Turning JapaneseThe Next Step in the Internationalization of Major League Baseball
by Robert Nishihara
Opening the First Door
In 1965, a hard throwing left handed relief pitcher saved 8 games for the San Francisco Giants. He also went 4-1 with a 3.77 ERA - steady, though hardly spectacular, numbers. Still, the young reliever was only 21 years old and had fanned 85 batters in 74 innings of work.
His employers, the Giants, were hopeful that he might develop into a top-notch pitcher. But the young lefty left town before the 1966 season. Actually, to be more precise, the young man left the country before the 1966 season.
His name was Masanori Murakami, and, for a time, he held the distinction of being the only Japanese-born player ever to appear in the Major Leagues. His debut in America and his subsequent decision to leave the U.S. after the 1965 season to play in Japan opened a new and interesting chapter in the evolving story of major league baseball.
The Burden of History
There has always been an eclectic, uneasy connection between the United States and Japan. Fueled by a difficult, sometimes bitterly antagonistic history, the two countries have gone from sworn enemies to intense economic competitors to fragile, uneasy allies over the last fifty years. And that complex shared history found its way to the ties shared by the U.S. and Japan through each country's national fascination with the sport of baseball.
From the 1930's when Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig lead a group of major league stars on a barnstorming tour of Japan to subsequent years when Japanese teams actively courted fading major league talent, the onus of the two countries' shared interest in the sport has primarily been on Japan's interest in American baseball and very little of the opposite. To wit, America has long regarded (and likely still regards) Japanese baseball as a lesser version of the "real" thing.
Indeed, the record book of Japanese baseball is dotted with the names of capable but clearly marginal American players who compiled meager statistics in the States before seeking fame and fortune overseas. George "Boomer" Wells, Randy Bass, and Troy Neel are primary examples of players who hung around the fringes of American baseball before setting records and reaching star status in Japan. The perception of a lesser quality of play in Japan has existed for years. In fact, the assertion that a Japanese player, any Japanese player, would ever be skilled enough to play in the majors at one time seemed absurd to most.
But in the mid-1960's something interesting happened.
Should He Stay or Should He Go
In 1964, the Nankai Hawks sent some of their younger players to the San Francisco Giants to gain experience in the Giants' farm system. One pitcher, Murakami, pitched so well that the Giants promoted him to the big leagues late in the year. Murakami went on to pitch 15 innings for the Giants, all in relief, and struck out 15 while only walking one. At the end of the season, the Giants invoked a clause in their original agreement with the Hawks that allowed them to purchase the contract of any player who had earned a promotion to the parent club.
The Hawks hadn't seen this possibility coming. Fearful of setting a precedent allowing Japanese players to try out for major league teams (and thus, draining the talent pool out of Japan), the Hawks' management balked (no pun intended). They reacted strongly and attempted to bring Murakami back to Japan, contract or no contract. After a bitter war of words, the Giants and Hawks finally agreed to let Murakami return to pitch for the Giants during the 1965 season, after which, he would make up his mind as to whether or not he wanted to return to Japan.
In the end, Murakami pitched well (re: his 8 saves and 85 K's in 74 IP), the Hawks doubled the Giants' contract offer for the 1966 season, and Murakami went back to Japan. It would be another thirty years before any other Japanese-born player would appear in a major league game, but Murakami's debut in the U.S. helped to establish a couple of things: one, that it was possible for a Japanese player to compete skill-wise in America; and two, that Japanese baseball officials held an extremely disparate view on player movement based on a player's geography.
In as much as the Japanese had historically courted (and arguably, envied) the American version of the game, they also remained very provincial and nationalistic of their own version. As such, they aggressively pursued American ballplayers, but severely limited the ability of Japanese ballplayers (particularly those in their prime) to play outside of the country. (In fairness, one might argue that it's not unreasonable for a league to make an especially diligent effort to keep its best players while at the same time trying to attract other quality players from abroad.) Also, there was (and still is) a limit on the number of foreign players each team could carry so as not to dilute the amount of influence cultural sensibilities had over the sport. Indeed, those foreign players who failed to heed the national sensibilities surrounding the game were not spared the wrath of fans, media, and management. The general idea was to keep Japanese baseball distinctly Japanese.
