U.S. baseball's opening day heads to Japan

U.S. baseball's opening day heads to Japan

With Major League Baseball launching its 2012 season in Tokyo next week, we honor 10 legends who forged the current U.S.-Japan baseball bond
Giants of Japanese baseball
Will they all make the list? As the big leagues hit Tokyo, we chart the hotshots of the Japanese game.

With professional football eclipsing baseball as America's pastime, and Japan’s dominance at the 2006 and 2009 World Baseball Classics (WBC), is it time to proclaim Japan as the world's ichi-ban baseball country?

No doubt U.S. baseball fans would take exception to that claim, but consider that even before the Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) league begins its 76th season on March 30, Major League Baseball will throw out the first pitch of its 2012 season not at a packed stadium in the United States, but at the Tokyo Dome.

Tokyo will host a pair of games on March 28 and 29 between the Ichiro Suzuki-led Seattle Mariners and the Oakland Athletics.

Before that, a stellar lineup of games will be played between local outfits and the visitors from across the Pacific, making Japan in late March one hot destination for sports fans.

In honor of the coming season of “Puro Yakyu,” as pro baseball is known in Japan, herewith are some of the legends who raised the profile of Japanese baseball around the world.

MLB season-opening games will be played on March 28 and 29, at 7 p.m. and 6 p.m., respectively. Tickets run from ¥1,500 to ¥18,000. Warm-up series games vary in time and price.

Tokyo Dome, Bunkyo-ku. Nearest Station: Suidobashi. +81 (0) 3 5800 9999.

Tickets available for all games, including the pre-season matchups featuring Japanese teams, at e-tix.jp

Yu DarvishYu Darvish delivers a fastball at the 2009 World Baseball Classic, trademark pouty lips and mean stare in tow.

10. Yu Darvish

MLB’s newest Japanese darling, Yu Darvish, is one of the most decorated pitchers in NPB history, having won two Pacific League MVP awards, the 2007 Eiji Sawamura Award (NPB’s version of the Cy Young), a trio of strikeout titles and a pair of Gold Glove Awards during his seven seasons with the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters.

After finishing the 2011 NPB season with 18 wins, 276 strikeouts and a 1.44 ERA, Darvish signed a six-year, $60 million contract with the Texas Rangers (which doesn’t include the record-setting $51.7 million posting bid the Rangers paid the Hokkaido club just to negotiate with the ace).

Though unlikely to return to his NPB roots, Darvish's impact on Japanese baseball is undeniable.

A popular commercial spokesman for companies like DyDo, and their D-1 Coffee, Darvish rose from sports hero to cultural icon in 2009, when as a member of the Japanese national team, he struck out five batters in the ninth and 10th innings of the World Baseball Classic final, earning the win and securing Japan’s second straight WBC gold.

Randy BassThis statue of Colonel Sanders was recovered from the sludge of an Osaka river nearly a quarter century after it went missing.

9. Randy Bass

A journeyman pinch hitter who spent six seasons bouncing around the Major Leagues with the Minnesota Twins, Kansas City Royal, Montreal Expos, San Diego Padres and Texas Rangers, Randy Bass landed in Japan at the beginning of the 1983 season when he signed on to become the starting first baseman for the Hanshin Tigers.
While Bass was never quite able to crack the starting lineup in the majors, he showed phenomenal power during his six seasons in Japan, winning four consecutive batting titles, two Triple Crowns (1985, 1986) and the 1985 Central League MVP award, as he led the Tigers to the 1985 Japan Series championship.
Finishing his NPB career with 202 homers, 54 of them coming in 1985 alone, Bass is considered by many to have been robbed of his chance to break or tie the single season home run record in a bit of a controversy (more on that later), but his single season batting average mark of .389 in 1986 still stands, cementing his place in Japanese baseball history.

Fans in Japan also associate Bass with the bizarre "Curse of the Colonel" -- a supposed hex on the Tigers brought on when Hanshin fans tossed a KFC Colonel Sanders statue into a river in Osaka in 1985, after they won their only championship.

Takeya NakamuraA hefty Takeya Nakamura crushes a three-run ding. No diets necessary when you hit this well.

8. Takeya Nakamura

NPB’s reigning home run king with 48 jacks in 2011, Saitama Seibu Lions infielder Takeya Nakamura has been distinguished as much for his power, as for his plus-sized frame.

