This is how baseball is played in the land of the rising sun.
First off, lets talk about this little island chain. It is a little smaller size-wise than California, however 127 million citizens call it home. Politically, they like to kick it old-school with a constitutional monarchy with a little parliamentary government thrown in for good measure.
Japan is most known for disciplined ballplayers with uncanny abilities (okay, lets just call it Ichiro Suzuki); civil engineering marvels, Shinkansen bullet trains that whip under the ocean between Japan’s islands; Mount Fuji; subways so packed officers actually push crowds in like sardines during peak hours; of course, awesome sunrises.
The game of baseball was introduced in 1872 by Horace Wilson, an American professor of English at Tokyo University. All of Japan is a baseball hot spot, but particularly in and around the big cities such as Tokyo, Osaka, Yokohama and Nagoya, among others.
The first Japanese born player to play in MLB was Masanori Murakami, born in Otsuki, he pitched for the San Francisco Giants in 1964. Most notable MLB exports include Hideo Nomo (first to leave voluntarily, in 1995); Hideki Matsui; Kazuo Matsui; Ichiro Suzuki (Mariners). Suzuki broke George Sisler’s single-season MLB hit record (257) in 2004, finishing with 262 hits. Right-hander Kazuhiro Sasaki pitched four seasons for the Seattle Mariners (2000-2003), recording 45 saves in 2001 and was set up by his countryman Shigetoshi Hasegawa.
Sadaharu Oh remains the greatest Japanese player, hitting 868 home runs during his 22-year career in the 1960s and 1970s. Born in Tokyo to a Chinese-born father and Japanese-born mother, “Oh” means “King” in Chinese. Oh is manager of the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks where he has led the team to three pennants and one Japan Series title.
I have covered recent Japanese export in another article, Daisuke Matsuzaka so I recommend you check that out. Kman has Yankees’ lefthander Kei Igawa and Akinori Iwamura covered.
High School/Amateur Baseball
More than 4,000 high school teams take part in regional qualifiers for the country’s two big high school tournaments. Japan’s national high school and industrial league tournaments draw the attention of Major League Baseball scouts; the most prestigious college conference in Japan is the Roku-daigaku (Big Six) league. But high school tourneys take the cake — it’s huge in Japan. Even qualifying high school tournaments are often televised locally.
There are two national high school tournaments annually with the finals taking place at historic Hanshin Koshien Stadium in Osaka, and each of those games is televised nationally. How huge? If any tournament games of the national event in August need to be rescheduled because of inclement weather, the professional team, the Hanshin Tigers, has to postpone or cancel conflicting home games. What’s more, a more than 50-year-old tradition exists where each player on the losing team in the championship game takes home a pouch of Koshien’s dirt. The postgame ceremonies are Japan’s version of a cross between the Academy Awards red carpet and the Presidential inauguration, with both the winning and losing teams receiving medals while traditional Japanese music plays in the ballpark and fans stand in recognition. (Losing) players are crying and both teams’ players bow to each other in Japanese ritual. The champions speak to the crowd and many break down crying — in joy. “Koshien” means high school in Japan and the ballpark — which has hosted Babe Ruth — was built to service the tournaments.
Japan also has a competitive college program, which dates back more than 100 years. One of the biggest rivalries is Waseda University and Keio, a rivalry that dates back to 1903. It got so nasty in 1906 that games were cancelled for a while due to fan rowdiness.
Nippon (Japan) Professional Baseball League
Founded in 1936, today 12 teams, split among two leagues, each play about 135 regular season games from April-October. Traditionally, the team with the best record from the Central League (older league; pitcher hits) and Pacific League (younger league; employs designated hitter) met in a best-of-seven Japan Series. In 2004, the Pacific League played five fewer games than the Central League teams during the regular season and used a new playoff format to determine its champion. The teams in third and second place played in a best-of-three series (all at the second place team’s ballpark) with the winner going on to play the first-place team in a best-of-five series at its home ballpark. Each team can have four foreign-born players on its active roster at any one time (often, two position players and two pitchers). The majority of these foreign-born players are U.S. born; however, they also come from Latin America and other parts of Asia, namely South Korea and Taiwan. Typically, most foreign-born players sign a one-year contract, with an option for a second year.
