.
Kela has joined a team with championship aspirations after the Swallows lost to the Orix Buffaloes in the final of last season’s Japan Series.
“Being able to feel that energy playing on a big stage, that’s a sentiment you can’t create anywhere else,” he says. “You just saw it in the World Baseball Classic. It’s just electric.”
While the Swallows may not have the pedigree of their crosstown rivals, the Yomiuri Giants, the Shinjuku-based team boasts a star-laden roster that includes reigning Central League MVP Munetaka Murakami. Regarded as the best non-MLB hitter in the world, the 23-year-old broke legend Sadaharu Oh’s longstanding record for the most home runs by a Japanese-born player. His 56 homers capped off a triple-crown season last year.
Kela lavishes praise on Murakami, who is expected to join the MLB when his contract with the Swallows expires in 2025. As a member of the Japan team that wowed fans on the way to winning this year’s World Baseball Classic, Murakami has the potential to “conquer the world,” according to Kela.
But first the pitcher wants to make his own mark on this side of the Pacific.
Meet & Greet with Swallows Pitcher Keone Kela
May 21 | 6:30–8pm
Words: Andrew Chin
Images: Keone Kela