Baseball, America’s pastime is going Global. Don’t believe me? SO you mean to tell me that you haven’t heard about talent contributions from many countries?
Baseball has players from many Latin-based countries like the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Venezuela, Mexico, and the U.S. territory Puerto Rico. How about Colombia or Curaçao?
Oh, you have? What about Japan? It’s okay if you haven’t. After all, you may have not have seen the hoards of Japanese media gathered at Angels Stadium for a showdown between Shohei Ohtani and Yusei Kikuchi on Saturday. Two parallel American super-hyped Japanese superstars who attended the same high school, but have managed to just miss each other in the AL West rivals first few series of 2019.
Japanese baseball leagues go back further than you think. The first MLB project from them? Try 1964 Masanori Murakami with the Giants. A 4-1 pitcher(3.75ERA) whose rights reverted back to Japan for 16 seasons after his initial 64-65′ stint in the Majors.
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The next attempt wouldn’t be until the more widely known Dodger experiment Hideo Nomo 30 years later. Posting fees hold up the process like kidnapping ransom, especially with nearly 28% of MLB players now coming from Latin and Caribbean countries. In large part it is easier to recruit because despite dangerous transitions, those countries have cheaper dollar compensations than places like Japan and Korea.
Ichiro Suzuki is by far the most well-known player from Japan as we all witnessed from the same Mariners over his 2019 opening series retirement tour. He opened doors for guys like Ohtani and Kikuchi to thrive and get the media acclaim of their comparable statistical American or Latin counterparts.
After that, Japanese players came along that even the Angels saw. Anaheim had solid reliever Shigetoshi Hasegawa from 1997-01′. Remember the more recent Yankee turned Halo, Hideki Matsui? They helped set a trend prying away Japanese players slowly from teams willing to listen. Now there is an established history of such moves in Major League Baseball.
Yu Darvish is still playing in Chicago. Koji Uehara made a successful transition with Baltimore, Boston, and Chicago as well. Others have still made a solid career out of a rare circumstantial market too. Though they have less recognized names; Tomo Ohka, Daisuke Matsuzaka, and Kazuhiro Sasaki.
Kikuchi, who like Shohei, came from Hanakami Higashi High School in Iwate, Japan pitched to Ohtani-son for the first time as part of a team rivalry each is yet to fully understand. People think of Japan, the cities, the commerce, and the industries(like automobiles or consumer electronics) that make it go… not the rural countryside where both men are from.
A pre-game meeting between friends courtesy of @NPB_Reddit
Not to mention the astronomical odds of them standing on a mound and at a plate years later on television from Orange County, California. “Long shot” would be putting the likelihood of such a meeting in an awfully generous phrasing. Kikuchi also is the first Japanese born player ever to make his Major League debut in Japan.
Meanwhile, Ohtani is a much different breed of player than any of those countrymen before him. The Angels faithful dubbed “Sho-Time” is an Ace quality pitcher, All-Star caliber hitter, and reigning American League Rookie of the Year. Adversity tested his resiliency early with Tommy John surgery to repair his throwing arm; a surgery with a shelf life typically of 5-8 years. The odd thing is, Ohtani is already back in the majors hitting as his arm recovers, a versatility that would never be possible with any other pitcher currently playing in either league. The show must go on.
Which leads back to Kikuchi. A match up made possible by both men defying the odds to arrive. Then defying them again. Long shot or not, the fact remains… they are here. Kikuchi was only able to get through 3.1 innings with one strikeout, three walks, and nine hits allowed and seven runs given up (including back-to-back-to-back jacks to La Stella, Trout, and Ohtani).
Ohtani tallied a single and home run against Yusei, in the first of many battles to come based on their contractual lengths with their respective clubs. It may be rare to see two Japanese countrymen competing at the same time in MLB, and Unicorn rare to see two from the same area, school, and in the same division competing at the same time; one thing that is not rare, is how many times we will get to see this battle evolve for years to come. Kakudo o iku. (Go Angels)