Japanese Players’ Impact on MLB – What Would the Asahis Say?
If former players of our legendary Asahi ballclub could have witnessed the impact Japanese players are having on Major League Baseball (MLB) today, I wonder what they would have said? As Major League Baseball and Nippon Pro Baseball (NPB) teams both play out the tantalizingly exciting post-season (in the last week of October), allow me to share some random thoughts, hopefully of interest not just to the baseball and sports fans among our readers.
My focus is mainly on Japanese players who stirred the passion and imagination of fans on both sides of the Pacific. My love of pro baseball (nowadays followed mostly on TV and the internet) goes back to my primary school days in Tokyo over 50 years ago. While commuting to school by urban train, I would read up on the exploits of the Toei Flyers, Taiyo Whales, Hanshin Tigers and Yomiuri Giants (in that order of preference) in the sports dailies “salary men” left behind on racks.
The achievements of past true giants like NPB’s Sadaharu “Homerun King” Oh and MLB’s Hideo “No-No” Nomo notwithstanding, I find today’s young and not-so-young Japanese and other players I follow just as thrilling. Some new rules like video review of umpires’ close calls have, I feel, also enhanced the quality of the game.
Among MLB players, respect for the quality of NPB baseball has grown due in considerable part to the aforementioned Nomo and two other super-stars – former Yankee slugger Hideki Matsui and, of course, the phenomenal, future Hall-of-Famer Ichiro Suzuki. Having just celebrated his 42nd birthday, Ichiro remains active with the Florida Marlins after an MLB career that began with the Seattle Mariners back in 2001. We also cannot forget MLB pitchers and sluggers over the years who made good after playing in NPB for a while, like the Texas Rangers’ slugger Cecil Fielder and pitcher Colby Lewis.
The Marlins management was so impressed with Ichiro’s performance as “the 4th outfielder” the past season that they’ve re-signed him for 2016. Young outfielders who watched Ichiro on TV as kids are amazed at how physically fit he still is. He appeared in 151 games – often as a pinch hitter – more games than any of the regular outfielders, recording 91 hits and a season batting average of .229, the lowest in his career. In a fulfillment of his long-cherished wish, he even got to pitch one inning against the Phillies in the season’s last game.
Regarding the re-signing, Marlins president David Samson said: “Off the field, I’d have to say Ichiro is one of the most interesting players that I’ve personally come across since I’ve been in this game… he’s in the best shape of any player I’ve seen at any age,” and cited “his desire to play baseball the right way…to be respectful of MLB, to be respectful for the other players, and the game itself.”
Next, let’s look at the NY Yankees’ pitcher Masanori ”Maa-kun” Tanaka. He finished with 10 wins and six losses, achieving double-digit wins for the second straight year since his debut. Effectively, the team’s ace pitcher by now, he seems a popular figure around the clubhouse, ever cheerful, always being considerate toward team-mates and the media. As with the aforementioned Hideki Matsui (now a batting coach with the Yankees’ farm teams), his words and behavior seem to embody such positive aspects of Japanese culture as respect for older people and constant consideration for others. Back in September, it was reported his wife, Mai Satoda, was pregnant with their first child.
For outfielder Norichika Aoki of the SF Giants, it was a disappointing season. In early August he was beaned in the head and put on the disabled list because of dizziness. He would rejoin the squad but his batting average plummeted from .302 to .287. In September, a concussion-like symptom recurred and he was diagnosed for rehabilitation, and that was the end of his season. As he remains a great athlete who can bat, field and run, the club is reported ready to re-sign him for the 2016 season.
It was not a good season for the popular Boston Red Sox pitcher Koji Uehara either. He missed the season’s opening in April as he was on the disabled list. On April 14th he pitched an inning for the first time, shutting out the opponents to earn a save point. He thereby became the second Japanese pitcher in MLB to earn a save in his 40s after Takashi Saito. Taking the mound against the Toronto Blue Jays in mid-May, he earned his sixth save, which became his 100th save in his career spanning NPB and MLB. In early August, he was hit by a pitch and broke his right wrist, never to return for the rest of the season.
Let’s turn our eyes to Japan now. Japan’s team in the 27th Under-18 World Baseball Cup series, held in Japan for the first time from late August into September, won all its games until the final game which they lost to the US. But two outstanding players captivated the media as well as the scouts. One was outfielder Luis Okoe, a third-year student at Kanto Dai-ichi High School, and the other the slugging first baseman Kōtarō Kiyomiya, a first-year student at Waseda Jitsugyō High School.
Okoe is the “hapa” son (as we might call him) of a Nigerian father, a former soccer player, and a Japanese mother. His base-running speed and throwing-arm are already rated as better than most Japanese pro outfielders. He was raised in a sports-driven family culture, focusing exclusively on baseball since he was in primary one. He came into his own big time playing high school baseball, and at the recent annual NPB draft pick, he became the Rakuten Golden Eagles’ No. 1 pick. His comment at the time shows promise: “I want to work hard [ganbari tai] so that I can be on the first team’s roster from year one. My batting technique is not good enough, and I must also raise the level of my base-running and fielding.”
Still boyish-looking, Kōtarō Kiyomiya was the most powerful slugger in a Waseda Jitsugyō team that went as far as the quarter finals at this year’s High School Baseball Championship. In the Under-18 World Cup series, Japan’s squad finished second only to the US, thanks in part to his effort. He looks certain to join NPB in the 2017 draft pick. There being a strong possibility that both of these players will eventually play in MLB, we should keep our eyes on them.
I’d also like to recall what, for me, was the most heart-warming episode of the entire 2015 season. In a game few months back, the Detroit Tigers’ first baseman Miguel Cabrera gave a kid among the spectators something he’ll never forget. The boy was sitting right at the front of the seats along the first baseline when a batter ripped a stinging foul ball past the seats. The boy stuck out his left hand and managed to snag it in his glove. He got so excited that he kept yelling “I got it, I got it!!” to everyone around him. Then Miggy at first base nodded his head toward him and thumped his own heart with his right hand.
I hear you, I hear you was what must have been going through Miggy’s mind, because at the end of that inning, he walked over to the boy and gave him a bat and his batting gloves. “Don’t you ever forget that feeling” must have been Miggy’s message. “One day, he’ll be telling this to his grandchildren,” a TV commentator said.
So, back to the question of what the Asahis would have said watching the Japanese players making their mark in MLB today. Perhaps joy mixed with some complex emotions. Fortunately, one of the 74 players on the Asahis’ roster is still with us today. He is Mr Kaye Kōtarō Kaminishi. I am looking forward to an opportunity to put the question to the man himself.