So while Masanori Murakami may have offered a glimpse of what the major leagues would be like with even greater international diversity, neither U.S. baseball people nor their Japanese counterparts seemed terribly interested in having a further look.
Once a Tiger, Always a Tiger
From 1985 to 1988, Cecil Fielder had spent three rather underwhelming seasons with the Toronto Blue Jays, over which he managed to hit .243 in 506 at bats with 31 HR's and 84 RBI. Impatient with the rate of Fielder's progress, or lack thereof, the Jays decided that they would need to look elsewhere for a backup and potential successor to incumbent 1B Fred McGriff (they would eventually settle on a then-unknown college player named John Olerud). So, after the 1988 season, Cecil Fielder was encouraged to find employment elsewhere. And "elsewhere" eventually turned out to be Osaka, Japan.
Like so many "failed" major leaguers before him, Fielder thrived on the smaller diamonds of Japan. Playing for Osaka's Hanshin Tigers, Fielder belted 38 homers in the Central League's abbreviated 130-game season.
Back in the U.S., baseball executives yawned. Four seasons earlier, former San Diego Padres journeyman Randy Bass had belted 54 homers for the same Hanshin Tigers. His major league resume? 130 games, a career .212 average and nine home runs.
Ironically, it was the Detroit Tigers who took the gamble on Cecil Fielder prior to the 1990 season. The Tigers, who had cobbled together a first base menagerie of Dave Bergman, Keith Moreland, and Gary Ward in 1989, were desperate for power. Bergman, who saw the most action at first in 89, had a paltry .361 slugging average with 7 HR in 385 AB's that season. So, even though conventional wisdom was that Fielder wouldn't put up the same numbers for the Detroit Tigers as he had for the Hanshin Tigers, it was generally agreed that he would have to slug better than .361.
By season's end, Cecil Fielder hadn't put up the same numbers as he had in Japan. They were better. Much better. He became the first AL hitter since Roger Maris and his famous "61 in '61" to hit at least 50 homers in a season. Fielder, who finished the year with 132 RBI and an OPS (slugging average + on-base percentage) of .972, had hit 51 dingers, and more importantly, renewed the interest of American baseball executives in baseball in Japan and its relative potential impact to the majors.
Still, with regard to the active recruitment of Japanese ballplayers by American baseball, the same barriers existed. Japanese baseball simply would not let them go. And, frankly, American baseball decision-makers were still decidedly skeptical about the ability of Japanese players to compete at the major league level. Though the case of Cecil Fielder was intriguing, most people saw his situation for what it was: an American player had gone overseas to find his batting stroke, and, however improbably, had succeeded beyond anyone's expectations.
Something else needed to happen to pave the way for another Japanese ballplayer to get a chance in the majors.
In 1994, it did.
When the Major League Baseball Players' Union initiated a work stoppage three-quarters of the way into the 1994 season, professional baseball in America ground to a halt. Amid the bitter verbal exchanges between the players and management, the public grew restless and resentful.
Images of ballplayers playing the game on sunny summer afternoons were replaced by Union Chief Don Fehr standing at a podium droning on about the injustices done to some of the richest young men in the country. (As an aside: One of my favorite baseball sayings at the time went something like, "There's nothing for baseball fans to fear but Fehr himself.")
And then, they cancelled the World Series.
American baseball executives, frantically trying to limit the damage caused by the PR disaster of a cancelled World Series, were actively looking for any shred of good publicity. And any headline that could take the words "union" and "work stoppage" off the front page of the sports section was considered good publicity.
That's when an agent named Don Nomura saw his chance. Nomura, a Japanese-American sports agent based in Los Angeles, managed to pry a little-known Japanese pitcher for the Kintetsu Buffaloes away from his Japanese employers. The pitcher, nicknamed "The Tornado" for his unique twisting windup and delivery, eagerly leapt at the opportunity to become a free agent.
Again, mortified that other players would follow, Japanese baseball officials scrambled to prevent any player movement from Japan to the U.S. Nomura, however, was persistent. Eventually, he was able to get his client to America. Knowing that American baseball officials were reeling from the disastrous PR effects of the 1994 players' strike, Nomura shopped his Japanese client aggressively and hoped that a Major League GM would view the signing of a Japanese ballplayer as a way to renew interest in the damaged sport. Los Angeles Dodgers' GM Fred Claire was eventually the one who decided to sign Nomura's client.
