Are Japanese Ballplayers “Good Enough” for the Big Leagues?
by Masaki Watanabe
I became a passionate pro baseball fan when I was still in primary school, over 60 years ago. Back then I knew only Japanese Professional Baseball (hereafter NPB) which was in the first heyday of the Giants studded with star players like first baseman Kawakami and pitcher Bessho, which I followed avidly through sports dailies and radio broadcasts. Nowadays I follow mostly Major League (hereafter MLB) games via sports websites and TV, though I do check the NLB games daily as well. This season, my focus is on the NY Yankees, Texas Rangers, Milwaukee Brewers, Seattle Mariners and Toronto Bluejays. Yes, they are all teams in which Japanese stars play. I habitually check their results first every day, probably because as far as I can remember, the key question we Japanese have been asking over and over has been whether Japanese players were “good enough” for MLB, which we used to call Dairiigu (literally the Big Leagues) with the nuance of the world’s best in baseball.
Today in the 21st century, pitchers like the Ranger’s Yu Darvish, the Yankees’ Kuroda, the Mariners’ Iwakuma, and position players like the outfielders Ichiro Suzuki (Yankees) and Norichika Aoki (Brewers) and infielder Munenori Kawasaki (Bluejays) are proving they are indeed good enough. Maybe be it’s in my DNA, but it’s long been the nature of my MLB a habit, just as with the Olympic games, to get excited and elated if they play well or get seriously depressed if they do badly. As for NPB, incidentally, I’m happy for some reason whenever foreign imports like the popular Yokohama DeNA’s slugger Ramirez, or “Rami-chan” to Japanese fans, plays well.
Going back in history, my emotional elation/depression rollercoaster ride mentality over the performance of compatriot athletes in an overseas setting is not unlike a phenomenon seen among Japanese Canadians, or Nikkei, folks back in pre-World War II British Columbia. As you probably know, there used to be a baseball team called the Asahis (Asahi-gun in Japanese) that was the pride and joy of Japanese Canadians and residents. In an era when there was not much in the way of family entertainment other than movies and sports both spectator and participatory, thousands of spectators came to the games the Asahis played at their home, Powell Grounds, and other ballparks. Call them amateurs who were practically semi-pros, these smaller Nikkei players, who put on their uniforms after a full day’s work at a sawmill or elsewhere, took Caucasian teams head on with their own style of baseball, at the time dubbed “brain ball,” or “small ball” in today’s parlance, that relied heavily on bunts and base-stealing to confound the opponent’s defence to win championships in Terminal, Burrard and other regional semi-pro equivalent leagues. Since Japanese Canadians in those days faced the anti-Japanese exclusion movement and other forms of overt racism, they must have really savoured those games.
But how good were the Asahis really? Having had an opportunity to translate some materials on the Asahis, I may point out that in 1921, some key Asahi players joined a mixed team of Nikkei and Caucasian players from Vancouver, Seattle and elsewhere that went on a tour of Japan. The team played the strongest teams in Japan then, which were university, middle school (equivalent of today’s high school) and amateur club teams in the absence of pro baseball, finishing with 11 wins, 10 losses and 1 tie. The very first Japanese pro baseball club, the Dai-Nippon Tokyo Yakyu Kurabu set up in late 1934, came on a tour of North America the following year under the name of Tokyo Giants.
Playing semi-pro and amateur teams in the US, Mexico, Canada and Hawaii, the newly-born Tokyo Giants ended up with 75 wins, 34 losses and 1 tie despite their gruelling schedule. Against Canadian ballclubs, their record was 20 wins, 2 losses. The Asahis played some games with the Giants in Vancouver, but as the scores like 3-8, 2-9 and 1-9 show, they were completely outclassed. The Asahi player who impressed the Giants most was the diminutive short stop Roy Yamamura, a star athletes nicknamed the “Magic Glove.”
With the forced relocation and internment of Japanese Canadians after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in 1942,the Asahis were forced to disband. It is still fresh in our memory that in the presence of surviving former players, the Asahi team was inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in 2003 and into the BC Sport Hall of Fame in 2005. In the early post-WWII years, restoration of their civil rights must have been the top item on their agenda for Canadians and Americans of Japanese ancestry, so they probably didn’t have much time to think about baseball.
The post-war pro baseball scene in Japan was the aforementioned “first” heyday of the Yomiuri Giants. In 1957, their star outfielder from Hawaii, Wally Yonamine won the MVP. In 1962, the former Brooklyn and subsequently L.A. Dodgers’ ace Don Newcombe joined the Chunichi Dragons. Through them, Japanese ballplayers were trying to absorb the know-how of the world’s top class baseball. From the 1960s into the 70s, great players like the Giants’ third baseman Shigeo Nagashima and first baseman Sadaharu Oh, the “homerun king” who led their team during its second post-war heyday, would play well against visiting MLB teams, and the question was often raised as to whether they were “good enough” for MLB. But they were the top draw for the popular Giants. Besides, time was still not ripe yet, it seemed, for Japanese position players to plunge into the thick of competition amongst physically bigger and stronger MLB athletes.
The first Japanese to play as a full-fledged Major Leaguer was Masanori Murakami who pitched for the San Francisco Giants in 1964. Over three decades later, in 1995, pitcher Hideo Nomo joined the LA Dodgers, becoming Japanese major leaguer No. 2 The same year, he made history by pitching a no hit, no run game. Of course, he was the first Japanese hurler to do so. Nomo went on to pitch adequately well until the 2004 season for the NY Mets, Boston Red Sox and Detroit Tigers among other teams. Then came Daisuke “Dice-K” Matsuzaka who joined the Red Sox in 2007 with much fanfare. That first season he racked up 15 wins and over 200 strike-outs.
Baseball being a game where every play starts with a pitch from the mound, pitchers have the natural advantage, so somehow it makes sense that it was Japanese hurlers with their reputation for deft ball handling and control who were the first to be imported into MLB and proved serviceable. The first Japanese position player, who has to be able to bat, to make it into MLB was Ichiro Suzuki as you know. One of the most talented and long-lasting outfielders in the histories of MLB and NPB, he joined the Seattle Mariners in the 2001 season, which was almost four decades since Murakami became the first Japanese major leaguer. More than a few baseball writers on both sides of the Pacific at the time thought that his style of batting would not work in MLB. At age 39 now, he has racked up so many records such as over 200 hits for 10 seasons in a row and 3,900 hits (MLB and NPB, as of mid-April). With the NY Yankees since midway through the 2012 season, he will most likely be inducted into the MLB Hall of Fame.
Following Ichiro into MLB was Hideki Matsui who joined the Yankees from the Yomiuri Giants from the 2003 season. He had some great seasons culminating in his becoming the 2009 World Series MVP. Due to a knee injury, he announced his retirement before the start of this season.
The two hurlers, Yu Darvish and Hiroki Kuroda, have started well this season. As with Nomo, Matsuzaka and others, the quality of Japanese pitchers has gained a measure of credence in MLB over the past 60-odd years (Japanese-Iranian Darvish arguably being in a separate class). But the number of Japanese outfielders and infielders strong enough and good enough to rough it with the best players from North, Central and South America and elsewhere still remain few. Is it still the difference in upper body strength and muscle power? Incidentally, what if our Asahis were to come back in a time machine to play a tour of Japan today? They might be a good match for top college teams like the ones in the Tokyo Six University League.
It’s “only baseball” but for us fans, what a game! Also interesting is how historical shifts in the relations between the home countries of foreign MLB players and the US are sometimes subtly reflected in the interaction among the guys, but that’s another story.