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Japanese Baseball Players Head for the Majors

June 10, 1998

Hideo Nomo (right) later left the Dodgers to join Masato Yoshii on the Mets. (Kyodo)

When Masanori Murakami joined the San Francisco Giants in 1964, he became the first Japanese to play baseball in the North American Major Leagues. And ever since Hideo Nomo signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1995, astonishing everyone with his pitching, the Major Leagues, once only a castle in the sky for most Japanese, have became familiar turf. Since Nomo, pitchers with good track records in Japan have been leaping across the Pacific one after the other. Even promising high-school baseball players not chosen in the Japanese draft are signing up with Minor League teams, which are directly affiliated with the Major Leagues.

Low Salaries Still Require High Motivation
Four people since Nomo have entered the Major Leagues from professional baseball teams in Japan. Shigetoshi Hasegawa became a member of the Anaheim Angels, Hideki Irabu signed with the New York Yankees, and Takashi Kashiwada and Masato Yoshii became part of the New York Mets team. (They were joined there by Nomo himself in June 1998.) All of these men are pitchers.

Then there are the baseball players who skip Japanese pro ball entirely and knock directly on the Major League door. Their numbers are increasing--Japan's professional baseball commissioner is aware of at least 40 such players. Follow-up surveys are not being conducted, so it is not clear just how many Japanese baseball players have stayed on as pros overseas.

This year, pitcher Juei Ushiromatsu signed a Minor League contract with the Mets after graduating from a high school in Akita Prefecture. There are many more like him entering the farm teams one step away from the Major League teams. Ushiromatsu says he was motivated to make his move for the big leagues because "I was attracted to what people call the best baseball in the world--American baseball--where it's power against power. I was influenced by Nomo, but I have a lot of confidence in my fastball, while he relies on a range of pitches. I wanted to see how far I could go." Ushiromatsu was not a Japanese draft pick, but a Mets scout in Japan saw potential in him and decided to sign him up.

The relocation money the Mets provided Ushiromatsu, however, was just a few million yen. And he receives less than 100,000 yen (714 U.S. dollars at 140 yen to the dollar) in monthly salary. This means there is next to no risk to the team, even if their bet on Ushiromatsu does not prove fruitful. A Japanese baseball official says, "The question is whether or not young Japanese who have always had plenty of clothing, food, and a place to live, can put up with that hard lifestyle before they ever get to play baseball. Beginning in the rookie leagues, A, AA, and AAA ball are high hurdles lying in wait for them." Challenging what might be called the "unknown" is a respectable feat for these Japanese ball players. A word to the wise, however, would be to avoid casually heading over to the United States without an ample share of motivation.

Big Timers in the Big Leagues
Since Irabu refused to honor the arrangement made by his Japanese team for him to enter the San Diego Padres and instead joined the Yankees after a considerable quarrel, the only Japanese baseball players that can now leave professional baseball in Japan to enter the Major Leagues are those who have qualified as free agents or who have free contracts. More than a few pro ball players have expressed interest in entering the Major Leagues, including pitcher Takahito Nomura of the Orix Blue Wave of Kobe and then the Yomiuri Giants (Tokyo), who toward the end of last year saw his dream of entering the U.S. go up in smoke; pitcher Satoru Komiyama of the Chiba Lotte Marines, who boasted the best earned run average in the Japanese leagues in the 1997 season; outfielder Ichiro Suzuki of the Blue Wave, who is aiming to be the first player in history ranked as Japan's number-one batter for five years in a row; and pitcher Kazuhiro Sasaki of the Yokohama Bay Stars, the best stopper in Japanese baseball today.

The aim of these players to join the Major Leagues stems from a want to test their own abilities and an intense desire to win public recognition. When families, income and other matters enter the picture, however, it becomes evident that there is no simple answer.

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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.

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