Japanese US Baseball
A report on two worlds coming together in baseball
As spring training begins, both the American and the Japanese media are keeping a close eye on the new New York Met shortstop, Kazuo Matsui. The slick-fielding, hot-hitting, fleet of foot, and now very rich Matsui is the latest in the series of Japanese baseball phenomena who have come to America to accept the challenge of playing in what the Japanese collectively refer to as dai-riigu - The Big Leagues.
A decade ago, the separation between American and Japanese professional baseball was widely perceived as a chasm. Talent levels in Japanese baseball were considered to be somewhere between minor and major league levels at best. And the gulf between levels of play on the field was as nothing when contrasted with the huge cultural differences of the two games.
Indeed reporters, anthropologists and Americans playing in Japan attested to the wide differences between the two baseball cultures - often with complaints about the Japanese version. However, over the past decade, the great divide appears to have been spanned.
Bridges began to be built when Kintetsu Buffalo ace pitcher, Hideo Nomo signed to play with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1995. Nomo with his peculiar tornado windup became only the second Japanese player ever to play in the American Major Leagues and the first since 1964. His impact was immediate.
With his every move scrutinized by the Japanese media, not to mention mystified American fans and sports writers, Nomo proceeded to win 13 games, lead the league in strikeouts, and pitch in the annual All-Star Classic.
Fans flocked to Major League ballparks to watch the unique Nomo pitch. For his outstanding performance, Nomo was named National League Rookie of the Year. Since his successful entrance onto the American baseball scene, Nomo has gone on to pitch two no-hitters and has racked up an impressive 114 wins as he prepares for his tenth major league season.
In the years following Nomo's successful debut on the American diamond, a handful of less renowned pitchers have made their way across the Pacific with varying degrees of success. It wasn't until 2001, however, that a Japanese player other than a pitcher attempted to play baseball in America.
If Hideo Nomo made waves in the American baseball world, Ichiro Suzuki launched a typhoon. Less than a month into the season and Ichiro had turned the US baseball world upside down and had all eyes on him on both sides of the Pacific.
American baseball was only just beginning to bounce back from players strikes that wiped out the end of the 1994 season and Ichiro was a well needed shot in the arm. After years of behemoth batters mashing balls out of undersized stadiums off of weak pitchers, his aggressive style of play resonated with baseball aficionados and the casual fan alike. Ichiro-mania transcended cultural boundaries.
Though he did not hit with great power, his game showed the qualities of lightning speed, all-out hustle, superior defense, timely hitting and instinct that were reminiscent of an earlier age, when baseball was the unparalleled national attraction. Ichiro won the batting title, the American League Rookie of the Year award and the Most Valuable Player award all in the same year. Ichiro also won the acknowledgement of his peers as the most disruptive player in the game.
Following Ichiro's astonishing wave of success, more and more players began testing the American waters. And many, such as New York Yankee outfielder Hideki Matsui (no relation to Kazuo), have contributed significantly. During the 2003 season, his first on the American diamond, Matsui hit in the middle of a potent New York Yankee lineup, which advanced to the World Series.
Matsui, while not possessing the superior statistics of an Ichiro or a Hideo Nomo, quickly earned a reputation as a clutch performer. Amid the glare of the lights of New York, the wrath of Yankee fans, and under the microscope of a media known and sometimes blamed for the crucifixion of many a failure in the Bronx, Matsui produced his best when the pressure cooker was on full boil.
Over the years, journalists such as Robert Whiting and Martin Kuenert as well as former ballplayer/authors like Warren Cromartie have said much to stress the differences in skill levels, strategy, dedication, and organizational bureaucracy between the Japanese and the American game.
But given how successfully the growing number of Japanese exports have acclimatized to their new surroundings, one is challenged to conclude that the differences may have been greatly exaggerated. Furthermore, Japanese players with a variety of distinct skills have shown the stereotype of the monolithic Japanese ballplayer to be false.
The story of American manager, Bobby Valentine underscores further the convergence of the game on both sides of the Pacific. This year Valentine is returning to Japan to manage the Chiba Lotte Marines for the second time. Valentine achieved enormous success with the Marines in 1995, his one and only year managing the Japanese squad.
Yet Valentine was fired for his unconventional and individualistic approach and for allegedly being too close with his players. (It must be noted that Valentine is also considered highly eccentric in the American baseball community and has been fired twice on this side of the pond.)
However, almost a decade later, the Marines have decided that they can tolerate Valentine's managerial eccentricities and casual approach to the game. Time will soon reveal whether the Lotte-Valentine remarriage can be attributed to Valentine's adaptability, Lotte's tolerance, or equal doses of both.
Another case in point is the "surprise retirement" of Seattle Mariner ace reliever, Kazuhiro Sasaki. During the current off-season, Sasaki, who in his five years as a Mariner relief pitcher established himself as one of the premier relievers in the sport, suddenly renounced the last two years of his nine million dollar contract to return to Japan. American reaction was mixed. Some of the media criticized Sasaki for being selfish. Detractors even went as far as asserting that Sasaki never mixed well with his American counterparts.
Those assertions are debatable, even dubious. But what is fascinating is that Sasaki has been accused of exactly what the Japanese media and baseball community have long accused Americans of - walking out on one's team whenever they got lonely or had a family matter to attend to. And this is not the first such occurrence. In 1964, pitcher Masanori Murakami, the first Japanese to play in the American Major Leagues, chose to return to Japan after spending two years with the San Francisco Giants - in large part due to homesickness.
What makes Sasaki's departure (as well as that of Murakami) significant is that it suggests that the tendency to value family over team and money is not necessarily particular to Americans or Japanese, or even confined within the boundaries of sport, but a human trait which defies stereotype.
A few years ago, while interviewing American and Japanese players and scouts during spring training in Arizona, baseball writer and researcher Eric Bohman noted that most of those interviewed did their best to downplay cultural differences. "Baseball is baseball," they would remark. The alleged ocean separating the Japanese and American baseball worlds is evaporating quickly.