03/26/2004 5:00 AM ET
Nomo's success paved the way
After The Tornado, other Japanese All-Stars followed
By Jim Street / MLB.com
The first Japanese-born player to earn a spot on a Major League roster had such a brief career on this side of the Pacific Ocean that it took 30 years for the next one to even attempt the difficult transition.
|Hideo Nomo is entering his 10th season in the Major Leagues. (Eliot J. Schechter/Getty Images)
As it turned out, Hideo Nomo was no Masanori Murakami.
Murakami, the original Japanese baseball trailblazer, spent parts of two seasons (1964-65) with the San Francisco Giants, posting a 5-1 record and 3.43 ERA in 54 games.
Those aren't bad numbers, but he didn't have the kind of career than convinced some of Japan's other top players to cross the ocean and take on the "higher quality" of baseball in America.
But the influx of quality Japan-bred players began in 1995 when Nomo, embroiled in a contract dispute with the Kintetsu Buffaloes, signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers. The former first-round draft choice in Japan, who reached 1,000 career strikeouts faster than anyone in Japanese baseball history, became a huge star for the Dodgers in his rookie season.
Armed with a peculiar windup, in which he turns his back on the hitter, Nomo turned some heads by winning nine of his first 12 starts while posting a 1.91 ERA, and became the first Japanese-born player named to the All-Star Game.
He also was selected as National League Rookie of the Year, sparking a controversy that exists to this day: Should professional baseball players from other countries be eligible for the one-time-only award in the North American Major Leagues?
The fact that some of the Japanese players are good enough to even be candidates for the award tells you how far Japan has come in developing great baseball talent. That wasn't an issue 11 years ago -- before Nomo and others -- began making it big in the big leagues.
Since his arrival, there have been five Japanese-born All-Stars: Nomo (1995); Ichiro Suzuki (2001-03); Kazuhiro Sasaki (2001-02), Shigetoshi Hasegawa (2003) and Hideki Matsui (2003).
Seattle has hit a Japanese jackpot three times.
Right-handed reliever Sasaki became the franchise's all-time saves leader with 129 during his four-year career. Hasegawa last season set a franchise record for lowest ERA. And right fielder Ichiro has been even better than advertised. The seven-time Pacific League batting champion started his MLB career with a batting title and is one of only three players in history to begin his career with three straight 200-hit seasons.
The Yankees are batting .500 so far with their two Japanese imports.
While Hideki Irabu struggled during his three seasons in New York, Matsui had a solid rookie season in 2003, batting .287 with 16 home runs and 106 RBIs. More home runs were expected from the man known as "Godzilla", especially after hitting 332 home runs in 10 seasons with the Yomiuri Giants.
Now there is another Matsui in Gotham to share the limelight.
Shortstop Kazuo Matsui, who signed with the Mets this offseason, is best known for his streak of 1,143 consecutive games played with the Seibu Lions, fifth longest in Japanese history.
Ichiro said there is a key to a smooth transition.
"If a player trusts himself, he can (be successful)," he said. "It is a different culture and there are different customs, but baseball is baseball. We have to make adjustments off the field, but on the field, it is the same game."
Ichiro trusted himself enough to become the American League's batting champion, Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player in 2001, when he helped Seattle win an AL-record 116 games.
But for every Nomo and Ichiro, there has been an Irabu or Tsuyoshi Shinjo -- heavy on the hype, but not so good on the field.
Irabu wanted to play for the Yankees so badly in 1997 that when the San Diego Padres purchased his rights, he refused to sign and eventually was traded to the Yanks.
Six years, three teams and a 34-35 record later, Irabu returned to his native land, basically with mission unaccomplished.
Shinjo, a flashy outfielder from Fukuoka, spent two seasons with the Mets, sandwiched around one year with the Giants, and never was a hit offensively, batting .245 in a 468-game MLB career before returning to Japan this season.
Even so, Japan-produced players have come a long way in the past 10 years. Make Nomo-stake about that.
Jim Street is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.