Shohei Ohtani gives Japanese baseball a moment to enjoy

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TOKYO – Japan is finally where it wants to be versus the United States and the game of baseball.

The country has come to the end of a spiritual journey that has lasted nearly 150 years thanks to the efforts of Shohei Ohtani, who has succeeded in the major leagues previously thought impossible by most observers.

No other player in Major League Baseball history has done what Ohtani did this season by the end of the inning, 24 hours after participating in the home run derby.

No one – no other player in the long history of America’s national pastime – has ever done this. Ohtani is now referred to by many as the best player in baseball. He’s one of the leading pitchers in the MLB and threatens to hit 60 homers too.

Japan has been trying to catch up with the Americans since 1873 when an American professor first introduced the game. The game was only played at high school and college levels at first, with many believing that playing ball for money was somehow impure. That changed in 1934 when Babe Ruth toured Japan with Lou Gehrig and other MLB stars that ended with a record winning streak of 18-0. Ruth herself met 13 homers.

The Ruth Tour was so commercially successful – a million fans lined the streets of Tokyo’s Ginza district to watch the American parade – that Japan’s first professional league was launched in 1936.

Above: Babe Ruth is welcomed as a hero by fans in Tokyo in November 1934. Thousands of people wave Japanese and American flags to greet the babes’ motorcade. Below: Tokyo baseball fans waiting to buy serial tickets in Ginza under banners welcoming the San Francisco Seals on their 1949 tour of Japan. © AP

Visits ceased during World War II, but a visit to the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League in 1949 helped restore goodwill between Japan and the United States. Tours that they have mostly won with ease. Typical was the visit of the New York Yankees in 1955 when the Bronx Bombers lost 15-0-1.

The Major Leaguers had a significant size and weight advantage on average, and typical MLB praise was something like “The Japanese are experts at the fundamentals. All they need is a little more power and strength.”

Japan felt progress in 1964 when a young pitcher named Masanori Murakami was sent to practice in the San Francisco Minor League and ended up serving as the Star Relief pitcher for the San Francisco Giants.

He was the first Japanese player to ever play in the major leagues, and his success sparked a feud between the Giants and the Nankai Hawks of the Japanese Pacific League, who originally drafted him from high school. As a result, Nippon Professional Baseball and MLB signed a working agreement to keep hands off each other’s players.

The following year, the Yomiuri Giants defeated the MLB National League champion, the Los Angeles Dodgers, and won a four of seven series, even though the Dodgers were without their top two pitchers Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale.

“The Americans have nothing more to teach us,” said Tetsuharu Kawakami, manager of the Yomiuri Giants, who was on his way to nine Japanese championships thanks to thugs like Sadaharu Oh and Shigeo Nagashima. Japan’s hyperactive sports media called for a “Real World Series” between Japan and the US

Such conversations got derailed when the St. Louis Cardinals with Bob Gibson and Lou Brock and the Baltimore Orioles with Brooks and Frank Robinson easily won subsequent tours 13-5 and 12-2-4.

Above: Sadaharu Oh of the Yomiuri Giants surpassed Hank Aaron’s career home run record in 1977 and made it onto the cover of Sports Illustrated. Bottom: Slugger Shigeo Nagashima, right, helped the Giants beat the Los Angeles Dodgers in a 1965 seven-game series, a turning point for Japanese baseball. © Kyodo

Sadaharu Oh passed Hank Aaron’s career home run record in 1977 and made it onto the cover of Sports Illustrated. However, critics argued that Oh played in smaller parks and against inferior competition.

It was a somewhat misleading take on the situation because Oh hit the ball as hard as anyone, small park or not, and the quality of Japan’s pitching has been as good as most of the big leagues for most of the time . Japanese pitchers lacked speed, but they could do a variety of breaking pitches. Still, very few American fans considered Oh’s brand a real world record.

Japan continued to improve on MLB tours, and in 1990 the NPB All-Stars won a four of seven series against an MLB All-Star team that included Randy Johnson in his prime, though Americans were quick to spot the MLB ‘ers spent a lot of money, had time to party and drink.

A major turning point came in 1994 when a young pitcher named Hideo Nomo found a loophole in the base player’s contract and signed with the Dodgers. The subsequent success of Nomo – he led the league in strikeouts and was the starting pitcher in the 1995 All-Star Game – sent Japan into fits of joy.

Every game presented by Nomo has been televised nationwide and shown on giant jumbotrons across the country. The writer Midori Masujima said Nomo’s success “seems to refute the notion that the Japanese are physically or empirically not ready for global competition.” It was, as she suggested, a justification for Japan.

Still, naysayers noted that no Japanese thug had done well in the MLB, criticism that was partially gone when Ichiro Suzuki arrived in 2004 and broke the single-season hits record, and then Hideki Matsui won the 2009 World Series MVP and led the Yankees to the world championship.

I say in part because critics still said Ichiro was an easy single hitter, while Matsui, known as Godzilla for hitting 51 homers in one season in Japan, never made it to more than 31 homers in one season to meet the USA

Above: Seattle Mariners’ Ichiro Suzuki tips fans during a pre-game ceremony honoring him for breaking the MLB single-season hit record in 2004, a game that performed live in June 1995 Los Angeles aired on Sony Plaza in the Ginza neighborhood of Tokyo. © AP

But then came Shohei Ohtani. As observers have noted, when Oh broke Aaron’s record, Oh was 175 centimeters tall and weighed 80 kilograms. When Nomo arrived in LA, he was 188 centimeters tall and 86 kilograms. Ohtani is 194 centimeters tall and built like an American football tight end.

As the Japanese baseball hall of fame batter Isao Harimoto – the only NPB player with 3,000 career hits – put it after Ohtani’s all-star game in the 2021 midseason: “How do you like Japanese baseball now?”

Ohtani is only 27 years old and is peaking, so better years could be ahead. Does this mean the time has come for a real World Series? Probably not quite yet.

Most objective watchers say that while the majority of NPB players are good enough to play in the US major leagues and that an All-Star team from Japan could compete, the NPB champions are not. Not quite enough depth. This is the next – and last – mountain to climb.

Robert Whiting is a Tokyo-based journalist and author of books such as “You Gotta Have Wa” and “Tokyo Underworld”. His memoir “Tokyo Junkie: 60 Years of Bright Lights and Back Alleys … and Baseball” was released that year. This is the second part of a two-part feature about Shohei Ohtani. Read the first part here.


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