Time in Japan transformed Vogelsong into clutch playoff pitcher


Pittsburgh Pirates hurler Ryan Vogelsong is different things to different people.

Around the world, folks relate to him in a variety of ways — all good.

To Pirates fans, he is their newly signed starting pitcher who has enjoyed tremendous postseason big league success.

They hope Ryan is the missing ingredient the Bucs need to get out of the wildcard or divisional rounds of the MLB playoffs, where they have stalled each of the past three campaigns.

To the San Francisco Giants faithful, Vogelsong will forever be remembered as the clutch right-hander who played a HUGE role in two recent World Series title wins.

Hanshin and Orix followers remember Ryan as a dedicated and effective starter who toiled for some not-so-hot NPB ballclubs from 2007-09.

Meanwhile, Kutztown (Pa.) University alumni, while technically Golden Bears, are also proud as peacocks about the success of one of their own.

And, finally, to MAS, Vogelsong is a fellow member of a select brother/sisterhood: The Kutztown U. Athletic Hall of Fame.

Ryan made The Hall for baseball, of course, and yours truly as a Golden Bears football linebacker.

Ryan knows he’s lived a life most people can only dream of.

“In a word, it’s been ‘amazing,’ ” Vogelsong told MAS recently at the Bucs’ spring training site.

“You spend a lot of time, like everyone else, growing up wanting to be a major league ballplayer,” Ryan explained. “You throw the ball up against the wall in the backyard; 3-2 count, bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth in the World Series.”

“And I’ve actually been able to do that,” he said, with a shake of his head. “I’ve been blessed.”

But Vogelsong’s path to baseball glory, universal admiration and the monetary riches that come with it has not been an easy road.

Rather, it has been an often bumpy, circuitous trip.

The journey began when he was drafted out of KU in 1998 by the Giants.

Ryan’s ascent through the Giants farm system was fairly smooth.

Soon after getting to the bigs in 2000, however, came a roller coaster ride that lasted quite a while.

Vogelsong struggled to a 0-5 win-loss mark as a Giants rookie and was traded to Pittsburgh by season’s end.

With the Pirates, Ryan would rack up a 10-17 log over six campaigns (2001-06).

Bear in mind, though, that during his time in the Steel City the Pirates were in the midst of a stretch that saw them suffer 20 consecutive losing seasons.

Vogelsong then decided a change was in order.

So, he took off for Japan, where he would play two seasons with the Tigers and one with the Buffaloes.

“I needed to get out of the limelight,” Vogelsong remembered. “If you don’t perform the way analysts on ESPN and MLB network and others think you should, you’re an open target to be put down, criticized and embarrassed.

“Japan gave me a chance to just pitch and refine my skills without worrying about getting beat up on a highlight show.”

The Tigers and Buffaloes, however, weren’t that much better than the Pirates. Vogelsong once again had a losing overall mark but he pitched well enough.

Ryan won in his debut at historic Koshien Stadium, even clouting a home run off former MLB hurler Kazuhisa Ishii in the process.

Vogelsong then decided to give MLB another try.

He played with both Philadelphia’s top farm club and the Los Angeles Angels in 2010.

Through all the ups and downs, Ryan never lost his focus.

“Baseball is a game of failure,” Vogelsong reasoned. “You can fail over half of the time and still be a success” (as in a .300 batting average for hitters and a misleading losing record for pitchers).

“There was never a time I thought about quitting,” Vogelsong recounted. “I just didn’t how many opportunities I was going to keep getting.”

In 2011, he inked a free agent contract with San Francisco.

And magic ensued.

Changing speeds and hitting his spots meticulously — in and out, up and down — Vogelsong went 13-7 with a 2.71 ERA.

“Everything kind of slowed down,” said Ryan of his breakout campaign. “I saw things differently and I was able to make adjustments on the mound.”

The following season was even better for Vogelsong: he had a 14-9 regular-season record and was a postseason hero for the World Series-winning Giants.

TWICE Ryan helped the Giants stave off elimination in that 2012 postseason, as he went 3-0 in four starts while posting a 1.09 ERA — the lowest since Dodger Orel Hershiser’s 1.05 in 1988.

Then in 2014, the Giants again emerged as World Series champs. And Vogelsong again sparkled, turning in three strong starting efforts in postseason games won by the Giants.

Two WS rings and one lasting legacy secured.

Vogelsong had completed his mind-boggling trip from relatively unknown journeyman to internationally renowned clutch performer.

Now everywhere he goes, people recognize him.

And Ryan continually finds Kutztown Golden Bears — like — MAS coming out of the woodwork.

“It’s pretty amazing how many people in weird places come up to me and say ‘Hey, I went to Kutztown, too!’ ” Ryan said, with a chuckle.

And, yes, those wild and crazy Hanshin fans STILL hold a special place in Vogey’s heart.

“I’ve played in a lot of great places, Venezuela and in the big leagues, and the Hanshin fans are right up there,” he offered.

“Playing for them was a lot of fun.”

But the 38-year-old Ryan’s journey is not done.

It continues with the Pirates as he endeavors to help get them over the postseason hump and into the World Series.

Contact MAS at davwigg@gmail.com

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