The New Age Of Japanese Baseball-Player Media Coverage

Sam RobinsonCorrespondent IMay 9, 2008

In 1995, Japanese born Hideo Nomo became only the third player from Asia to break into the ranks of the major leagues, following Masanori Murakami of Japan in 1964, and teammate Chan Ho Park from South Korea in 1994.

In his debut season in the United States, he was named the starting pitcher in that year’s All-Star game and won Rookie of the Year honors. He proved that Japanese imported players could compete with the level of play of Major League ballplayers in this new “steroid” era.

With him came the surge of players from a well-developed Japanese league that would change the face of baseball forever. Now that Nomo opened the gates, other Major League teams started recruiting from Japan, Korea, and other Far East nations. Players such as Byung-Hyun Kim, Hideki Irabu, Ichiro, and Hideki Matsui seem to come in with every passing year, bringing with them different playing styles, and adding a new demographic to the face of Major League Baseball.

The aspect that separates the emergence of Asian players in the Majors from the emergence of African-American players is the intensity of media coverage. When African-American players were just beginning to be integrated into baseball, the media coverage of the time was limited to newspapers, radio, and scattered television broadcasts of games. The reasoning behind African-American ballplayers originally not being integrated into baseball, obviously, came out of racism and segregation.

The reasons for Asian players' slow integration into baseball was talent. For years, American “Baseball-ists” saw Japanese players as lacking the physical ability to compete with the more professionally trained athletes in the United States. This stereotype is one that has been overcome over the past twelve years.

Hideo Nomo and Kazuhiro Sasaki won Rookie of the Year awards. Ichiro won an MVP award. Hideki Okajima and Daisuke Matsuzaka helped pitch the Red Sox to a World Series Championship. Japan emerged as the champions of the 2006 World Baseball Classic. These occurrences over the past twelve years have helped prove what former major league player and coach Bobby Valentine, who now manages the Chiba Lotte Marines has been saying for years: The Japanese really can play baseball.

Three years ago, Valentine said that every starting position player in Japan could make a Major League team. "Now, it's at least that good,'' Valentine said. "Instead of just making the roster, a lot could be starting in the U.S. But people don't believe that because people [presumably MLB scouts and executives] come over here and see a guy for only three games and say, 'He can't play.' But you see a guy for 30 games, they would say, 'I'd like to have that guy’”.

The two most recent Japanese imports that made all MLB executives say, “I’d like to have that guy” were Daisuke Matsuzaka in 2007 and Hiroki Kuroda in 2008. These two pitchers come from similarly successful baseball careers in Japan, and then moved onto the greener pastures of the Major Leagues in big-market cities (Daisuke going to Boston and Hiroki to Los Angeles).

However, the amount of media hype and attention is where the similarities between Daisuke Matsuzaka and Hiroki Kuroda end. While Kuroda’s entrance into the Major Leagues this season has gone under the radar for most of the country, Daisuke’s entrance last year caused a media frenzy. The “Dice-K” movement was the likes of which baseball hasn’t seen since Nomomania. Why does Dice-K (and yes I will refer to him as Dice-K the rest of this paper) get so much more media attention when they both throw the same pitches, and when the Boston Globe even reported in November of 2007, “some believe (Kuroda) is better than Daisuke Matsuzaka.”

This is the elemental issue that must be addressed in order to figure out how well Japanese baseball will fare in the American mindset. The importance that Japanese players have on the game is in its expansion. It has been hypothesized that within the next five years, we could see the necessary steps in expanding Major League Baseball into a global league. The way the media treats these Japanese stars transition into the MLB will be the judge.

Historically, the United States hasn’t been very receptive of Asian influences in sports or society. For the past few decades, Americans have had very stereotypical perceptions of Asians and Asian-Americans. They have been referred to as the “model minority”, which suggests that people of Asian decent, “conform to the norms of society, do well in school and careers, are hard working, and self-sufficient.”

A growing concern for Americans from the 1970s all the way into the 1990s was the economic threat of Japan. The following is taken from an article that appeared in Newsweek in 1991, in a series that marked the 50th anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. “Fifty years later, many Americans wonder who won the war after all. They see Japan’s business-suited legions conquering worldwide markets, wiping out entire U.S industries and planting their flag on blue-chip properties all over America. The Japanese thrive by dint of virtues once considered distinctively American: hard work, thrift, ingenuity. But they sometimes appear to grasp success by underhanded means.”

