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Foreign Players No Longer Just from the U.S.

June 8, 1999

Lee Jong-beom's ninja headgear makes his base-stealing skills plain to see. (Tokyo Chunichi Sports)

Until just a few years ago, most foreign baseball players in Japan came from Major League teams in North America or one of their minor league franchises. But since restrictions on the number of foreign players per team were loosened last year, an increasing number of athletes from other regions have been signing on to play in Japan. The baseball diamond, too, appears to be riding the globalization wave, with Japanese clubs looking harder for talented players from all corners the world.

Korean "Musketeers"
There has been a noticeable increase in the number of players from South Korea. The Chunichi Dragons started this season with a spectacular 11-0 record, thanks in part to the "Three Korean Musketeers": stopper Sun Dong-yol, outfielder Lee Jong-beom, and starting pitcher Lee Sang-hoon.

Sun set a new Japanese baseball record two seasons ago for most "save points" (saves plus wins) with his fast-moving slider. He is the team's undisputed "fireman," being called upon in the late innings to protect a thin lead.

Lee Jong-beom, meanwhile, is a fleet-footed leadoff man who can also hit for power. One source of his popularity with Japanese fans is his practice of pasting a ninja seal to his helmet for each base he steals.

Lee Sang-hoon, meanwhile, is a pitcher who claims to draw strength from his nearly shoulder-length hair. He is known in Japan as Samson, the name of the biblical figure who also drew his power from his long hair. As a member of the starting rotation, he has made a solid contribution to the Dragons' success this year.

Also on the Dragons' roster is the first-ever player from China: the national team's ace pitcher Lu Chianging, who can hurl a fastball at 150 kilometers (93 miles) per hour.

Dominicans from Asia
There are two pitchers from the Dominican Republic who came to Japan after playing in Taiwan: Balvino Galvez of the Tokyo Yomiuri Giants and Ben Rivera of the Hanshin Tigers. Galvez has notched up 25 wins in his first three seasons in Japan and has emerged as the mainstay of the Giants' pitching staff. Rivera, meanwhile, is a stopper for the high-flying Tigers, usually coming in to pitch the final innings to preserve a lead.

Jose Parra, also a pitcher from the Dominican Republic, was traded to the Giants this year from the Samsung Lions of the Korean baseball league.

Caribbean Baseball School
After the United States, the largest contingent of foreign players in Japan's professional baseball hails from the Dominican Republic. One team that is particularly active in recruiting players from the Caribbean nation is the Hiroshima Toyo Carp, which established its Academy of Baseball there in November 1990. Because graduates of the school get a shot at playing professionally in Japan for high salaries, the academy attracts some of the best young players in the country. One alumnus, pitcher Robinson Checo, has gone on to play in the Major Leagues after a stint with the Carp. Among the academy's graduates playing for the Carp this year are pitchers Felix Perdomo and Edison Reinoso and outfielder Timoniel Perez.

The flow of players is no longer just one-way, moreover. A number of Japanese pitchers have crossed the Pacific and are now playing for Major League ball clubs, the most notable being Hideo Nomo, Hideki Irabu, Shigetoshi Hasegawa, and Masato Yoshii. The borderless age, it appears, has finally arrived in Japanese baseball.

The Country of Origin of Foreign Players in Japan
No. of players
United States
Dominican Republic
South Korea
Puerto Rico

Trends in JapanEdited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.