Japan US Baseball III

Japanese Players in MLB

Japanese Impact on US Baseball Mostly Hype?

Nagoya Dome - home of the Chunichi Dragons

Nik Yasko

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Japanese baseball, displaying its usual knack for ugly sounding names, calls itself NPB, or Nippon Professional Baseball.

The emphasis is on Nippon. The recent team of major leaguers that toured Japan this postseason had an impressively international line-up featuring players from Venezuela, the Dominican Republic, and even Japan.

Not so the intrepid NPBers, who posted an all-Japanese line-up (with perhaps one or two ethnic Koreans we're not supposed to know about) for the eight-game series.

The NPB side looked weak offensively and displayed little in the way of flashy glove work, although two or three pitchers looked very sharp. Look for these pitchers to go overseas as soon as they possibly can.

Therein lies the problem that Japanese baseball currently faces. Teams folding, teams merging, teams changing names, new teams added. What's going on?

The Japanese pro ranks have become a feeder league for North American baseball, that's what.

Japanese baseball, Nagoya Dome.
Japanese baseball, Nagoya Dome.

Hideo Nomo

Once Hideo Nomo went to the Dodgers, and did well, it was only a matter of time before others followed his example. Hideki Matsui was the premier slugger of his generation. He's gone. Ichiro was the top singles hitter. He's gone, and the Orix Blue Wave along with him. Almost every player that blossoms into a star here will eventually try to make it in the States. It has become fashionable, even expected. But how to replace them?

Japanese fans don't usually get too excited about the foreign players who come here, an attitude bolstered by a very xenophobic sports media. So teams, even though they admit that they need to sign foreign players to compete, are reluctant to develop players who are not Japanese - remember Alfonso Soriano, anybody?

In a way, it's hard to blame them. Look at all the empty seats during sumo tournaments these days. Various experts will give you various reasons as to why, but if you ask a taxi driver, you will get the truth: too many gaijin. And no Japanese at the top.

We all knew that Tuffy Rhodes, fine minor league hitter that he is, would put up big numbers for the Giants this year. We also knew that was not going to play his way into the hearts of Tokyo Giant fans. After all, he's just a "helper." Many Japanese are disgusted when an ethnic non-Japanese rises to the top of one of their national sports, for example, sumo. Baseball is luckier, since fans just ignore the foreign help.

Japanese want to see other Japanese compete. These days, they are watching them compete in places like Seattle, San Diego and New York. Even the Japanese Ministry of Education, in a 2004 handbook issued to secondary schools nationwide, said that teachers should exhort students to show support for Japanese sports stars performing overseas.

This is a little weird to some Westerners. After all, aren't Japanese sports stars that play elsewhere implicitly rejecting Japan? Stars of the past were content to be big fish in a small pond, and were loved for it. If contemporary stars are leaving Japan for greener pastures, just as a young Cuban or Dominican might do, what is it that Japanese find attractive about them?

The answer is that athletically gifted Japanese are Momotaro figures: young lads who battle foreign demons, conquer them, and come home laden with gold. That's why the Olympics, and international soccer competitions, have an appeal here that is hard to underestimate.

The Japanese media, along with the occasional deluded Westerner, claims that the success of these players has justified the Japanese approach to baseball. An article in the October issue of Sports Graphic Number states that American baseball men have learned from Japanese ballplayers: "after all, they're not stupid," says the article.

"Gone are the days when American ball clubs no longer practice." Right. We can easily imagine how managers frantically scurried around learning Japanese baseball secrets after seeing the play of the great Tsuyoshi Shinjo. And no doubt Tony LaRussa lectures his Cardinals players to emulate the batting of So Taguchi.

Even Ichiro, as dynamic as he may seem, does have a dark side (other than being the new Rikidozan). He is an anomaly as a hitter. No one would teach a young player to imitate his batting style, since he does things that are usually frowned upon by batting coaches. Yet he is successful due to tremendous eye-hand coordination.

Ichiro v Sisler

Writers have complained that, although he seems to have the ability to hit doubles and even homers, he remains a singles hitter. Some called his pursuit of the hit record detrimental to his team. Certainly, Ichiro should have batted third for a weak Mariner team in 2004. But a number three batter has to concentrate on driving in runs, and Ichiro didn't want to do that.

Ichiro placed seventh in this year's MVP voting, and received not a single first or second place vote. The vote shows that, no matter what side of the Sisler/Suzuki debate they were on, a lot of writers were clearly turned off by what they saw as the antics of a selfish player.

Ichiro had his sights set on the hits record, and was going to swing at bad balls and bunt for hits - when he should have been trying to move runners over - until he got it. George Sisler, whose jockstrap Ichiro could not carry, was probably spinning in his grave.

Ichiro's hit record was at least in part a function of his team's weak lineup. A power hitter on a weak team is in trouble, since pitchers will have nothing to do with him. He either has to become patient, or expand his strike zone. A singles hitter on a weak team, if he bats leadoff, has no such worries. He gets a hit, dies on first, and no one cares. After all, despite an astounding 701 at-bats, Ichiro scored only 101 times. So pitchers were correct in not being careful with him.

Yankee star Hideki Matsui (now with Oakland) benefited from being placed, albeit somewhat curiously, in the middle of a powerful lineup. Pitchers had to pitch to him, or face the more powerful batters behind him. Matsui or Ichiro, which would you pick? With just a few more homers, a lot of people would pick Matsui.

Ichiro remains about the sixth best right fielder in baseball. That's quite an accomplishment, but it's not worthy of the hype he receives.

Kazuo Matsui of the Mets had a disappointing year. He showed an ability to drive the ball on occasion, but struck out too much and remained in a defensive slump all season long. The Mets plan to play him at second next season, where he will have to pick up his defensive play or else land on the bench. To avoid this, he may have to let his average go down and concentrate on power numbers.

Lucky 7th at Koshien, Osaka.
Memorial Plaque to Babe Ruth, Koshien, Osaka.
Nagoya Dome.
Koshien, Osaka.

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