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April 13, 2011

The Asian Equation

The Roots of the Posting System

by Michael Street

This article is the first in a series tracing the roots of today’s transpacific baseball economy between MLB and Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB), the Japanese professional baseball league.

Today’s fans might think that importing players began with Ichiro Suzuki, or maybe Hideo Nomo, but the practice began much earlier, ultimately affecting the game on both sides of the Pacific.

Baseball reached Japan in the 1870s, when two American university teachers taught the game to their students. Bombarded by many new, foreign ideas during the early years of the Meiji Period, the Japanese instantly grasped baseball, despite being unaccustomed to sports played purely for leisure. Baseball appealed to the martial side of Japanese culture with its mixture of teamwork and individual achievement, and its glorification of the virtues of sacrifice, discipline and the kendo-like showdown between pitcher and batter (a philosophy that later influenced Sadaharu Oh’s unique batting stance). This love was stoked by Japanese barnstorming tours featuring stars like Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Lefty Grove, Lou Gehrig, and Jimmie Foxx, leading to the 1936 founding of Japan’s first professional league, which would later become NPB.

Japanese stars soon reciprocated with American barnstorming tours of their own. During one such tour, the Pirates tried to sign Eiji Sawamura, an 18-year-old righty who had fanned Ruth, Gehrig and Foxx in order during their Japanese tour. (NPB would later name its Cy Young equivalent for the talented Sawamura.) The Pirates’ signing attempt was disguised as an autograph request, and Sawamura thwarted it by asking his translator to read the words above where he was being asked to sign. This bit of trickery marked the first attempt by an American team to sign a Japanese player, but it would not be the last—nor would it be the only attempt at international subterfuge.

The traffic in players from West to East began around this time, too, as a handful of foreigners, mostly Asian- Americans, played in Japan, continuing to play throughout World War II. But the first American to play in Japan after the war was Wally Yonamine, a Hawaiian of Japanese descent who played infield and outfield for the Salt Lake City Bees, and had been a running back for the San Francisco 49ers, where he became the first Asian-American to play in the NFL, albeit briefly.

Yonamine lacked power and a good arm, so he stood little chance of making the American majors. After an international negotiation, assisted by Lefty O’Doul, the Yomiuri Giants (even then, Japan’s best and most popular team) signed the Hawaiian-American outfielder to a one-year deal. The Giants wanted to improve their team, and O’Doul felt that Yonamine would be the perfect ambassador, benefiting not only the game but also relations between the two countries. Yonamine would do all of these and more.

Sometimes called “the Jackie Robinson of Japan,” Yonamine fought through postwar anti-American prejudice to revolutionize the Japanese game. Japanese players had a more mechanical and respectful approach than their American counterparts. Pitchers nibbled instead of challenging hitters; players walked slowly on and off the field to conserve energy; runners in double-play situations peeled off into the outfield rather than sliding hard into second base; hitters telegraphed sacrifice bunts by showing bunt the moment they entered the box, and then they didn’t run out the play.

Yonamine changed this by bunting suddenly, sliding hard, hustling on and off the field, and playing all aspects of the game with speed and precision. He even managed to erode the rigid and severe senpai-kohai system, which is like MLB rookie hazing in the same way that the Russian Revolution is like Russian dressing. In the NPB, rookies ate last, bathed last (in cold and dirty bathwater), and they ran errands for veterans, everything from polishing their shoes to scrubbing their backs in the bath and hand-washing their laundry. As a relative veteran and a foreigner, Yonamine willfully ignored the system and soon, the wall of tradition began to crumble.

Bringing the comparatively rough and aggressive American game to Japan made Yonamine a star, and it also made the American and Japanese games similar enough to allow further player traffic between the countries. There are still gaps today in strategy (Japanese managers and pitchers are notoriously formulaic) as well as aggressiveness, though the injuries sustained by converted second basemen Tsuyoshi Nishioka and Akinori Iwamura came from improper double-play footwork, not from being unprepared for a hard takeout slide.

But even if Yonamine had made the two countries’ games similar, the talent was still regarded as distinctly different, so player traffic remained exclusively one-way for many years, with Americans going to Japan when they could no longer play in the American majors, much like today. No player came from Japan to America until 1964, when the San Francisco Giants agreed to allow three players from the Nankai Hawks to gain some American minor-league experience.

One of those players, twenty-year-old lefty Masanori Murakami, began with the Single-A Fresno Giants as their closer, pitching the last two or three innings. Murakami had a great season for Fresno, pitching 106 innings over 49 games, with an 11-7 record, a 1.78 ERA and a 0.925 WHIP. And so the Giants called him up when rosters expanded in September, and Murakami became the first Japanese-born player to appear in a major-league game.

