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January 19, 2012

Wezen-Ball

Pre-MLB Nomo & Ichiro in SI

by Larry Granillo

The news that Yu Darvish has finally signed with the Rangers inspired me (again) to do a little digging into the history of Japanese ballplayers in the Major Leagues. Not that we're talking ancient history here. Other than the Giants' 1960s relief pitcher Masanori Murakami, the only major league Japanese players have been playing only since Hideo Nomo found a loophole in his contract and retired from Japanese baseball to make his way to the Dodgers in 1995.

The first mention of Nomo in Sports Illustrated came in February of that year, shortly after he discovered his path to the majors. Despite being a big star in the Far East, Nomo and his fight to get into American baseball was unknown stateside:

His Tokyo-based agent, Don Nomura, recently retained a Los Angeles counterpart, Arn Tellem, to comb through Nomo's contract with the Buffaloes, and together they discovered a gaping loophole. While the standard major league contract prohibits, say, Barry Bonds from announcing his retirement from the San Francisco Giants and then signing to play for any other team anywhere in the world, it seems that Japanese contracts restrict a retiring player only from playing for other Japanese clubs. As a result Nomo, who's 26 and has always dreamed of testing himself in the American major leagues, has announced his retirement—and may become one of the most sought-after pensioners in baseball history.

Nomo is the David Cone of Japan, where he led the Pacific League in strikeouts four times with his peek-at-second-before-going-home Luis Tiant-style delivery. "He has a great fork-ball," says Ranger general manager Doug Melvin. "And he's still young." If Nomo signs with a team on the West Coast, where there's a huge Asian population, we could see the Nipponese Valenzuela soon after the strike gets settled. And no matter where he signs, we're sure to see a new standard Japanese player contract.

The "Nipponese Valenzuela" is about as prescient of a comment as you could make in this circumstance. Whatever SI writer contributed that piece to the "Scorecard" should feel awfully pleased with himself. When the Dodgers gave Nomo a $2 million signing bonus after having seen only a two-minute highlight reel (and not even having full access to his Japanese stats!), Giants manager Dusty Baker said "How do you make an evaluation on somebody you haven't seen pitch? It shows that [the Dodgers] have more money than us. They can take a chance. This is probably what you call a speculative investment. Wildcatting." How times have changed.

The second (and still biggest) Japanese player to capture American fans' hearts in a magical way came six years later, when the Orix Blue Wave posted Ichiro Suzuki. Ichiro's first SI mention came nearly two years prior:

Suzuki, an outfielder who's called simply Ichiro in Japan, is a .350 hitter in his seven Pacific League seasons. In 1994 he batted .385, highest ever for a Japanese player. "I have enjoyed seeing players like Ken Griffey Jr. up close and comparing my game to theirs," he said on Sunday through an interpreter. "If it's possible, I want to someday play in the United States."

Despite the language barrier, Griffey and his counterpart often joke around, play catch and run sprints together. "He's a cool guy," says Griffey. "You can tell he has confidence in his ability." Junior has taught Ichiro to touch fists instead of shaking hands with teammates. The Mariners' guest of honor has also picked up some American baseball slang. He says "What's up?" like Griffey, and when asked on Sunday how things were going, Ichiro grinned and said, in English, "Same old s—-, every f——— day."

Now how can I let that quote go by without including my favorite Ichiro quote of all time?

As with pretty much every baseball player, there's no way of knowing how Yu Darvish will fare in the big leagues. Success stories of Hideo Nomo and Ichiro only tell us so much. There are plenty of Hideki Irabu and Dice-K stories as well to make anyone way. Until we get to actually see Darvish try his talents against new division foe Albert Pujols and the rest of the league, it's nice to look back and see that, at least for some Japanese players, their future MLB success was somewhat predictable.

Related Content:  Japanese Baseball,  Japanese League

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