At 102 kilos (he stands just 175 centimeters tall), Nakamura has spent his entire nine-year NPB career with the Lions, topping the 40 home run mark on three occasions, in 2008, 2009 and 2011.

While Nakamura didn't make the Japanese team that won the 2009 WBC, his recent power surge has put him in prime contention for a roster slot in 2013, when Japan looks to take its third straight championship.

Cecil Fielder Big-boned, bigger bat; Cecil Fielder transitioned from struggling pinch hitter to everyday slugging star during his lone season in Japan.

7. Cecil Fielder

Nicknamed “Wild Bear” due to his robust stature, Cecil Fielder spent the 1989 season as a member of the Hanshin Tigers, and immediately became a favorite among Japanese fans.

Prior to a very public feud with his MLB All-Star son, Detroit Tigers first baseman Prince Fielder, and squandering his assets in a gambling frenzy, the elder Fielder delivered a remarkable season with Hanshin, crushing 38 home runs.

Hideki MatsuiA monster at the plate, Matsui was denied a new contract with the Yankees, in part to his horrid fielding, and moved to the Angels.

6. Hideki Matsui

Known as “Godzilla” and feared by opposing pitchers for his power, Hideki Matsui amassed 332 home runs, 889 RBIs and a .304 batting average during his 10 seasons with the Yomiuri Giants.

A nine-time NPB All-Star, three-time Japan series champion, Central League MVP and home run champ, Matsui left Japan in 2003 for the pinstripes of the New York Yankees, but only after rejecting a then-record six-year, $64 million contract to remain with Yomiuri.

Matsui found success in MLB, winning the 2009 World Series MVP and being selected to two All-Star teams (2003, 2004) as a member of the Yankees, before leaving New York to sign with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in 2010. He spent 2011 as the starting DH for the Oakland Athletics.

Bobby ValentineBobby V returns to MLB in 2012 as the manager of the Boston Red Sox.

5. Bobby Valentine

The highest-ranking American on this list, Bobby Valentine is a hardball legend in Japan, the man who, in 2005, led the lowly Chiba Lotte Marines to the Japan Series championship, their first in 31 years, and the inaugural Asia Series crown.

First hired by the Marines in 1995, “Bobby V” was subsequently released at the end of the season for personal conflicts with management, but not before leading the Chiba club to a second place finish in the Pacific League.

Re-hired in 2004, Valentine became a cultural phenomenon, raising the profile of the Marines internationally and inspiring the documentary “The Zen of Bobby V,” an official selection of the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival.

Despite his success in NPB, Valentine was later fired from his position in 2009, although local fans did attempt a valiant grassroots campaign to save his job, collecting more than 112,000 signatures in support of the tempermental manager.

After spending the 2009-2011 seasons as an MLB analyst for ESPN, Valentine will make his return to the dugout in 2012, this time as manager of the Boston Red Sox, teaming up with fellow NPB icon and Sox pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka.

Sadaharu OhSadaharu Oh protecting his interests and records as manager of the Yomiuri Giants.

4. Sadaharu Oh

A 22-year NPB veteran as a member of the Yomiuri Giants, 11-time Japan Series champion, nine-time Central League MVP, 15-time home run champ and 1994 inductee into the NPB Hall of Fame, Sadaharu Oh is the most decorated player in Japanese baseball history.

After retiring from play following the 1980 season, Oh spent the next eight seasons as manager (and assistant manager) of the Giants, before leaving baseball altogether in 1988.

However, in 1995, he returned as manager of the Fukoka Daiei Hawks (renamed the Fukoka Softbank Hawks in 2005), leading the club to two Japan Series titles, in 1999 and 2003.

Oh, a Taiwanese national, born in Japan to a Japanese mother and Taiwanese father, enhanced his legend in 2006 by leading the Japanese national team to the inaugural WBC title, cementing his place as Japan’s greatest hitter and manager.

In addition to his career mark of 868 career four-baggers, Oh also set the NPB single season mark of 55 dingers in 1964, although this particular record has come under severe scrutiny in recent years, some even calling it phony.

On three occasions (1985, 2001, 2002), non-Japanese players have come close to breaking Oh’s mark, only to face Oh-managed teams late in the season.

