Essence of Japan's legacy spreads to Majors
Opening Series 2012 in Tokyo puts Japanese stars in spotlight
When Yu Darvish took the mound last week at Surprise Stadium for his third Spring Training start for the Texas Rangers since arriving from Japan in a ballyhooed offseason signing, the physical evidence of the significance of this event was firmly in place.
At least 50 members of the Japanese media, along with a good smattering of American national baseball writers, were crammed into a tent that was erected in front of the Rangers' offices solely for Darvish's arrival. The pitcher and his interpreter got comfortable, the flashbulbs popped, and the pair fielded questions about his four-inning exhibition start.
For 30 minutes.
It spoke loudly to Darvish's allure: the big right-hander, already revered in his homeland as a heartthrob worthy of rock-star billing at the age of 25, is believed by many scouts and pundits to be the most talented pitcher ever to arrive from Japan.
It also spoke to how far Japanese baseball has come in its evolving journey across the Pacific to the best league on the planet.
On Thursday, the Oakland A's and Seattle Mariners were in airplanes over the Pacific, about to start a week-long journey in Japan for Opening Series 2012. There, they will play exhibition games against Japanese teams and then the two season-opening games against each other in a sold-out Tokyo Dome next Wednesday and Thursday.
They'll get a front-row seat to watch the passion of Japanese fans, and, in the case of the Mariners, they'll see for themselves what their Japanese-born teammates Ichiro Suzuki, Munenori Kawasaki and Hisashi Iwakuma have been telling them about the Land of the Rising Sun.
And throughout the week, it will become even clearer to all involved that the Japanese influence on the American game is growing and getting stronger by the year.
But to track the arc of this success, it's important to go back to the real beginning, and Fred Claire remembers that time period very well.
It was early 1995, and Claire, the general manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers, received a phone call from agent Arn Tellem, who was working with a Japan-based agent, Don Nomura. Tellem who asked Claire if he'd be interested in signing a Japanese pitcher named Hideo Nomo.
Claire was aware of a few things about professional baseball in Japan. The first was that there had only been one native of Japan to come to the Majors, and that player, a left-handed reliever named Masanori Murakami, came over for the end of the 1964 season to join the San Francisco Giants, had a decent year in '65, and then went right back to his homeland because of contractual obligations.
The second thing Claire knew was that those very contractual issues had made it so difficult for American teams to sign Japanese players that Murakami was the last one to pull it off, and 30 years had passed.
But there was one thing Claire was not aware of.
"I had no idea who Hideo Nomo was," Claire said. "And for good reason. No Major League teams even scouted Japanese players at that time."
Claire and the Dodgers and the rest of the baseball world would know soon enough. Nomo signed with the Dodgers on Feb. 8, 1995, and he debuted on May 2 of that year in San Francisco, where he promptly pitched five innings of one-hit, shutout ball, striking out seven. He would soon dominate the National League, kicking off "Nomomania" in Los Angeles that rivaled the "Fernandomania" of 1981, when rookie Fernando Valenzuela was thrilling fans in Chavez Ravine. Nomo threw a two-hitter, a one-hitter, routinely struck out more than 10 batters in a game, pitched in the All-Star Game, and won the NL Rookie of the Year Award after posting a 13-6 record, 2.54 ERA and 236 strikeouts in 191 1/3 innings.
Nomo would go on to pitch 12 seasons in the Majors, throw two no-hitters, win 123 games and strike out 1,918 batters. But he did a lot more than that.
"Nomo paved the way for all the great Japanese players we're seeing in the game today," Claire said. "And I don't think he gets enough credit for it. He really put himself on the line. He wanted to test himself against the best players in the world, because he wanted to be the best. And that's really what it's all about."
Before Ichiro Suzuki became one of the best players in the world in America, he was one of the best players in the world in Japan. And before Suzuki came to Seattle, Kazuhiro Sasaki did.
