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