While Oh has denied ordering his pitchers to intentionally walk Randy Bass, Karl “Tuffy” Rhodes and Alex Cabrera, the three hitters in question (the latter two actually tied his mark), there have been reports that other coaches gave strict instructions to prevent all three batters from getting even the slightest chance of breaking Oh’s record.

Hideo NomoHideo Nomo, with former Dodgers owner Peter O’Malley, comes out of “retirement” to shake on the deal of a lifetime; Nippon Professional Baseball would never be the same.

3. Hideo Nomo

On February 13, 1995, Japanese pitcher Hideo Nomo signed the most important contract in Nippon Professional Baseball history -- with the Los Angeles Dodgers of the MLB.

A pitching ace for the Osaka Kintetsu Buffaloes of the Pacific League, Nomo spent five seasons in the NPB, recording 78 wins and 1,204 strikeouts, including 287 in his rookie season alone, when he was named the 1990 Pacific League MVP and Pacific League Rookie of the Year, in addition to winning the Eiji Sawamura Award.

After a well-publicized contract dispute at the end of the 1994 season, Nomo, led by power agent Don Nomura, exploited a loophole in the league rules and retired from NPB play.

Free to move to the major leagues, Nomo signed with the Dodgers and forever changed the relationship between the two baseball leagues.

Nomo’s career with the Dodgers exploded, as the unorthodox pitcher, nicknamed “Tornado” for his unique windup, won the 1995 National League Rookie of the Year award, leading the league with 236 Ks and being selected as an All-Star.

While batters soon caught on to Nomo’s rotation and runners stole bases with ease due to his lengthy delivery, Hideo Nomo became the only Japanese player to throw a no-hitter in the majors, blanking the Colorado Rockies on September 17, 1996.

Nomo, who retired after the 2008 season, finished his MLB career with 123 wins and 1,918 strikeouts, and is one of only five pitchers to throw no-hitters in both the NL and AL, recording his second no-hitter in 2001 as a member of the Boston Red Sox.

His defection to MLB is still regarded as the single most important move that paved the road for future Japanese players in America, radically changing NPB rules forever.

Dice-KSuper stud pitching ace Dice-K wins his second straight World Baseball Classic MVP award. He later considers auctioning the gold medal on eBay.

2. Daisuke Matsuzaka

One of only five Japanese players to win both the Japan Series (2004) and the World Series (2007), Daisuke Matsuzaka spent eight seasons with the Saitama Seibu Lions, amassing some of the most impressive pitching stats in NPB history, before signing with the Boston Red Sox for the 2007 season.

Matsuzaka, the 1999 Pacific League Rookie of the Year, earned 108 NPB wins en route to seven Gold Gloves and All-Star appearances, four strikeout crowns, three Best Nine Awards and the 2001 Eiji Sawamura Award, in addition to leading the league in wins on three occasions and ERA twice.

Aside from being the only Japanese player to ever start a World Series game, Matsuzaka, who is known as “The Monster of the Heisei Era” in Japan, is the country’s most clutch international competitor, winning the World Baseball Classic MVP awards in both 2006 and 2009.

IchiroIchiro on the base path at the 2009 WBC; Suzuki is outmatched by no one in both the Japan League and the Major Leagues.

1. Ichiro Suzuki

For all his accolades and achievements as a member of the Orix Blue Wave -- seven batting titles, seven All-Star appearances, seven Gold Gloves, seven Best Nine Awards and three Pacific League MVPs -- 1996 Japan Series Champion Ichiro Suzuki has played his best baseball as a member of the Seattle Mariners.

After signing his first contract with the Mariners for a mere $14 million over three seasons, Ichiro went on to win the American League MVP, Gold Glove, Silver Slugger and Rookie of the Year awards in 2001, the same year he led the AL in hitting and stolen bases, and making his first All-Star appearance.

Since that spectacular debut season, Ichiro has collected nine more Gold Gloves and All-Star selections, two more Silver Slugger Awards and a second batting title. He was also chosen as the 2007 All-Star Game MVP.

A member of both Japanese national teams to win the WBC, Ichiro set the major league all-time single-season hit record with 262 in 2004, and is considered by many experts to be a lock for induction into the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame.

For that outstanding array of unadulterated success, Ichiro is our pick as the greatest-ever Japanese baseball player. Feel free to agree or differ in the comments below.

Writer, front man, promoter and visionary, Dan Shapiro's a Renaissance man who's been covering Shanghai's music and nightlife scenes since 2007.

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