A Shared Pastime

 

by Alex “The Dors” Dorsky

 

American baseball fans are so used to seeing Japanese players in the big leagues, it’s hard to recall a time when that wasn’t so. Ichiro has single-name status, Hideki Matsui won a World Series MVP in Yankee pinstripes in 2009, and there have been All-Star Japanese starters and closers. In fact, there are currently more MLB players from Japan than from any other country outside of North/Central America (including Venezuela), and this has been the case every year since 1998.

So how has this island nation, better known for sumo wrestling and sushi, become a successful talent pool for major league rosters?

Japan’s relationship with America’s pastime goes back further than you might think. The first baseball game in Japan was reportedly organized in 1873 by an American teaching at Kaitaku University in Tokyo, and the first Japanese team was formed in 1878 by Hiroshi Hiraoka, who had become a Red Sox fan while studying in Boston. Yakyu (baseball) quickly took hold in Japan and the Japanese turned their relentless work ethic toward learning this new game. By 1896 they had improved enough that a team from Ichiko University beat a team of Americans from Yokohama Country Club 29-4, 35-9, and 22-6 (even though the US Navy brought in some “ringers” for the finale) in a 3-game series.

Japanese dugouts were first class before WWII

US big leaguers first played in Japan in 1908, and a team of MLB All-Stars made two tours in the 30s. Ty Cobb, Lou Gehrig, Lefty Grove, and the Babe himself beat up on the Japanese college teams, but wowed crowds with their power and speed to plant the seeds that would push Japanese baseball to higher levels in the future.

Most people identify Hideo Nomo (who we’ll get to later) as the first Japanese-born player in the major leagues. The actual pioneer, however, was Masanori Murakami, who compiled a 5-1 record /3.64 ERA / 100 strikeouts (over 1 per inning) in 1964-65 with the San Francisco Giants. Murakami was originally leant to the Giants from his Japanese team the Nankai Hawks as an “exchange student” for only one season, but did so well for the Giants they wanted to keep him against the Hawks’ wishes. A stalemate ensued and the Japanese baseball commissioner compromised by allowing Murakami to stay one additional year. This chain of events led to the US/Japan Player Contract Agreement in 1967, essentially a hands-off policy that halted the import of more Japanese players.

"You sitting real close, Willie-San"

Now back to Nomo. The “Tornado” came to the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1995, finding a loophole in the system. Nomo had played 5 years in Japan and was one of the country’s most popular players but a contract dispute after the 1994 season had him unhappy (imagine, an athlete unhappy with his contract…). Nomo’s genius solution was to retire, putting him out of the scope of the 1967 agreement and leaving him free to sign with whomever he chose. He debuted with the Dodgers in May 1995 after only a month in the minors and went on to win the 1995 NL Rookie of the Year award.

Other Japanese players looked to follow Nomo’s lead, and the NPB (Japan’s equivalent of MLB) eventually relented by allowing its players free agency eligibility after nine years of service in Japan, opening the door for “regulated immigration”. As of the end of the 2010 season a total of 43 Japanese-born baseball players have played at least one MLB game, with no signs of the trend slowing. If you’re looking for an in-depth look at Japan/US baseball history & just a really good read I highly recommend You Gotta Have Wa by Robert Whiting.

If you smack him on the back, he'll get stuck in that position

Here are some of my favorite Japanese player-related stats:

Nomo: In addition to the NL Rookie of the Year award in 1995, the Tornado threw two no hitters in his career – at Colorado in 1996 and at Baltimore in 2001 as a member of the Red Sox. That’s right, a no hitter at the onset of the steroid era and in the thin air of Coors Field, where most pitchers go to die.

Hideki Irabu: No stats here, just a great anecdote. Irabu came to the Yankees in 1997 with big expectations but despite vulturing World Series rings in 1998 and 1999 Irabu’s stats were mediocre at best. The only thing “big” about him was his ever-growing waist line. He eventually pissed off The Boss, and Steinbrenner famously referred to Irabu as a “fat toad” after the pitcher failed to cover first during an April 1, 1999 exhibition game. Gotta love it!

"No happy ending sir, just Sapporo"

Daisuke Matsuzaka: Dice-K came to Boston in 2007 after the Red Sox paid $51.1 million simply for the right to negotiate a contract with him. Most Sox fans have soured on this import by now, but he did help Boston to a ring in 2007. Regardless, his most amazing accomplishment came at age 17 (1998) in Japan’s High School Koshien tournament, – essentially the equivalent to our March Madness. In the round of 16 Dice-K threw a 148-pitch complete game shutout. The next day in the quarter finals he threw 250 pitches in a 17-inning win, and after a “day off” in the semis in which he only threw 15 pitches in the 9th inning to record the victory, Dice-K booked his spot in Japanese history by throwing a no hitter in the finals. Truly amazing.

Ichiro: My personal favorite Japanese import. The first position player to make the jump from Japan debuted with Seattle in 2001 and showed people he could play some defense too, gunning down Terrence Long trying to go from first to third on a single.

That is only one of many defensive highlights the one-name wonder has put up, winning 10 gold gloves in his 10 full years in MLB. Ichiro’s other incredible stats include 200+ hits in each of his 10 full MLB seasons, 224+ hits in 5 of 10 full seasons, and the best of all an MLB record 262 hits in 2004. Ichiro also has 401 career SB at an 81% success rate. Finally, he has a total of 3,604 professional hits if you count his time in Japan, only 652 behind Pete Rose.

Sugoi!!