Slices of Japanese business, politics and life
Kikuchi, an 18-year-old left-hander from Hanamaki Higashi High School in northern Japan, would be the most coveted young Japanese player to join an MLB team, but he is equally desired by Japan’s 12 professional teams.
His star rose at the national high school baseball tournament this summer as his 155 kph (96mph) fastball dazzled. Japan’s Koshien tournment is a big thing even for non-baseball fans in Japan, as the event catapults high school players into the pro ranks.
Sometimes just one high school star can affect an entire team’s fortunes. Masahiro Tanaka, now a starting pitcher for Japan’s Rakuten Golden Eagles, was a high school phenomenon in the summer of 2006.
Ichiro Suzuki has reached 2,000 career hits in 1,402 MLB games — the second-fastest pace ever — while over his nine seasons in MLB the Seattle Mariners star has ended on base once in about every three trips to the plate, based on his career batting average.
Add in his 1,278 Japanese hits, in shorter seasons, and Ichiro at 36 is pointing his bat at very rare professional air, including 3,000 career MLB hits and — on a cumulative basis — Pete Rose’s record 4,256 hits. He already set the MLB season hit record with an amazing 262 in 2004 and will likely be the first player, in a matter of days, to ever record 200 hits in nine consecutive seasons.
Daisuke Matsuzaka’s second trip to the disabled list this season is making some forget the Japanese pitcher’s heroics and wonder if he has been worth the investment of his Boston Red Sox team.
The “Dice-K” sweepstakes dominated Japanese baseball in late 2006, as the Boston Red Sox pursued the rights to negotiate with Matsuzaka — who’s now sitting – by commiting over $51 million to his then team, the Seibu Lions, and another $52 million to the pitcher and agent Scott Boras to sign.
The creators of the World Baseball Classic envisioned a global tournament spread over at least two continents and multiple time zones, featuring the greatest players and national teams possible.
That baseball aim, largely achieved in the inaugural 2006 event and even more so this year, may not completely jibe with the all-Asian WBC final between Japan and South Korea in LA on Monday, but no fan of the sport’s finest would complain after an thrilling extra-inning game that ended in a 5-3 win to Japan.
Ecstatic fans of the Hanshin Tigers baseball team in 1985 tossed a statue of the Kentucky Fried Chicken founder into the Dotonbori River in Osaka, western Japan, when the perpetual underdogs won their first Central League pennant in 21 years.
Sports rivalries are bred by proximity, culture and history, and few match ups in Asia have more baggage or bragging rights at stake than baseball games between Japan and South Korea, the respective World Baseball Classic and Olympic titleholders.
Both crowns were sources of national pride, but Japan’s came in 2006 after losing twice to Korea before a semifinal victory over the Seoul side, which wasn’t enthused that a team it had beaten more than once could become tournament champions.
Half-Japanese, half-Iranian, but possibly Major League Baseball’s most coveted Asian prospect, Yu Darvish is pitching the opener of the World Baseball Classic tournament in Tokyo, the main question for many is how long he will continue to be only a local player.
The template for exports was set by Japan teammate Daisuke Matsuzaka, who followed his MVP effort in the 2006 WBC with an eye-popping $103 million contract with the Boston Red Sox, some $50 million of which went to his Seibu LIons, just for letting the right-hander leave Japan.
Ichiro Suzuki, arguably Japan’s greatest baseball export to Major League Baseball in terms of achievements, is facing what may be the worst spring of his combined Japanese and Major League Baseball career, with his image as the most prolific hitter of this era and a team-oriented star facing beanballs from both sides of the Pacific.
After a woeful season in which his Seattle Mariners lost over 100 games while dumping a full plate of managers, executives and players, Ichiro – who had a sub-par but not mediocre year – has heard a chorus of off-season chirping that the eight-year veteran was selfish, statistics-obsessed and playing by a different set of rules than teammates.