What is most shocking about this statement is the obvious parallel between this and the expansions the United States has made over the past 200 years. We even coined a term for ours: “manifest destiny”. We claimed that it was our God-granted destiny to lengthen our borders, infiltrate new lands and markets, and ethnocentrically influence others into our capitalistic, democratic way of life.

Now that another nation has learned from us, we shun them. We teach others our ways, but get mad when they use them in competition. Therefore, when Japanese athletes such as Hideo Nomo and Ichiro come to the United States and dominate America’s pastime, some people become distraught. Phrases such as “Asian Invasion” place these modest athletes, whose culture has taught them honor, sportsmanship, and teamwork, and turn them into invasive aspects of “America’s game”.

I had the opportunity to speak with philosopher/psychiatrist/author/baseball enthusiast Dr. Ron Leifer, who, growing up in the Bronx in the '40s, had the distinction of watching Jackie Robinson play at Ebbets Field. He likened the slow progression of integrating Asian players into the Major Leagues to the struggle African-Americans went through to gain recognition in baseball.

“Before Jackie broke into the Majors, you never heard of anyone from the Negro Leagues. Maybe Satchel Page, but that’s it. The only media outlet in the area that even reported Negro League games was the local Harlem newspapers. When people like Hideo Nomo and Ichiro came over to the United States to play baseball, it was the same kind of situation. I had never heard of these guys until they were here making headlines. That’s just about where the similarities end though. The new players coming into the game today aren’t facing the brutal facts of racism that Jackie Robinson, Larry Doby, and Roy Campenella had to face. I didn’t realize the blind racism that was occurring in those times until I was 11. I was walking on the sidewalk with a few friends from Polo Grounds, and a distinguished, well-dressed African-American man in his 60s was walking toward us. He stepped off the sidewalk and walked through the gutter to pass us. I was dumbfounded. We were nothing but 11-year-old children. I remember thinking, ‘Why would he give way to the sidewalk and walk in the gutter for a bunch of kids?’”

So while Asian baseball players don’t have to face the bigotry and hatred African-Americans faced, they instead have to face more indirect hurdles.

Before we can get into the hurdles facing pitchers like Daisuke Matsuzaka and Hiroki Kuroda, we first must look into the beginnings of their journeys in Japan.

Dice-K grabbed the attention of Japanese media early on, separating himself from not only Hiroki Kuroda, but also from all Japanese pitchers that came before him and that will follow him for years to come. In Japan, high-school baseball is just as popular, if not more popular then their professional league. There are even two manga cartoon series in Japan that are set around high-school baseball, “Touch”, and “Major”. In fact, “Touch” holds the record in Japan as being the highest rated anime television show ever, with a 34 percent share.

There are two major high-school baseball tournaments in Japan: The National High School Baseball Invitational Tournament or "Spring Koshien", and The National High School Baseball Championship or "Summer Koshien". The qualifying games are often televised locally, and each game of the final stage at Koshien is televised nationally on NHK, Japan’s national public broadcast network.

Dice-K is known as a legend of the Koshien, due to his otherworldly performance in the 1998 Summer Koshien. In the quarter-final game, Dice-K threw an astonishing 250 pitches in 17 innings in a win for his team, Yokohama High School, over powerhouse PL Gakuen. Furthermore, the previous day, he threw a 148-pitch complete game shutout. The next day, in the semifinal game, his team came back from a 6-0 deficit in the eighth inning to score seven runs, four in the eighth and three in the ninth.

Dice-K then came out of the outfield to pitch the bottom of the ninth for the win. Dice-K wasn’t done pitching in the tournament though. The next day, in the championship game, he threw a no-hitter, the second ever in a final. This miraculous performance quickly elevated him to rock-star status in Japan, and paving the way for the rest of his glorious career. 

Hiroki Kuroda was a great pitcher in high school as well, but never got to display his full talents on the Koshien stage. He was always looked at in comparison to his father, Kazuhiro Kuroda, was also a professional baseball player who played for the Nankai Hawks. Unlike Dice-K, whose school was known as a baseball powerhouse, his high school, Uenomiya High School, was known more for the upbringing of cricket players. He never got to make a name for himself early on like Dice-K.