On May 2, 1995, Dodger rookie pitcher Hideo Nomo started a game against the San Francisco Giants (Masanori Murakami's old team) and became the second Japanese-born player to appear in a major league ballgame. Those hoping for a good showing from "The Tornado" in his major league debut were not disappointed. Nomo yielded only an infield single to San Francisco shortstop Royce Clayton in five innings, and that single was a by-product of Giants' manager Dusty Baker putting a base runner at first in motion on the play, thus, preventing a force play at second on Clayton's slow grounder.
Where Murakami's initial stint in the majors was successful but largely uneventful, Nomo's first season in America was spectacular. "The Tornado" struck out 236 batters in just over 191 innings (11.1 K's per 9 innings pitched), compiling a 2.54 ERA (second in the majors behind only Greg Maddux). As a point of comparison, the league ERA in the NL that season was 4.18. For his troubles, Nomo was selected "Rookie of the Year" in the NL and was also picked for the senior circuit's All-star squad that season.
However, Nomo's accolades did not come without a wrinkle. When his name first came up for consideration in the Rookie of the Year balloting, there were a number of baseball people who questioned the validity of Nomo's "rookie" status. Most notably, Atlanta manager Bobby Cox voiced his opinion on the matter, but in fairness, did so largely to look out for his own Rookie of the Year candidate, Chipper Jones. Generally, the argument went along the lines that Nomo should not be classified a "rookie" since he spent several full seasons playing in Japan. The irony, of course, was that for years American baseball people had downgraded the quality of play in Japan, viewing the leagues there as something significantly less than "major league" quality. Given that to be the case, it would seem that any player coming from a "lesser" league should truly be considered a "rookie" at the major league level since he presumably had never faced that quality of competition before. If a ballplayer spent six years at the AAA level and then played in the majors, he would unquestionably be a rookie. So, too, it seemed it should be for ballplayers coming from other leagues considered to be lesser in quality to the majors. In the end, Nomo was granted rookie status and won the Rookie of the Year award.
Nomo's resounding success meant a lot of things, some symbolic; some more tangible. The first point made evident by Nomo's success was a confirmation of something brought to light after Masanori Murakami's major league stint in 1964-65: a Japanese player could compete at the major league level. However, Nomo took that initial revelation one step farther: a Japanese player could be a star at the major league level. Another residual effect of Nomo's 1995 season was the amount of attention American baseball executives started to pay to Asian ballplayers. Suddenly, the idea of Japanese players in the majors no longer seemed absurd and actually appeared feasible.
Back in Japan, of course, the reaction among fans was bedlam. Nomo's success in America became a point of national pride in Japan. Japanese baseball officials, however, were less enthralled by Nomo's exploits. To many of those officials, Nomo was a pariah. He had turned his back on Japanese baseball and in doing so, had broken a sort of sacred trust. Quickly, Nomo and Don Nomura both became personas non-gratis in Japanese baseball circles.
For his part, Hideo Nomo kept rolling along. He followed up his brilliant rookie season with another stellar season in 1996, winning 16 games and striking out 234 batters. His 3.19 ERA that season was again over a full run under the league average in the NL.
Nomura, too, remained undaunted. Eager to ride the unprecedented momentum created by Nomo's splashy debut, Nomura went after more Japanese players. And he got them.
In 1997, Shigetoshi Hasegawa made his debut with the Anaheim Angels and became the first Japanese-born pitcher to win an American League game. Hasegawa, a former Rookie of the Year in Japan (no, he did not garner a similar honor in the U.S.), followed up a nondescript debut season (3-7, 3.93 ERA) with a more successful campaign in 1998 (8-3, 3.14 ERA, 5 saves), acting as an effective set-up man for Angels' closer Troy Percival.
However, in 1997, Hasegawa's modest AL debut was overshadowed by the debut of another Japanese pitcher and Don Nomura's most famous (and infamous) client to date.
The Jellyfish Cometh
In the early months of 1997, Japanese star pitcher Hideki Irabu was adamant about two things: he wanted to pitch in the major leagues but would only do so for the New York Yankees.
