Japan: key to a truly global World Series?

January 13, 2010

The story goes that shortly after baseball great Babe Ruth had settled into the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo while touring Japan in 1934, there was a knock on the door. He opened it to see a Japanese man in a kimono. ”Sign baseball,” the man said.

As soon as the Babe autographed that baseball, the man pulled another out of his kimono. Then another. And another. And another.

If Japanese media coverage of home-grown players plying their trade in the United States is anything to go by, Japan’s love affair with baseball is alive and well.

In 2001, Major League Baseball’s decision to allow All-Star voting in Japan helped Ichiro Suzuki lead all players in voting for the All-Star Game. That same year, Ichiro won the American League Most Valuable Player and the Rookie of the Year awards, becoming only the second player in MLB history (after Fred Lynn) to receive both honors in the same season.

Last fall, Hideki Matsui of the New York Yankees became the first Japanese-born player to be voted World Series Most Valuable Player and the first to win it as a designated hitter.

Despite its pompous name, the World Series only involves North America. But that may soon change.

Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig has held talks with his Japanese counterpart, Ryozo Kato, about changing the World Series format to pit the best team in MLB against the best team in Japan.

Japan has been playing top-flight baseball for quite some time, but few in the U.S took them seriously until about 20 years ago. In 1990, journeyman Cecil Fielder triumphantly returned to the U.S. after a stint in Japan. The hulking slugger wowed Detroit fans with 51 home runs and 132 RBIs.

In 1995, Dodgers pitcher Hideo Nomo was voted rookie of the year in the National League. In the late 90s, Hideki Irabu helped the Yankees win two World Series. Today every MLB team scours the Far East for all the top talent they can sign.

PHOTO: New York Yankees Hideki Matsui (L) greets Alex Rodriguez during introductions before Game 1 of the 2009 Major League Baseball World Series against the Philadelphia Phillies in New York, October 28, 2009. REUTERS/Mike Segar

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