With the Giants six-and-a-half games out of first, they didn’t call on Murakami to protect a lead until his fifth game, when he blew a save chance against the Pirates by balking in an inherited runner. He redeemed himself a few games later with a save against the Houston Colt .45s, and he didn’t give up a run until the last game of the season, when he relieved a young Gaylord Perry in the third inning and surrendered three runs to the Cubs. Finishing the season with 15 innings under his belt, Murakami had an ERA of 1.80 and 0.60 WHIP with the Giants, leading to a 0.6 WARP. His excellent 15.00 K/BB rate was comprised of a 9.0 K/9 and 0.6 BB/9.

After such a great debut, the Giants wanted Murakami back, and they signed him to a $15,000 contract (slightly above the league average of $14,863), sending the Hawks $10,000, as per their agreement. But Nankai wanted Murakami, too, and they signed him to a contract as well, leading to a dispute between the two clubs that became so contentious that MLB commissioner Ford Frick severed all contact between the two leagues, even cancelling the Pirates’ upcoming trip to Japan.

Frick and NPB commissioner Yushi Uchimura eventually worked out a compromise wherein Murakami would play for San Francisco in 1965 but return to Nankai thereafter. Though the conflict delayed his arrival until May, Murakami made the most of his time with the Giants, pitching in middle and late relief, and even spot-starting once in mid-August. In 45 games and 74 1/3 innings, Murakami whiffed American hitters to the tune of 10.3 per 9 innings, although a 2.7 BB/9 rate dropped his astronomical K/BB ratio to the still-strong 3.86. These led to a 3.75 ERA and 1.06 WHIP, the latter trailing only Juan Marichal among Giants hurlers with more than 15 innings pitched. The Giants missed the pennant by just two games that year, and Murakami would forever wonder if he could have made a difference if he had only started the season on time.

Murakami could have flouted the Giants-Hawks agreement and remained in MLB, creating further international problems. But he had promised the Nankai GM he woul return to the Hawks, so he kept his word. Even so, the tumult he had created led to a “working agreement” between the NPB and MLB, essentially stating that neither league could sign the others’ active players. While American players would continue to play in Japan when their MLB careers were done (if, indeed, their careers had ever started), no other Japanese-born player would play in the States for another thirty years, when Hideo Nomo would provide the loophole that led to today’s posting system.

Since being drafted in 1989, Nomo had been a standout starter for the Kintetsu Buffaloes (now merged with Orix Blue Wave, Ichiro’s former team, to become the Orix Buffaloes). In five seasons and 139 games with the Buffaloes, Nomo accumulated a 78-46 record, with a 3.53 ERA and 10.4 K/9. But when Kintetsu wouldn’t offer him a multi-year deal in 1994, Nomo decided to pitch in the States instead.

Because the working agreement forbade the signing of active players, Nomo’s agent Don Nomura told Nomo that a simple retirement would allow his client to bypass both the agreement and Japan’s reserve clause. So the twenty-six-year-old retired from Japanese baseball in 1994 to sign with the Los Angeles Dodgers, a team that would continue to be a pioneer in the Asian market.

Nomo’s one-year deal with Los Angeles was for the league minimum ($109,000), plus a $2 million signing bonus. He pitched 191 1/3 innings his rookie year, setting career bests with 236 strikeouts, and a 2.54 ERA; his 3.7 WARP and 37.8 VORP were his fourth-best career marks. His career included Rookie of the Year honors (edging out Chipper Jones 118-104) and no-hitters in both leagues (with the Dodgers and Red Sox)—he is one of five pitchers to accomplish the latter feat. His Coors Field no-no remains the only ever in that park.

For all his longevity, Nomo was a top-tier pitcher for just a few seasons, and an above-average arm for many more. His career totals, diluted by his final three subpar seasons, remain solid: he finished with a 27.9 WARP and a 123-109 record with a 4.24 ERA, 1.35 WHIP, and ERA+ of 98. The approximately $26.5 million he earned over that span doesn’t begin to measure his value to the game on both sides of the Pacific, however. His success, along with his crafty escape of the working agreement and NPB reserve clause, would lead to other bold moves by Japanese imports and the destruction of the two leagues’ working agreement.

In 1997, Hideki Irabu famously refused to report to San Diego after the Padres bought him from the Chiba Lotte Marines, leading to a trade to the New York Yankees. Alfonso Soriano pulled Nomo’s early-retirement act a year later, precipitating another international incident (and another Yankee signing). These all led to the institution of today’s posting system and the signing of Ichiro Suzuki, whose idiosyncratic approach and singular effect on international baseball will be the subject of the next column in this series.

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