There was a problem with that. Irabu's Japanese team, the Chiba Lotte Marines, already had a working relationship with the San Diego Padres. Smarting from the diverted attention that Japanese players in America were receiving, some Japanese ballclubs adopted a "if you can't beat them, join them" attitude. The idea was to form relationships with major league teams, and, in turn, control the flow of Japanese players into America. Some teams would send some of their younger players to America for "seasoning" in the U.S. minor leagues (as the Nankei Hawks had done years earlier with Murakami). Others signed exclusive marketing deals with individual major league clubs, guaranteeing that the Japanese team would be able to turn a buck (or a yen, as it were) if they did happen to lose one of their stars.
So it was with Chiba Lotte, the team had already sold Irabu's exclusive major league contract rights to the Padres. All San Diego needed to do was negotiate a deal with player and agent. It didn't happen. In a way, one could realistically say that it couldn't have happened. Irabu's ego proved to be big enough that only one organization in major league baseball had the appropriate level of arrogance to match it.
Yup, the New York Yankees.
So, the man who earned the nickname "Jellyfish" in Japan because of his whip-like delivery and his "slippery" ability to get out of jams, got his wish and officially became a member of the New York Yankees.
In his Yankees' debut, Irabu pitched brilliantly allowing only a single run in five innings of work and earned the victory. Yankee fans were delighted, George Steinbrenner gloated, and the New York press had a field day.
The honeymoon, however, was a short one.
Unfortunately, for Irabu, he proved to be more "jelly" than "Jellyfish", and American League hitters were quick to figure him out. His questionable conditioning and seemingly aloof attitude didn't help matters. By the time his rookie season was over, he had compiled a gruesome 7.09 ERA, allowing 15 homers in just over 53 innings of work (an average of 2.5 homers per 9 IP). Steinbrenner fumed over Irabu's failures, and the New York press and public took to denouncing Irabu as a fraud.
Even though he rebounded in 1998 to go 13-9 with a respectable 4.06 ERA for the eventual World Champs (by far his best season to date), the writing was on the wall. His star had plummeted in the Big Apple, and he became nothing more than a bit player on a team that boasted hugely popular stars like Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, and Mariano Rivera.
By the time Spring Training rolled around in 1999, his relationship with Steinbrenner had deteriorated to the point that the Boss once referred to him publicly as a "fat toad". He hung around the Yanks in 1999 winning 11 games with a mediocre 4.84 ERA, working mostly as a fifth starter.
In 2000, he was unceremoniously shipped off to the Antarctica of major league baseball, the Montreal Expos. He made 11 starts for Montreal, going 2-5 with a 7.24 ERA before mercifully landing on the DL with a season-ending elbow injury.
His status for a possible return is now nothing more than newswire fodder.
In 1997, Hideo Nomo experienced struggles of his own. Although he still managed to win 14 games, his ERA was 4.25, over a full run higher than his 1996 total. In 1998, he continued to have trouble and by midseason was dealt from the Dodgers to the New York Mets. He bounced around to two more teams over the next two seasons, achieving decidedly mediocre results along the way.
In 2001, he was on the move yet again, this time landing on the Boston Red Sox roster. In his first start with Boston, he threw a no-hitter against the Baltimore Orioles (the second no-hitter of his career). The "Tornado" had one of those rare moments where he was able to recapture, however briefly, his fallen star. A couple of weeks later when he threw the first pitch in a game against the Seattle Mariners, he would again be a part of history.
The Heat is On
For the record, the pitch was a ball.
But unlike the several thousands of other pitches that had been thrown in major league games over the decades, this one was the first of its kind. A Japanese-born pitcher had just delivered a pitch to a Japanese-born position player in a regular season major league game.
The position player was Ichiro Suzuki, and he came to the US to play for the Seattle Mariners for the 2001 season carrying the distinction of being the best player in Japan, and possibly one of the best handful to ever play there.
Suzuki, who is simply known as "Ichiro" in Japan and has carried that first name recognition with him to the States, had the misfortune of being the Mariners' biggest free agent acquisition in an off-season in which Seattle had lost baseball's best player, Alex Rodriguez, to the Texas Rangers. So, Ichiro found himself carrying not only the burden of being the first Japanese-born position player to ever play in the major leagues but also held the high expectations of Seattle fans who were looking for him to replace A-Rod in the lineup.