In his final year of eligibility to play in the Summer Koshien, his high-school team was denied participation in 1992 due to an assault of a student by a former coach. The following year, after leaving for Senshu University, his high-school team went on to win the Summer Koshien. The rest of Kuroda’s career will also be defined by bad luck.

Both Dice-K and Kuroda broke into the professional league of Japan with success, but via very different paths. Kuroda, not as well revered yet by the masses in Japan, due to his lack of a Koshien appearance in his last year, waited to play professional baseball until after college. After a good showing in college (Senshu University was not a baseball powerhouse college, rather, it was known for its academics and individual Olympic-class athletes), he was drafted in the second round of the 1996 draft to the Hiroshima Toyo Carp.

Following the overshadowing trend that plagued Kuroda through his earlier years, he was once again overshadowed in his rookie season by the Carps first-round draft selection, pitcher Toshikazu Sawazaki, who won Rookie of the Year honors that year. Kuroda persevered and became a consistent part of their starting rotation, racking up at least ten wins over four consecutive seasons from 2000 to 2003, and led the league in complete games from 1999-2005. “Mr. Complete Game”, his nickname, was a complete package for any team to desire .

While Kuroda was good, Dice-K was even better. After his ridiculous performance in the 1998 Summer Koshien, he obviously had infinite possibilities. Major League teams, the Colorado Rockies and Arizona Diamondbacks, heavily recruited him. However, Dice-K wanted to go to a big market team in Japan, exclaiming before the Japan pro draft that he did not want to play for any team besides his hometown team, the Yokohama BayStars, or possibly the Yomiuri Giants.

When the Seibu Lions drafted him, Dice-K was prepared to turn them down and enter a university to delay his entrance into the league for another year or two. That changed however, when the manager of the Lions, Osamu Higashio, an accomplished pitcher for the team in the '70s and '80s, met with Matsuzaka for dinner and gave his winning ball for career win number 200 to Dice-K. This honorable gesture won over Matsuzaka, and Dice-K joined the team.

Just as his high-school baseball career was highlight filled, so too was his first season as a pro. In his first game, he threw a pitch high and inside to an opposing batter, who then began charging the mound, thinking Dice-K was trying to show him up. Teammates stepped in and quelled the situation, but it was evident from day one that people had Daisuke “The Monster” Matsuzaka on their radar.

His next big test of his rookie year was on May 16, 1999, against the Orix Bluewave, and its star player, Ichiro Suzuki. He got Ichiro to strike out three times: the first on a fastball looking, the next on a high slider swinging, and the last on a high fastball swinging. Matsuzaka states that this game was the moment he started to believe that he "belonged" in pro baseball.

He wasn’t the only one who believed he belonged. "He was essentially a god over there," says Scott McClain, who played with him in Japan for four years. "Whenever Daisuke pitched, there were 20,000 people extra in the stands." ''In Japan,'' Scott Boras, Matsuzaka’s agent said, ''he's the equivalent of Michael Jordan.'' In his eight seasons playing for the Lions, he was voted an All Star six times, won the Sawamura Award (equivalent of the Cy Young) in 2001, and led the Pacific League in strikeouts and wins three times each.

As a prime-time baseball star in Japan, one is held up to very high standards. Traditionally, the stars of a team are the highest revered in the region, have billboards with flashing lights around them proclaiming their glory, and are treated in the same fashion as Americans treat their rock stars. Another tradition is the romantic relationships between these players and journalists/hosts/figures of network television, usually of whatever network covers his team’s games. Ichiro Suzuki married Yumiko Fukushima, a former TV announcer for NHK.

Former Dodger Kazuhisa Ishii met his wife through the Fuji TV network. Hiroki Kuroda and Daisuke Matsuzaka are no exceptions to this tradition. Hiroki Kuroda’s wife, Masayo, was a television persona for NTV.

However, Daisuke caused quite a stir when he began a relationship with his current wife, Tomoyo Shibata. The controversy started due to the fact that at the time of the courtship, Dice-K was underage. However, what really infuriated people was that Tomoyo was a popular TV reporter for Nippon Television, the network of the Yomiuri Giants, the rivals of the Seibu Lions and their network, TV Asahi. The rivalry between TV Asahi and Nippon Television is so deep that no baseball game with the Seibu Lions as the home team has ever been allowed to be broadcast on NTV for many decades except for its cable affiliates.

