Slices of Japanese business, politics and life
Eleven years ago I sat near a high school-aged Daisuke Matsuzaka as he used field glasses to watch a Japan-MLB All-Star game at the end of both leagues’ seasons.
I wrote a story based on that image about Japanese wanting to know “How good are we?” It was a question encompassing more than sport, as the same doubts existed for Japan in terms of corporate or diplomatic might, while the way the nation usually measured itself was in comparison to the U.S.
The 2009 baseball season, which began with Matsuzaka and Ichiro Suzuki leading Japan to its second World Baseball Classic title and ended with Hideki Matsui winning the World Series MVP in helping the New York Yankees to the crown, hasn’t ended that self-assessment. Instead it has widened it to “How good can we be?”
Matsui, whose decision to leave the Yomiuri Giants at the end of the 2002 was broadcast live across the island nation, hit a grand slam in his first New York home game but has been hobbled by injuries in seven seasons that may have made his Series heroics a Yankees coda.
Ichiro, who set the record in 2009 for most consecutive MLB seasons with 200 hits and delivered the winning RBI in the WBC title game, is the greatest baseball export Japan has produced so far, but his zen approach to hitting and perceived statistics orientation have not always resonated with fans or teammates.
Matsui, meanwhile, nicknamed “Godzilla” in high school for his power display at the national baseball championship, is less polished and a little more rough and ready. But he’s a player that nary a cross word has been said or written about, rather a “slugging salaryman” portrayal whose team focus is absolute, who even hit his sixth game Series homer to the Komatsu banner in rightfield.
An MLB-insider told me after Game Six of the World Series: “Ichiro Suzuki will be elected into the Hall of Fame, Hideki Matsui will not. But Ichiro will never achieve what Matsui did last night.”
Ichiro may not, but another Japanese player may, as the once distant fields of dreams across the Pacific have grown closer thanks to the countrymen’s feats in 2009, with Japan’s questions about how it rates becoming easier to answer.
Photo credit: REUTERS/Mike Segar
Japan’s Ichiro Suzuki underlined his position as his country’s greatest sporting export after shattering one of Major League Baseball’s oldest records.
The Seattle Mariners outfielder was described as a “Hercules” by fellow players after becoming the first man to record 200 hits for nine straight seasons.
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.
Defending champ Japan and Korea’s third pairing this WBC followed convincing wins by each side over Cuba and Mexico, respectively, serving as a fitting rubber game after the sides split their first two games.
Three early — and not fully deserved — runs in the first inning off pitcher Yu Darvish put the Samurai in the hole. That sent many Japanese to local lunchtime offerings, as the televised game played midday at offices around the country, likely to score huge ratings.
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.
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.