The teams are: Tokyo’s world famous Yomiuri Giants; Tokyo’s Yakult Swallows; (East) Tokyo’s Chiba Lotte Marines; (West) Tokyo’s Seibu Lions; Yokohama’s BayStars; Nagoya’s Chunichi Dragons; Osaka’s Hanshin Tigers; Osaka’s Orix Buffaloes; Hiroshima’s Carp; Fukuoka’s Daiei Hawks; Sendai’s Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles and Sapporo’s Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters. The Yomiuri Giants, Japan’s oldest professional team, have won 20 championships.
Good luck getting a ticket to see a Giants game — they annually draw more than 3.5 million. As two of the oldest franchises from two of Japan’s most historic cities, the Tokyo-based Giants and Hanshin Tigers of Osaka have the strongest rivalry.
Foreign-born players usually come and go after a year or two, but Tuffy Rhodes is among the success stories. The former Chicago Cub has been among Japan’s top home run hitters since 2001, as has Venezuelan Alex Cabrera (once property of the Arizona Diamondbacks). A more notable name in Japan is former big league manager Bobby Valentine who, in 2005, guided the Chiba Lotte Marines to the championship.
This is just out of control:
The average one-year salary for foreign players is roughly $400,000 to $600,000. Teams often sign major league veterans to $1 million contracts, but players who only have minor league experience earn considerably less, usually around $150,000 to $300,000, which can be more than the average minor league contract.
Free Agent Policy
Japanese-born players cannot become free agents until they have completed 10 seasons. These Japanese-born players must wait nine seasons, and in most cases 10, before they can leave Japan and sign with a major league baseball team. After nine seasons, a Japanese-born player is eligible to be posted by his Japanese team to the highest-bidding major league club. The major league team with the highest bid gains exclusive negotiating rights for 30 days to sign the player to a contract. Ichiro Suzuki joined MLB through the posting system (The Mariners paid the Orix Blue Wave, now Orix Buffaloes, $13 million for the right to sign Ichiro). Hideki Matsui had 10 years of experience with the Yomiuri Giants when he signed with the Yankees, having reached free agency. Known as “Godzilla,” Matsui hit 332 career home runs for the Giants, including 50 homers in 2002 to lead the Giants to the Japan Series title. Most Japanese teams have a relationship with at least one MLB franchise where they share player development and coaching expertise. These relationships also come in handy during player negotiations.
It’s not the prettiest, nor does it employ much of the modern amenities found in the major leagues, but clearly, Japan’s most historic ballpark is Hanshin Koshien Stadium in Osaka. Opening in 1924 and heavily influenced by the Polo Grounds in New York City, the ballpark was built to house Japan’s historic national high school baseball tournaments (”Koshien” means high school baseball in Japan). In 1924, it was the largest stadium on the continent at the time, with a capacity of 53,000, and by 1934, hosted Babe Ruth during an exhibition game.
The aisles are even narrower than Fenway Park, but the playing surface at Koshien is dirt, as is another favorite Japanese ballpark, Hiroshima Stadium, which opened in 1957. The remnants of the Atomic Bomb are just across the street from the ballpark — and they are as in-your-face as in-your-face can be. Meiji Jingu Stadium, Yokohama Stadium and Skymark Stadium (formerly Green Stadium), the only grass infield, are also great throwback ballparks. Green Stadium has a small marker, honoring Ichiro, in the main concourse beyond the right field fence. Because there’s very little open space in Japan, ballparks and ball fields have some unusual neighbors. You can have a pregame catch on the beach behind Chiba Lotte Stadium, and players on the Swallows practice across the street from the ballpark in a Tokyo park. Among modern, domed ballparks, the most notable is the Tokyo Dome, which debuted in 1988 and holds 55,000. Known as “The Big Egg” for its marshmallow-like, white Teflon roof, it’s somewhat similar to the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome, home of the Minnesota Twins.