In 2006, baseball as a global sport was redefined with the inaugural World Baseball Classic. 16 countries representing all regions of the world competed in this global event, with major league players of all backgrounds taking spring training off in order to represent their native countries. With the whole world watching, everyone’s eyes were on the American team, Puerto Rican team, and the team from the Dominican Republic to dominate. The team that seemed to fly under the radar until the semifinal game was Japan.

Both Hiroki Kuroda and Daisuke Matsuzaka were selected to play for this prestigious team, being managed by Japanese legend, Sadaharu Oh, the world home run king. However, as what seems to always happen to Hiroki Kuroda, bad luck struck. He was injured getting hit by a comeback line drive off his right hand during a practice game on February 24, forcing him to withdraw from the competition. Hiroki was seen as a very crucial No. 2 pitcher to follow up Dice-K.

However, Dice-K would not need the support. He went 3-0 through the tournament, winning the final game against Cuba while only giving up one run and striking out five. He was also awarded the MVP of the tournament. Now, Daisuke Matsuzaka was a stranger to no one.

When Daisuke Matsuzaka announced through new super agent, Scott Boras, that he would be coming to play in the Major Leagues, a media frenzy erupted. Within 10 days of officially being posted on Nov. 2, the Texas Rangers, New York Mets, New York Yankees, and Boston Red Sox all began frivolously recruiting Dice-K, sending representatives to Japan to woo “The Monster” and his monstrous agent.

The Yankees bid $33 million. The Mets bid $40 million. But the Red Sox came out victorious with an astounding bid of $51,111,111. What makes that number even more ridiculous is the fact that at that same time, you could assemble an entire pitching staff composed of the top five starters in ERA, the top five relievers in holds, and the top two closers in saves, and their salaries from the 2006 season would only equal 48.8 million dollars. Why pay so much?

Well, according to Scott Boras, "Daisuke is someone who dominated in Japan and in the WBC, and I think it reflected the fact that a major league team knew that someone of his abilities could have a great impact on their goals.” Daisuke wasn’t a member of the Red Sox quite yet. The $51 million dollars was not for the contract, but rather, the posting fee.

The posting system is the baseball player transfer system currently in effect between Japan's Nippon Professional Baseball and Major League Baseball. When a player under contract with a Nippon Professional Baseball team wishes to play in Major League Baseball, he must notify his current team's management and request that they make him available for posting during the next posting period (November-March).

If the team consents, the player is presented to the MLB Commissioner. The Commissioner then notifies all MLB teams of the posted player, and holds a four-day-long silent auction during which interested MLB teams submit sealed bids to the Commissioner’s Office.

After the four days have passed, the Commissioner opens the bids and notifies the player's NPB team the highest bid amount, but not who the bidding team is. The NPB team then has 30 days to either accept or reject the nonnegotiable bid amount. If accepted, the bid amount is publicly revealed and the winning Major League team is granted the exclusive rights to negotiate with the player for 30 days.

If the player and the MLB team agree on contract terms before the 30 day period has expired, the NPB team receives the bid amount as a transfer fee, and the player is free to play for that team in the MLB in the coming season. If the MLB team cannot come to a contract agreement with the posted player, then no fee is paid, and the player's rights revert back to his NPB team. A player can request to be posted again in subsequent years, and the process is repeated with no advantage to the club that had won the previous year.

The posting system had to be created in order to protect the Japanese league from the financial losses incurred when superstars such as Hideo Nomo and Alfonso Soriano “retired” from The NPL in order to have their contracts voided in order to leave for the MLB.

After the Red Sox finally hammered out the details of Daisuke’s six-year, $52 million contract, it was time for him to meet America and its press. There were four TV satellite trucks and nearly 40 Japanese reporters camped outside Boras' office the last few days of the negotiations, waiting for the news to come in.

Over 300 reporters from the United States and Japan were present for the historical press conference, with Dice-K flashing a trademark-caliber grin. His words were confident, although very misinterpreted by a shaky translator. ''I hate the word dream, because a dream is a dream,'' Matsuzaka said. ''It's not what happens. So to come here, I make it a goal. I believe I can be in the major leagues.''