There had been Japanese players in between Nomo and Sasaki, who won the Mariners' closer job from Jose Mesa in his first American Spring Training and never looked back, but other than Shigetoshi Hasegawa, an effective middle reliever, and Hideki Irabu, who had a good year for the Yankees in 1998, none had outstanding big league showings.
Sasaki was different. He came to the Majors in 2000 at the age of 31 after being the best closer in Japan, and his devastating forkball worked immediately. He won the American League Rookie of the Year Award after posting a then-rookie record of 37 saves plus 78 strikeouts in 62 2/2 innings, and the following year, Sasaki saved 45 games as the Mariners won an AL-record 116 games.
But that 2001 season was more about Ichiro than anyone else, and the biggest Japanese sensation in American baseball history was born.
Ichiro had played nine seasons in Japan for the Orix Blue Wave and had compiled a .353 batting average, seven Gold Gloves and 1,278 hits, and he was still only 27 years old. The Mariners were able to sign him, and it became clear in Spring Training that he was the leadoff hitter and sparkplug the team needed.
As the first Japanese position player to play in the Major Leagues, buzz was generated before he suited up for Seattle, and Ichiro lived up to it right away, making a highlight-reel throw from right field to nail Oakland outfielder Terrence Long, who was trying to make it from first to third on a single.
Ichiro became a Major League sensation that year, hitting .352, racking up a rookie-record 242 hits, stealing 56 bases, winning a Gold Glove, and capturing a rare AL MVP Award/AL Rookie of the Year Award double.
And 11 years later, Ichiro is an icon. Not only did he set a record by tallying more than 200 hits in 10 consecutive seasons in the Major Leagues, but in 2004, Ichiro broke one mark thought by many to be untouchable: George Sisler's 84-year-old record for hits in a single season. Sisler had 257, Ichiro finished with 262, and his legend was cemented. Oh, and Ichiro added the winning hit in the final of the 2009 World Baseball Classic, three years after helping Japan win the inaugural Classic.
Ichiro became famous for many things: his foot speed to first base; his pre-at-bat ritual with the bat point; his unique hip clothing; his uncanny ability to swing the bat while seemingly beginning his run to first base; his cryptic, sometimes philosophical comments to the media; his enhanced-English pregame speeches at the All-Star Game. But there's one thing that seems to rise above all of Ichiro's qualities.
"He's a hitting machine," said his first big league manager, Lou Piniella. "He's a professional. He's prepared. He can hit a baseball."
Hideki Matsui can hit a baseball, too.
And when the slugger known in Japan as "Godzilla" took his talents to the Bronx, signing with the New York Yankees prior to the 2003 season, the hype followed. Matsui delivered then, driving in 106 runs and helping the Yankees to a World Series appearance, and he continued his career in New York as one of his team's most consistent hitters. In his final season in New York, the 2009 campaign, Matsui hit 28 homers and drove in 90 runs in the regular season and then took home World Series MVP honors by batting .615 with three homers and eight RBIs as the Yanks took down the Philadelphia Phillies in six games to win the franchise's 27th World Series title.
Coupled with Red Sox starter Daisuke Matsuzaka's heroics in helping Boston win the 2007 World Series, it capped off a huge decade for Japanese stars in the Major Leagues.
And now, in a new decade, things are changing even more. According to Dan Johnson, the White Sox first baseman who played in Japan in 2009, the finesse that Japanese pitchers were known for in the past is giving way to a more power-centric game, a la Darvish.
"Their arms are getting better and better and better," Johnson said. "They're evolving into mid-90s guys -- before, you were going to get the [split-fingered fastball], and they were just going to keep moving it around. I think now the pitching is getting that much better, which in turn is making the players better players."
The new names are popping up all over Major League rosters, from Darvish in Texas to Iwakuma and Kawasaki in Seattle to Norichika Aoki in Milwaukee. There will surely be more next year, and the year after that as the legacy of Japanese baseball in America continues to grow.
"There's no secret about it anymore," Johnson said. "They can really play, and their really good players are usually really good players here."