Ichiro Suzuki works out in Japan prior to the season opener.
Early tomorrow morning, or late tonight, depending on your point of view, the 2012 regular season will kick off with a game between the A’s and Mariners at the Tokyo Dome in Japan.
This is not the first time Major League Baseball will make Pacific overtures to its fans in the Chrysanthemum Kingdom, and it won’t be the last. In an ever-shrinking world, one in which businesses must go where the money is if they are to remain vibrant and profitable, baseball’s overseas fans are crucial to its future.
Baseball has come a long way from barnstorming Japan both before and after World War II, tours that brought teams of All-Stars—not to mention whole Yankees and Giants rosters and such luminaries as John McGraw, Casey Stengel, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Joe DiMaggio.
Another visitor of note was two-time National League batting champ Lefty O’Doul, who made many trips back to Japan to teach and help establish the country’s version of professional baseball.
Now, through these official games, Japan is actually a part of the official baseball season.
The game was ever a common language between the two countries, even at war. At times during World War II, when the two sides were in close enough combat to hear each other’s shouts, Americans would call out, “To hell with Hirohito,”—a blasphemy to Japanese ears given the divinity of the emperor. In return, the Japanese would cry, “To hell with Babe Ruth.”
Word got back to the Babe. Offended, he purchased $100,000 in war bonds.
It would be years before an actual exchange of players took place. Don Newcombe and Larry Doby were the first American ballplayers to play for a Japanese team (with the Chunichi Dragons in 1962), beginning an outflow of talent that hasn’t ceased to this day.
The reverse, Japanese players coming to America, didn't happen for much longer due to the tight grip that Nippon Professional Baseball kept on its players, as well as a cultural bias against playing elsewhere. Left-handed pitcher Masanori Murakami was the first Japan-born player to reach the major leagues, debuting with the San Francisco Giants in 1964. Though only 21, he returned home after the 1965 season and spent the rest of his career in Japan.
It would be many years before another Japanese professional established himself in the majors. That was the Dodgers’ 1995 Rookie of the Year winner, Hideo Nomo. Nomo was successful enough that major-league clubs began taking a more serious look at Japanese players.
This roughly coincided with an economic crunch for the Japanese clubs that made American posting fees for their players increasingly attractive. Suddenly there was Shigetosi Hasegawa, Hideki Irabu, Kazuhiro Sasaki and more, climaxing with Ichiro Suzuki.
Ichiro is the most successful major leaguer to come over from Japan, easily surpassing his closest rival, Hideki Matsui. Already a star with the Orix Blue Wave, Ichiro made his stateside debut with the Mariners at 27 in 2001 and was an immediate sensation.
A throwback to the Deadball Era, Ichiro pounded out a league-leading 242 hits (many of them infield singles), led the league in batting average and stolen bases, won both Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player awards and picked up a deserved Gold Glove for defense.
In the years since, the outfielder has won another batting title and led the American League in hits another half-dozen times, breaking George Sisler’s ancient single-season hits record in 2004. Despite his late start in the majors, he retains an outside chance of reaching 3,000 hits on these shores.
Ichiro has served an important dual purpose. His success has helped bind American talent-watchers to Japan and Japanese fans to the American game.
As good as players such as Matsui, Nomo, Akinori Iwamura, Kaz Matsui and Tadahito Iguchi have been at times, as many good seasons as pitchers such as Nomo, Hasegawa, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Takashi Saito, Tomo Ohka and others have had, these were mere transients. Ichiro is a real star, a legitimate Hall of Famer purely for what he has done in a Mariners uniform.
Ichiro’s off-year in 2011 brings his career to a difficult crossroads. As great as he has been overall, with the exception of the 2001, 2004 and 2009 seasons, he has not been a dominating offensive player.
Hitting .300, running the bases well and playing strong defense are all valuable, and Ichiro has certainly been that, but walking and hitting for power are also essential components of productive hitting. Ichiro cannot—or, some would argue, will not—do those things, and when his batting average drops closer to .300 than .350—or, as last year, when it dropped well below that mark—he has less to fall back on than a player with a wider array of skills.
When Jason Giambi hit .342 with 38 home runs and 129 walks in 2001 (the same year rookie Ichiro hit .350/.381/.457), he had one of the best offensive seasons of all time. When he hit .271 with 32 home runs and 108 walks for the 2005 Yankees, he was no longer historic, but still quite valuable.
The same cannot be said of Ichiro as a .272 hitter last year. The baserunning helps. The defense helps. By themselves, they do not make up for a player at a power position posting an on-base percentage of .310 or slugging .335.
The talent pipeline between the American and Japanese majors is now secure enough that Japanese-born players will continue to star in the States. If Ichiro cannot rebound while batting third for the Mariners this year, another hero will rise up to take his place. Perhaps that will be the Rangers’ Yu Darvish.
The next step, for a native of Japan to come up through the American minors without first making a long stop in his home leagues, may have difficult implications for the viability of the Japanese majors. However, it will eventually need to happen if there are to be more representatives of the island nation in Cooperstown following Ichiro.
In the meantime, we have games such as the two to be played between the A’s and the Mariners. The home fans will get to see one of their stars playing in a game that counts in a league with a higher level of difficulty than their own (American lineups are deeper than their Japanese counterparts).
Just as even Hollywood’s biggest bombs can eke out a profit by appealing to foreign audiences (Disney’s hope for John Carter), baseball’s growth will depend not just on the continuing loyalty of American audiences, but of its ability to become a spectacle that can attract a world audience.
Baseball, the game, has already won Japanese hearts; Major League Baseball, through games such as these and its embrace of Ichiro, must do the same.