As was the case with Nomomania, the media, especially the Japanese media, followed Dice-K everywhere he went. Dice-K didn’t disappoint in his first Major League appearance, giving up only one run in seven innings, while striking out 10 in a victory over the Kansas City Royals. Everywhere he pitched, a posse of reporters and fans follow.

“When the Red Sox came to town (Toronto), thousands of rabid fans rolled into the Rogers Centre with them—fans of Japan's David Beckham”. Blue Jays media relations man Jay Stenhouse said that the team made arrangements to accommodate more than 100 members of the Japanese media—many of whom followed the Japanese legend around all summer. He would finish the season with a record of 15-12, with 201 strikeouts ane an ERA of 4.40.

However, Daisuke, known for his big stage heroics, would be the winning pitcher in game seven of the ALCS, and winning game three of the World Series. Matsuzaka was the first Japanese pitcher in World Series history to start and win a World Series game.

Hiroki Kuroda could have joined the Major Leagues in 2006, after becoming a free agent. No posting fee would have to be set, and Kuroda would have his choice of teams. The Hiroshima Toyo Carp had a strict policy against free agency because it would lead to higher salaries, which the team would not be able to provide due to lack of financial structure. Going after re-signing Kuroda would require a substantial amount of money in order to compete with other Japanese League teams, the Seibu Lions and Hanshin Tigers, who had lost their key starters Daisuke Matsuzaka and Kei Igawa to the posting system.

However, Kuroda agreed to take only a small raise in his salary and signed a four-year deal to stay with the Carps, and hoped to lead them to a championship after a mediocre previous season. This new contract included a provision that Kuroda would be able to negotiate with major league teams as a free agent at any point during the four-year deal if he saw the Carp not going in the right direction.

Sure enough, his honorable move of staying with his current team backfired, as the Carps finished dead last in 2007, regardless of his 12-8 record with an ERA of 3.56. Kuroda decided enough was enough, and after seeing the success of Daisuke, made himself available to Major League teams.

The Texas Rangers, Seattle Mariners, Kansas City Royals, Arizona Diamondbacks, and Los Angeles Dodgers showed varying degrees of interest in signing Kuroda. The two obvious frontrunners had to be Seattle and Los Angeles, due to the fact that they are both warm weather locations, have large Japanese populations, and because they both have multiple Asian players on their 25 man rosters; Seattle having Japanese players Ichiro and Kenji Johjima, as well as Korean native Cha Seung Baek. The Dodgers carried the most Asian players on its roster of any major league team with five. They include Japanese pitcher Takashi Saito, Korean pitcher Chan Ho Park, and Taiwanese pitcher Hong-Chih Kuo, and infielder Chin-lung Hu.

In the end, he went for the warmer and more Asian influenced Dodgers, signing a three-year, $35.3 million contract.

It is still yet to be determined how Hiroki Kuroda will fare in the major leagues. He is off to an average start so far in this young season, going 1-2 with three no decisions and 20 strikeouts with an ERA of 3.82. However, the fanfare that Dice-K had in his inaugural MLB season has not translated over to Hiroki Kuroda.

Obviously, the history of Japanese players already with service in the Dodger’s organization is a crucial factor, along with the fact that Daisuke Matsuzaka is the first Japanese player for the Red Sox. Dice-K came over as a rock star, and aimed to keep it that way, while Kuroda is more of that crucial role player persona. Time will tell how these two great pitchers change the face of baseball, and how they affect it for future Japanese imports.

A name to remember for the future is Yu Darvish, a 21 year old, Iranian/Japanese pitcher. He has stepped right into the vacant shoes of Daisuke as Japan’s big star, and is projected to surpass Dice-K in skill level as well. Unlike Matsuzaka, Darvish has told the Japanese press that he has no intention of seeking a move to America anytime in the future. Only time will tell as to when he will make the jump.

"At one time, Japanese players went to the major leagues to see if they could play," Bobby Valentine said. "At one time, American players went to Japan to make money. But the shoe is on the other foot now. The Japanese know they can play there.” The next few year will be a great testament to the future of baseball, and of how global the game can get. Who knows, we might be watching a true WORLD Series sooner then you think.