Minors' top slugger heading to Japan

Witt presented with Joe Bauman award at Winter Meetings

(Joy R. Absalon/MLB.com)

By Kevin T. Czerwinski / MLB.com | December 4, 2006 12:31 PM

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Kevin Witt went to Disney World Monday afternoon to collect his hardware. Now he's headed to Japan with it.

The slugging Witt was presented with The Joe Bauman Award, emblematic of the top home run hitter in the Minor Leagues, at the Winter Meetings. It was a wonderful end to a special season for the slugging first baseman, who hit 36 homers and drove in 99 runs for Triple-A Durham.

But, collecting the award may ultimately be his North American farewell as he heads overseas to play for the Tohku Rakuten Golden Eagles after Tampa Bay removed him from its 40-man roster. It will be Witt's second trip to Japan -- he played there in 2005 -- and he's looking forward to the challenge.

"They've shown some interest in me throughout the year," said Witt, who also appeared in 19 games for the Devil Rays and hit .148 with two homers and five RBIs in that span. "And I had kept it in the back of my mind. When I was taken off the Devil Rays' roster at the end of the year, I knew I had interest there. It's guaranteed money, and it's an opportunity I can't pass up.

"The last time I played there I had some nagging injuries and some issues at home that required attention. A lot of things were going on, and I was actually sent to the farm system there. But I made some adjustments, and I'm looking forward to going back."

Based on what he accomplished this season under some trying circumstances in Durham, he should have no problems when he arrives in Japan. The Bulls were beset by distractions almost from Opening Day as Delmon Young, Elijah Dukes and B.J. Upton made headlines for their behavior on the field, off the field and with the media.

Witt remained a steadying influence throughout the turmoil, earning a place in the Triple-A Home Run Derby. And though he made a first-round exit in that competition, he came back two nights later to smack a homer and drive in three runs as the International League posted a 6-0 victory over the Pacific Coast League All-Stars. Witt was named the IL Player of the game.

He connected for 16 second-half homers, edging Frisco's Nate Gold, who had 34 homers in the Texas League, to win the award. Witt said he didn't start to take notice of how many homers he had hit until his total hit 30. That's when someone pointed out that he was on pace to win the Bauman Award.

"I had no idea what people in other leagues were doing," said Witt, who also collected $7,200 ($200 per homer) for winning. "It's a nice way to earn some cash for Christmas."

Witt finished the season strong, hitting .273 with five homers in August, and continued to force out all the distractions that hovered around the club.

"It was tough to stay focused this year, but I've been around and you learn to block it out," said Witt, who has 226 homers in 10 Minor League seasons. "Obviously it has an effect on the clubhouse atmosphere but you try to maintain sanity in the clubhouse. It was tough but Tampa Bay, the Durham Bulls and everyone on our team all stuck together.

"I don't think we as players got a bad rap. I think the Bulls got a bad rap. And those guys are accepting full responsibility for their actions. At least I hope they are. It's just unfortunate because they're all good kids."

Witt is clearly one of baseball's good guys, and he knows the business side of baseball led to Tampa's decision to take him off the roster. The Devil Rays are going with youth, and Witt will turn 31 next month. So he heads to Japan with some extra hardware but no hard feelings.

"I thank them for the opportunity they gave me," Witt said. "They're going places the next couple of years. I'd like to be a part of it, but you never know."

Kevin Czerwinski is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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