While Ichiro's power potential was nowhere near the same class as A-Rod's, Suzuki brought some impressive credentials with him to America. His .353 career batting average in Japan was built largely on the seven consecutive batting titles that he won from 1994 to 2000. In the field, he won seven straight gold gloves in the outfield over that same span. And his outstanding speed contributed to 199 career stolen bases.
Critics, however, scoffed. Whatever Ichiro had done in Japan had no bearing on his future in the US. Critics predicted that power pitchers in the majors would eat him alive on the inside part of the plate, that his bat was too weak to drive those pitches. They also reasoned that the bigger, faster game in the US would eventually overwhelm the Japanese superstar, reducing him to little more than a slap hitter who would be lucky to be within spitting distance of .300.
The baseball world would soon find out that the one-name wonder from Japan was nearly as good as his Japanese league numbers had suggested in the first place.
In his first season in the major leagues, Ichiro hit .350, won the AL batting title, and the AL MVP. While he couldn't touch A-Rod's power numbers, Suzuki provided Seattle with the game-breaking spark at the top of their lineup that they had been missing for years. And he did it with style.
In the field, he wowed scouts with his ability to close on balls and with his surprisingly powerful arm. In an early season game against Oakland, A's OF Terence Long tried to advance from 1st to 3rd on a single to Suzuki in right. Ichiro used his speed to charge the ball and planted while still on the move, delivering a laser to 3B David Bell who caught the throw on the fly and tagged Long out five feet in front of the bag. The play prompted an ESPN anchor to say on air, "What?! Are you kidding me?!"
The critical question of whether or not Japan's best position player would be able to find success in the majors has been answered.
And that answer is "yes".
The Other Guy
While Ichiro was gaining national notoriety on the West Coast, there was another Japanese-born outfielder quietly making his debut some 2,500 miles away.
Tsuyoshi Shinjo played ten steady and occasionally stellar seasons in Japan, compiling a modest career .249 batting average. His 2000 season, however, was his most productive in Japan. He managed career highs in HR's (28), RBI (85), and steals (15). When he invoked his 10-year free agent clause (the Japanese Leagues now have a 10-year service clause for their players allowing free agency after a player's tenth season in Japan), the US response to his availability was lukewarm. He eventually signed with the New York Mets, a signing prompted primarily because Mets' manager Bobby Valentine had managed in Japan before and had seen Shinjo play.
So while nearly all of the media focus concerning Japanese players was directed at Ichiro, Shinjo was been allowed to make his attempt at playing in the major leagues in relative anonymity. The unspectacular cast vying for spots in the Mets outfield afforded Shinjo the opportunity to compete for playing time. And while incumbents Benny Agbayani (a Hawaiian born Filipino) and Jay Payton were slowed by injuries, Shinjo found himself playing regularly by season's end.
Though his exploits lacked the dazzle and extraordinary results of Ichiro's first season in the majors, Shinjo managed respectable numbers. He hit .267 with a .467 slugging pct. and 45 RBI.
Up Around the Bend
With the past successes of Nomo and Shigetoshi Hasegawa and the emergence of Kazuhiro Sasaki (the Seattle Mariners' closer who saved 37 games in 2000 and 45 games in 2001), Ichiro, and Shinjo, the future of Japanese ballplayers in the major leagues appears not only viable but also potentially influential in the future of the game.
This chain, that started with Masanori Murakami and the San Francisco Giants in 1964 and has eventually evolved into Ichiro Suzuki playing for the Seattle Mariners, shows us all what a remarkable sport this is. The growing internationalization of major league baseball is a good thing for the game, and the fact that the door to the Far East has finally been opened appears to be another important step in legitimizing the concept of a true World Series to be played for every October.
Sources: "'Asian invasion' began with a call for good arms"; McGrath, John; The News Tribune; April 1, 2001. "Masanori Murakami"; Nagata, Yoichi and Holway, John; Total Baseball Online "Cecil Fielder"; BaseballLibrary.com "Hideo Nomo"; BaseballLibrary.com "Tsuyoshi Shinjo"; BaseballLibrary.com "Ichiro Suzuki"; BaseballLibrary.com "Pitchers at an Exhibition"; Wulf, Steve; Time Magazine; March 24, 1997; Vol. 149, No. 12. "Baseball Maps a New Strategy"; Williams, Pete; Baseball Weekly; June 6, 1996
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