TOKYO — As one among the seemingly hundreds of Japanese and American officials and media mingling on the Tokyo Dome field before Monday's game, I weaved from handshake to interview to gossip to — stunned surprise.
I had the good fortune to be introduced to one of the more intriguing figures in 20th-century world sports — Masanori Murakami, who at age 20 in 1964 became the first Japanese to play in the major leagues.
A relief pitcher for the San Francisco Giants, Murakami pitched in 45 games in two seasons, going 6-1 with a 3.43 average. He was nearly as big a deal in the U.S. and Japan in his day as Ichiro is now, except that Murakami came up through the Giants farm system as part of a novel training agreement with his Japanese team, the Nankai Hawks.
Now 67, a baseball commentator and still not a deft speaker of English, Murakami and I exchanged business cards and smiles — even when I told him I liked the Dodgers better. We bowed and parted. The meeting made my day.
The story of Murakami helped close the circle in my growing belief that baseball in Japan, once said to be threatened by the departure of Ichiro and others stars to American baseball, is in no external jeopardy.
The meeting called to mind Murakami's saga described by Japanese baseball authority Robert Whiting in his 2004 book, The Samurai Way of Baseball.
In a narrow way, Murakami could be said to be a Japanese Jackie Robinson, given the racial attitudes that still prevailed in the U.S. 20 years after the end of World War II. But the shortness of his MLB career had nothing to do with American resentment, according to Whiting.
Murakami was beloved in San Francisco. He was more or less forced to quit MLB and return to the game in Japan because of pressure from a threatened Japanese baseball hierarchy as well as his father, who feared that his son was becoming too Americanized, especially with his blonde, flight-attendant girlfriend.
What thwarted Murakami is what will likely preserve Japanese baseball for a good long while — the baseball and cultural differences are still too many for young Japanese to come to America and its minor league system to make the major leagues.
What was done by Ichiro in coming to the U.S. at 27 could not have been done by Ichiro at 18 or 20. Japan will always lose some premier veterans to the U.S., but it will keep producing more and better talent to replenish the top tier.
Another pitcher who left Japan for the U.S., of more recent vintage and familiarity, former Mariners All-Star Shigetoshi Hasegawa, is persuaded that the differences between the nations in how young players are trained and treated forecloses a migratory flood of ballplayers.
Now a broadcaster for Japan's national network, NHK, Hasegawa, 43, showed up to work the game between his old club and the Yomiuri Giants, as well as throw out the ceremonial first pitch. In a full suit, he fired a strike past a former Angels' teammate, the Mariners Chone Figgins, who put on a clown swing and fell down in sarcastic salute to Shiggy's wicked stuff.
Given the game results Monday (March 26) — another Japanese pitcher for Seattle, Hisashi Iwakuma, was clobbered for 10 hits and six runs in a 9-3 loss — the Mariners might see whether Hasegawa has a spare six months this year.
Regarding the prospects of more Murakamis starting early in the U.S., Hasegawa said, "I don’t think the minor league system is good for the Japanese. And I don't think the system is good for U.S. players. The system is set up to find the few players who can get to the majors, and they don’t train very many players.
"I don’t know if it is good or bad. But in Japan, high school, college and minor league baseball players are trained hard. If a high school player in Japan wanted to go to the U.S.. I would tell him no."
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