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|Tourists have made Mariners games at Safeco Field as much a part of their visits to Seattle as the Space Needle and Pike Place Market.|
The taxi driver was right.
In the past, it was more common for American baseball players - often in the twilight of their Major League careers - to find employment with Japanese pro teams. But since the arrival of Nomo, who now plays for the Boston Red Sox, there have been 11 Japanese players recruited by US teams. Still, most of the signings had been pitchers hired for their finesse and speed, not their strength at other positions, or at bat.
Last year, the Seattle Mariners inked a deal with a Japanese baseball player who is a position player at right field, whose reputation as a hitter was unquestioned in Japan if unknown in the US. Not for long - Ichiro Suzuki has quickly made his mark on Major League Baseball, and has helped to boost the profile of Japanese players once and for all.
The stats that caught the eye of the Mariners' recruiters included a Japanese-record seven consecutive batting titles over nine years with the Orix Blue Waves in Japan's Pacific League. Suzuki hit a career-best .387, was a three-time league MVP, was named to the Japanese Pacific League's "Best Nine" team for seven consecutive years and also won seven consecutive Gold Gloves for his solid defense and strong arm in right field.
The Mariners, who already had a Japanese pitcher, Kazuhiro Sasaki, on the roster, wanted the Japanese hitter to cross the Pacific as well. The team paid the Blue Wave $13,125,400 last November for the right to negotiate for Suzuki's contract.
The investment has paid off handsomely.
Suzuki has had a stellar spring -- he was given the American League's first Rookie of the Month Award for this season, after finishing at the top of nearly every offensive category among AL rookies and establishing himself as one of the best defensive outfielders in the majors. He posted a .336 batting average with two home runs and 11 RBI in his first 25 major league games, and finished first among AL rookies in runs scored (17), hits (39), multi-hit games (11) and RBI. Suzuki also finished second in batting average, home runs, total bases (50), stolen bases (5), on-base percentage (.358) and slugging percentage (.431).
Thanks to his performance, Ichiro (he likes to be called by his first name only) has also become the darling of not only Seattle's sports fans but of tourists who have made Mariners games at Safeco Field as much a part of their visits to the northwest as the Space Needle and Pike Place Market. Included in the throngs of baseball-crazed tourists are Japanese filled with pride. The team's Web site has become the most-visited in the Major Leagues, with a Japanese version (which features "all the news in Japanese on Ichiro, Kaz Sasaki and the Seattle Mariners," in that order) adding to much of the Internet traffic.
It may come as a surprise to many Americans that there are world-class baseball players in Japan, but when I was growing up in Japan, I saw the mania for baseball there, and as a fan of the Yomiuri Giants, I was familiar with the hallowed name of Sadaharu Oh, who set the all-time world home run record (868) and managed his old team for years (he now manages the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks).
Baseball has almost as long a history in Japan as it does in the US.
The game was introduced by Americans who traveled to Japan during the Meiji Restoration era of the late 1800s, when Japan was absorbing all things Western after three centuries of being closed off from the rest of the world. Baseball established as a club sport at first, then caught on with students. The Japanese government approved of the game - the ministry of education decided it was good for the national character.
Baseball's popularity grew at the amateur level - the Japanese little league is as closely followed as any professional sport - but it became a professional sport in Japan in 1934, when the Yomiuri Shimbun (Yomiuri newspaper) founded the Great Japan Tokyo Baseball Club, which was renamed the Tokyo Kyojin (Giants) the following year.
The first pro league, the Japan Professional League, was formed in 1936, with the Giants and six other teams -- Osaka Tigers, Hankyu, Dai Tokyo, Nagoya Kinko, Nagoya and the Tokyo Senators - playing each other. Most of the teams were sponsored by newspapers (like the Yomiuri) which hoped to boost their circulation, or train lines (the Tigers and Hankyu) which hoped to increase ridership to the ballpark. The Giants ruled the pre-war sport, and then after World War II officially changed its name to its English spelling, causing the other teams to do the same, and kept dominating the sport.
I don't remember following any foreign players with Japanese teams when I was a kid. Since 1936, over 500 foreigners have played professional baseball in Japan. Today, Japanese teams are allowed to have four foreigners -- two pitchers and two position players -- on their active roster. US Major League Baseball teams have no such restrictions, and players from Latin America and the Caribbean have been a part of the sport for decades. Now, it looks like Asians may have their shot at the plate.
In the US, baseball doesn't really live up to its reputation as "America's sport" anymore. Football, basketball and even hockey are hugely popular. But in Japan, baseball truly rules. When I was in a sushi restaurant in October of 1994, we kept hearing cheers and shouts from the kitchen as the staff reacted play-by-play to the ongoing championship series.
I was a fan of baseball when I was a kid, but never aspired to play the game seriously. I was a member of a championship little league team in the suburbs of northern Virginia, but not because of any contribution from me. Unlike Ichiro Suzuki, I played the outfield with trepidation. I was terrified that someone would hit the ball my way, and I would drop it, or fumble it when I threw it in, or worse, that it would bonk me on the head and hurt me.
I did have one great advantage for my team, however, and it was because of my ethnicity: I was the littlest little leaguer on the team, and almost impossible to pitch to because I had a very small "strike zone." I walked an awful lot, which was fine by me.
I'll happily watch the likes of Suzuki and Nomo and root them on.
"Gil Asakawa's Nikkei View" is hosted by Blue Ray Media.