Yan Seeks to Stretch Career a Bit Longer

At 32, Veteran Tries Comeback in Majors After Year in Japan

esteban yan - baltimore orioles
"You have to do it to be in a good shape," said Esteban Yan, 32, who spent last season in Japan with the Hanshin Tigers. "Now I need to prove, by getting a job, that I'm here for a reason." (Rob Carr - AP)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 25, 2008; Page E10

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla., Feb. 24 -- Each morning since the start of spring training, relief pitcher Esteban Yan has arrived early at Fort Lauderdale Stadium to begin the laborious process of stretching an aging body that has picked up a few pounds since he began his major league career.

When he first arrived with the Baltimore Orioles in 1996, he was a 6-foot-4, 225-pound rookie with a hard fastball that on good days could make opposing hitters look foolish. The Atlanta Braves had plucked him from the Dominican Republic at the age of 15 in 1990, when a good portion of the players in his current clubhouse were graduating from tee-ball. He would go on to a journeyman's career, playing for seven teams in 11 major league seasons, the highlight coming with his stint as a closer for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.

"The guy threw like 98 with a split," said Orioles first baseman Aubrey Huff, a former teammate in Tampa.

But those days are long gone, which is why upon his arrival each morning, Yan faithfully pulls out a portable music player, straps on an imposing set of noise-canceling earphones and sprawls in front of his locker, where he bends and twists his 255-pound frame into a pretzel.

"You have to do it to be in a good shape," said Yan, 32. "Now I need to prove, by getting a job, that I'm here for a reason."

Even with the Orioles undergoing an extreme makeover, Yan has returned to the place that gave him his first major league break for nothing more than a minor league contract, an invitation to spring training and chance to prove that he can still make a contribution.

"He recognized that we needed, perhaps, some insurance," Orioles Manger Dave Trembley said. "Even if he didn't make this club, he's somebody who's got some experience who could go to Triple-A and help us. But our situation is such that he's going to get a shot just like anybody else."

If it were his choice alone, independent of the realities of the game, Yan said he would pitch until his right arm could no longer function.

"It is all that I know how to do," Yan said.

But over the last few years, the game has sent the message that his time as a pitcher may be nearing an end. Yan, who has a 5.14 career ERA, last pitched in the majors two years ago with the Cincinnati Reds. When the Reds released him in July, Yan signed a minor league deal with the Kansas City Royals though he remained at Class AAA Omaha the rest of the year.

Yet, Yan still believes he can contribute and he is willing to pay the price to prove it.

The Hanshin Tigers offered Yan a two-year contract, perhaps the only place in the baseball universe he could have fetched such an offer. Instead, he insisted on signing for just one year with the intent to return to the United States for another run at a big league job.

He needed time to get used to Japanese baseball, which required that he arrive at games two hours earlier than he was used to, with the extra time going to extended stretching exercises.

He posted a 4.66 ERA in 21 games for the Tigers. But most importantly, he said the stretching techniques he learned in Japan have helped. After one season in Japan, Yan went to his native Dominican Republic, where he caught the attention of the Orioles.

"Good chance, bad chance, I don't know. But right now I'm here and I want to do my best," Yan said. "There's a lot of opportunities out there. Throw strikes and get people out, maybe one day those doors are going to be opened again."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company