Not only can you bring food into the ballpark, you can also order plenty of Western grub, and there’s plenty of great Japanese fare to be had with chopsticks in hand, including ramen, soba, sake, udon, yakitori, noodles and curry rice. Try onigiri — rice balls wrapped in seaweed — or shabu shabu — little strips of meat prepared in boiling water with vegetables. And “Keg Me!” Cute Japanese women roam the aisleways with mini-kegs on their back pouring beer suds.
Be prepared to leave the ballpark humming a few new tunes. Even when there’s a sparse crowd, the bands play and their beats — a different one for each player — will be ringing in your head for the following 24 hours. Really want to get in the game? Buy a balloon, blow into it and then let the air out of the sucker after the top of the seventh. Yeah, air balloon time in Japan equals the 7th inning stretch in North America.
Since 1986, the best players in Nippon Professional Baseball have hosted a team of among the best MLB players every other November, except for the strike-interrupted 1994 season. Both All-Star teams consist of 28 players. MLB and the MLBPA (players association) select the All-Star team and staff, including managers and coaches. In Japan, one player at each position is selected through fan balloting while the manager selects the remaining team members.
The All-Star Series usually takes place for about 10 days in early-to-mid November, with all games played at a variety of domed-ballparks throughout Japan. All games end in the ninth inning, regardless of the score, and tie games are not continued. Players wear the uniform of the team for which they regularly play. The designated “home team” on a given day wears its regular-season home uniforms, and the designated “visiting team” wears its regular-season road uniforms. The designated hitter rule is in place for all games. Japan’s only victory in the biennial All-Star series was in 1990. The event has proved to be a format for Japanese-born players to showcase their talent. Kazuo Matsui, who is unrelated to the Yankees’ Hideki Matsui, batted .423 with two doubles, two homers and seven RBI in the 2002 event. The switch-hitting shortstop signed with the New York Mets in 2004.
Cuban Omar Linares, whom many MLB scouts believe could have been a big league All-Star and perhaps Hall of Famer, ended his playing career in Japan. In 2002, Linares, a third baseman, played for Chunichi for 500,000 yen per month ($4,000 U.S). Linares is one of the greatest Cuban players of all-time who chose not to defect to play in the major leagues.Many baseball fans are trying to push Oh into the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame, even though Oh never played MLB. But neither did Josh Gibson from the Negro Leagues, and Gibson’s in the Hall. The National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown was originally established to honor those who played Major League Baseball. It has chosen to change its rules to include the world’s best players, rather than keep them ineligible due to MLB experience. Oh was the best hitter in Japanese history, but was restricted from MLB during his playing years, like Gibson. The Hall of Fame would need to change its mission and title from National to International to elect Oh.Former Chicago Cubs players have had success in Japan: George “Granddaddy Longlegs” Altman, an outfielder with the Cubs in the 1950s and 1960s hit 205 career homers in Japan and won the batting title from 1968-1975. He was so nicknamed because he was approaching 40 years old in his Japanese prime and because of his 6-foot, 4-inch frame. Leon Lee, the father of current Cub Derrek Lee, averaged 27 homers and 88 RBI during a 10-year Japanese career. Tuffy Rhodes hit three home runs on Opening Day 1994 for the Cubs and is one Japan’s all-time home run hitters.The Cubs along with the Mets were the first big league club to play a regular season game in Japan — to open the 2000 seasonThe rookie who pushes Tom Selleck’s character off the Yankees’ roster in the movie “Mr. Baseball” was played by Toronto Blue Jays’ DH Frank Thomas. Sadaharu Oh managed Japan to the 2006 WBC Championship.
For a nice insider’s look at Japanese Baseball from a foreign Baseball Player’s perspective (aside from renting the Tom Selleck classic, Mr. Baseball) head on over to CJ Nitkowski’s blog at http://www.cjbaseball.com/