Carter Stewart ditched the MLB draft to pitch in Japan. Then came the coronavirus

When Carter Stewart calls his parents from his apartment in Japan, it often feels as if he’s reaching out from a totally different universe.

The right-hander already was charting new territory after making an unprecedented major league gamble last year. Now, with the world in turmoil, that gamble has taken an unexpected twist.

As the coronavirus pandemic surges across the United States, and with the minor league baseball season canceled, Stewart, 20, has settled into his pitching routine. He’s preparing to soon make the jump from the minor leagues to the big club — the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks of the Nippon Professional Baseball league, where fans slowly are being allowed back into stadiums, a far cry from Major League Baseball’s ongoing outbreaks and cardboard cutouts in the stands.

“We’re dealing with it so well as a country — that’s me speaking on behalf of Japan,” Stewart told ESPN via phone. “They are doing extremely well. Being able to get baseball back up soon is kind of a blessing. It’s just nice to be able to play and not have too many worries right now.”

Stewart shook up the baseball world in May 2019 when he declined to re-enter the MLB draft, instead signing a six-year contract with the Hawks, worth more than $7 million. He had turned down an offer of around $2 million to sign with the Atlanta Braves the previous year, after the team selected him with the No. 8 pick in the 2018 MLB draft. Stewart chose to begin his professional career overseas, a former first-round MLB draft pick making an unprecedented leap.

Not signing with an MLB team was a risk, but it gave Stewart an opportunity to prove himself in Japan, skip the years of low pay and uncertainty in the minor leagues, and set up a potential return to the United States on a lucrative free-agent deal.

In an alternate timeline where he had signed with the Braves, Stewart would now be trying to develop on the mound under the most unusual of circumstances, whether from home or on the team’s taxi squad. Instead, he continues his development for the Hawks’ Eastern League (equivalent to the MLB’s Triple-A) squad — sharpening the curveball that has long attracted MLB teams and working on pitch sequencing — with an eye on potentially making his NPB debut this season.

His parents, girlfriend and close friends from home originally planned on making regular trips to Japan to visit, but the pandemic altered those plans indefinitely — and Stewart is planning for the possibility that he might not see anyone in his family for another full calendar year.

“I was like, damn this is going to be a long summer, a long year,” Stewart said. “If I have to stay here through spring training, then I might have to do that. I might not even get the chance to go home. If that’s my job, I have to do it. It’s going to be really hard. I think having friends, family, girlfriend come over as soon as possible will help me get through it, but I’ll have to deal with it. If they can’t come until summer of next year, then I’ll have to get through it.”

To keep in touch with friends back home, Stewart spends much of his free time playing Overwatch online in Fukuoka — one of the nation’s largest cities, located on the northern coast of Kyushu island. His mother, Pat, often sends care packages to give Stewart a taste of home, boxes that include his prescriptions, American candy and Mountain Dew, which isn’t available in Japan. When he talks with his parents, they often remind him how fortunate he is to be playing baseball at all, given the state of the world.

“I’m like, ‘You’ve been very fortunate that you did sign with a Japanese team because you get to play baseball and you’re getting paid,'” said Carter’s father, Scott. “The guys who got drafted with him that signed, they’re not getting paid anything. They’re not even playing organized ball.”

Stewart’s family lives in Eau Gallie, Florida, where COVID-19 touched their lives when Stewart’s older sister, Rachel, tested positive for the virus six weeks ago. She was asymptomatic, but their state has turned into an epicenter for the pandemic in the United States. When Pat makes trips around town, she sees how the virus is affecting those in Carter’s peer group.

“It’s amazing all these kids that normally would be at school are here or they’re all working at Home Depot and Domino’s,” Pat says. “And I mean not just the baseball kids. I’m talking about all the college kids. But yeah, I mean I think it truly is a blessing that he’s where he is right now, because he could literally be sitting here twiddling his thumbs.”

Meanwhile, Stewart marches on, receiving encouragement from Japanese right-hander Yu Darvish of the Chicago Cubs, who recently tweeted his support of Stewart’s trailblazing journey. Darvish posted a photo of Stewart to praise his performance because, according to Google Translate, “I wanted to support you in a distant country at a young age.”

But while Stewart slowly is picking up the Japanese language through conversations with cashiers, restaurant servers and teammates, he’s still living in a country where he’s one of few Americans adjusting to a drastically different culture. He has bonded with former major leaguer Matt Moore, who’s playing for the big league Hawks, but the reality of isolation often sets in.

“You walk outside and it’s a completely different atmosphere, language — everything,” Stewart said. “[Try to] do your work in another language. My friends will say that they understand the loneliness, but as of right now, I’ll just be like, ‘I get it, you’re lonely, but you’re not lonely, lonely.”

The reprieve from the isolation comes from the 30-minute trips on the bullet train to the team’s minor league facility in Chikugo, workouts with teammates and of course, games. When Stewart arrived in Japan, he often had fans approaching him for photos, given there aren’t many 6-foot-6 Americans walking around. He still takes those pictures, but now they are socially distant, with everyone wearing a mask.

“I think at the baseball field, anything around there, I’m completely fine, I’m really enjoying it. I enjoy doing my job,” Stewart said. “I think just being at home at times, I have video games, I have watching TV, I have interior designing, I have learning Japanese, I have cooking. I have a lot of things I can do, but doing that all alone, sometimes it can be a lot less fun.”

To keep up with their son, the Stewart family often watches baseball at odd hours, sometimes midnight, sometimes 5 a.m., streaming his games online.

“He’s getting paid a major league salary to pitch at the minor league level and he’s got four more years on his contract after this year,” Scott said. “Good for him is what I say. Good for him. I mean, it’s unfortunate the way it all went down. It led him to this, which he’s in a better spot than seemingly everybody, including major league players.”

Stewart and his family often debrief on his latest performance and catch up and talk about his development on the mound. For Stewart, it has an opportunity to be himself.

“It’s been a little bit of bottling things up,” Stewart said. “With them, it’s not bottling up the emotions, but just letting it all out.”

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