Kenji Johjima, the only Japan-born catcher to test his skills at the Major League level, has decided to finish his career where it started -- in Japan.
His four-year career with the Mariners ended on Monday when it was announced that he was opting out of the final two years of his three-year, $24 million contract.
"I have had a wonderful experience competing at the Major League level," Johjima said in a press release issued by the organization. "The last four years have been extraordinary, with great teammates and great coaches. I will always be indebted to the Mariners organization for giving me the opportunity to follow my dream."
It is the second time in the past five years the Mariners have lost a Japanese-born player with time remaining on an existing contract. Kazuhiro Sasaki, the franchise's all-time leader in saves, did the same thing prior to the 2004 season.
"Sometimes players get to a point in their career when they want to play close to home," said Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik during a conference call. "We are very appreciative of everything Kenji has done for this organization over the past four seasons.
"We respect his decision to return home. Joh has been a terrific teammate and a great competitor. His work ethic, production and desire to win made him a positive role model. He is a class, class guy and we will always consider Kenji a member of the Mariners family."
Johjima batted .268 during his four seasons with the Mariners, hitting 48 home runs and driving in 198 runs in 462 games. A starter during his first two seasons in the big leagues, injuries and lack of production limited his playing time to 71 games this past season and 112 games in 2008.
"I know he wanted to play every day," manager Don Wakamatsu said, "and the two stints on the disabled list this year didn't help. There was a lot of pressure on him to produce and the way the year went with the injuries hurt him."
Johjima's departure caught the organization by surprise.
"As far as my understanding, Kenji was going to be part of this organization for a number of years," Zduriencik said during a conference call. "We kind of got wind of it this past weekend during a Friday [telephone] discussion with [agent] Alan Nero. There were a series of conversations and at the end of the day, Joh made the decision a lot of veteran players do -- to play closer to home. That was the motivating factor.
"In my experience with him this past year, he was a delightful person with a great work ethic. With great respect, and regret, we wish him the best."
Meanwhile, the health issues facing Rob Johnson, who might have four surgeries during the offseason, including one on each hip, and the lack of big league experience of Adam Moore, could change the team's offseason priority list.
"As we stand right now, we have one catcher going through surgeries and an unproven one," Zduriencik said. "We were looking forward to seeing Kenji again next year. This will force us to look at other things. We think Rob will be ready for Spring Training, but [catching] is an area we might have to do something sooner rather than later."
Johjima's decision closes the book on a historical event in the Major Leagues.
Primarily because of a language barrier, never before had a Japan-born catcher even attempted to test his skills in the Major Leagues.
Johjima had a highly successful 11-year career with Fukuoka, where he batted .299 with 211 home runs, 699 RBIs and won seven Gold Glove Awards.
For the most part, he communicated well with the pitching staff and contributed solid offensive numbers during his rookie season, batting .291 with 18 home runs and 76 RBIs, setting an American League record for most hits by a rookie catcher (147).
He also threw out 89 of the 263 runners attempting to steal bases, including 19 of the 38 that tried to pilfer a base this past season.
"This was a very difficult decision, both professionally and personally," Johjima said. "I feel now is the time to go home, while I still can perform at a very high level. Playing close to family and friends was a major factor. I will miss the Seattle fans and their gracious support."
"On behalf of the Seattle Mariners ownership group, and together with our players, our manager, coaches and everyone in our front office, I want to thank Joh for his service to the Mariners over the past four years," CEO Howard Lincoln said. "I know I speak for everyone when I say that Joh is not just a great ballplayer, he's also a great guy. All of us have enjoyed his warm smile, his engaging personality, his competitive spirit and his friendship.
"We wish Joh and his family the very best as he continues his baseball career in Japan."
Jim Street is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.