Japanese baseball: An American hottie is still a cultural challenge

Art Thiel in Tokyo: Japan's game is improving as some stars, like ex-Mariner Kenji Johjima, return to Japan. And living in a new culture remains challenging for young people just as it was for the first Japanese player in the majors.

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Former Mariner Shigetoshi Hasegawa greeted the team when it played at the Tokyo Dome.

Art Thiel in Tokyo: Japan's game is improving as some stars, like ex-Mariner Kenji Johjima, return to Japan. And living in a new culture remains challenging for young people just as it was for the first Japanese player in the majors.

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."

The traditions and routines of Japanese youth baseball are legendary and often brutal. But the purpose is more about a cultural process and a respect for the game than a professional outcome. The U.S. system is all about filling 25 major league roster spots, not in imparting values.

Then there is the practical matter of the long odds of making it through the minor leagues, compounded by the fact that small-town America has fewer Japanese who could help fill the loneliness. For an older professional in a major market, it's not nearly the burden.

"It’s hard even for American kids with million-dollar bonuses to make it," Hasegawa said. "Even a good college kid is going to spend three-four years in the minors. But a veteran in Japanese baseball who’s really good here can make it in the major leagues."

Hasegawa, who pitched in 230 Mariners game from 2002 to 2005 with 3.46 ERA and made the All-Star team in 2003, said even though he helped lead the migration of Japanese stars, he was worried for the game here.

"At the beginning it was kinda tough; it hurt," he said. "But now you're seeing some players returning to play here after the U.S. careers. Like Kenji Johjima (former Mariners catcher who returned to the Hanshin Tigers and helped beat the Mariners 5-1 Sunday). He brings back a lot, and it helps development here.

"Players like me, Hideo Nomo and Ichiro, we go and don’t come back. But now players come back. Our baseball was already good. You can’t see a lot of this development yet, but it’s step by step. It's getting better."

Hasegawa made another telling point about the subject of nationhood.

"Japanese baseball is mostly for Japanese players, with a few Americans," he said. "Baseball in America is at a higher level, but it isn't American baseball. It's international baseball.

"It's an international age. Who's an American player now? It's kinda hard to tell."

The real blow to baseball from the migration comes not on the field, but in TV ratings. Japanese baseball is losing TV audience, and MLB is gaining here.

"It’s kinda tough to see Japanese TV ratings go down," he said. "But there’s nothing we can do about it.

"It’s not like 20 years ago when Japanese was the only baseball on TV. Serious Japanese fans see Nomo, Ichiro, and me go to the U.S., and they start watching American baseball. They can tell the difference in the games. They want to see the best, just like soccer fans in the U.S. like to watch the best in the world."

Murakami's breakthrough almost a half-century ago did not prompt an immediate change in baseball. But with the advent of a Japanese owner 20 years ago in Seattle and the first position player becoming a star 11 years ago in the same place, the cultural landscape most assuredly has evolved.

But not everything is different. It remains a hard game to master regardless of nationality, and it remains a difficult problem when one brings home a hottie bombshell to meet dad.

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