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April 19, 2007
Impact Imports in the NPB
The doors to the Major Leagues are swinging wide open for Japanese ballplayers, and each year we enjoy when a new impact bat or arm added to the mix of familiar faces that have come to grace our local teams. For Americans, living and working in a nation of very diverse racial and cultural backgrounds, this is seen as a normal evolution. In contrast, for the Japanese the integration of foreigners into the sport of baseball was not always an easy or welcome affair. Historically, there have been many foreign players to take the field in the NPB, but the success and failure of these men hasn't always been a simple matter of playing the game well.
Blazing a trail, Victor Starfin joined the pro circuit in Japan in 1936 when the Tokyo Giants signed him as a free agent. Starfin's parents had fled the Russian Revolution to the Japanese island of Hokkaido, and raised their family in exile. For his part, Victor Starfin must have been quite a spectacle to his opponents. Never mind his obviously foreign appearance--Starfin was one of the finest pitchers to ever play in the Japanese professional ranks. He managed to hold the all-time wins mark in Japan for many years by amassing 303 career victories, and was eventually elected to their Hall of Fame. Despite his status as a Japanese baseball legend and as the Giants' ace pitcher, he was hated by more than a few of his peers and teammates. Many purists believed that the Japanese league was for Japanese, and that a foreigner polluted the purity of the sport. Starfin took this in stride, even during his house arrest in World War II, when the fear of foreign espionage claimed even the man who had won 42 games in the 1939 season for the most popular ballclub in the nation.
Even the greatest home run hitter in the world, Sadaharu Oh, was considered a foreigner by some Japanese. Oh's mother was Japanese, but his Chinese father gave him the awkward status of an outsider. Oh always considered himself completely Japanese, a samurai in a baseball uniform, as he was born and raised in Tokyo. Nothing about the man was foreign in any substantial way, but blood is blood. Oh participated in the Koshien tournaments as a high school student, but was barred from taking part in the National High School Sports Event as a non-Japanese. You'll see the irony in that a bit later in this story.
In more recent times, foreign baseball players made their way into the mainstream of the sport. In the 1970s a few free spirits joined the Japanese leagues as power-hitting suketto, or "helpers," when teams sought to gain an advantage over their less-connected counterparts. Many of these suketto were subjected to racially-charged comments from the stands, got the cold shoulder from many of their teammates and managers, and found the experience of living and playing in Japan to be more than they could bear. For others, patience paid off and a mutual understanding between Japanese and foreign players and their fans began to creep into the mainstream. It's not to say that everything was sweetness and light for the men of this period, but their perseverance helped to build a bridge between the Japanese and American brands of baseball, and their successors now enjoy a more highly-respected status among their peers.
Some of the most important names to wear the uniform of a Japanese club are worthy of mention here. Leon Lee (Derrek Lee's father) is regarded by many as the finest foreign ballplayer in Japanese history. He still remains among the all-time non-Japanese home run leaders with 268 on his career, although Tuffy Rhodes surpassed that total a few years ago. Leon and his brother LeRon were among the earliest African-American ballplayers to find happiness in Japan, learning the language and culture, and winning the hearts of the Japanese. Likewise, Warren Cromartie remains one of the most popular players to wear the Yomiuri uniform during the tumultuous days in the 1980s, when he went from goat to hero in the span of a few short years. He continues to play a role in the relationship between Japan and the Major Leagues. His autobiography, Slugging It Out in Japan (co-written by Robert Whiting), is a must-read for anyone interested in learning more about the foreign ballplayer's experience in the Far East. Other imports to enjoy success include Greg "Boomer" Wells, Charlie Manuel, Bobby Rose, Daryl Spencer, Orestes Destrade, and Roberto Petagine.
It's worth mentioning that Randy Bass joined the Hanshin Tigers to great fanfare in 1983. The team was regularly bested by the Giants, and Hanshin wanted to even the score. Bass was treated like royalty when he arrived, off-putting some of his teammates. He quickly earned his keep by winning four consecutive batting titles, setting the single-season NPB record for batting average at .389, a record that remains today. Bass won the Triple Crown in both 1985 and 1986, and was set to break Oh's single-season home run mark of 55 in 1985, only to be intentionally walked by manager Oh's pitchers in every at-bat on the last day of the season. Oh has repeated this practice on two subsequent occasions in recent years, again preventing foreign stars from bumping him to second place. Many believe that there is a prevailing sentiment that the record should remain in Japanese hands, despite the irony that Oh was looked at as somehow foreign during his own days on the field.
That brings us to the present day. Who are the impact foreigners in Japan? Who are the men who have proved masters of the Japanese league, while not quite living up to the Major League level of excellence in their time on US fields?
A Venezuelan native, Cabrera is now one of the greatest foreign ballplayers in the history of the NPB. He will pass Leon Lee on the home run list sometime in 2008, and with Tuffy Rhodes a marginal player at best these days, he has an outside shot at first place if he can maintain his pace for three more years. Hitting in the middle of the Lions' lineup since 2001, Cabrera has amassed 248 home runs in just over six seasons. In 2002, it was Cabrera who was victimized by Oh over the final few games of the season, sitting on 55 homers. At his age, he doesn't stand much of a chance to get back to that level again, but he continues to match his career batting line of .308/.411/.647 year in and year out.
Tyrone Woods, 1B, Chunichi Dragons
I like Woods a lot-he's one of the best hitters I've seen in my years watching Japanese baseball. As a 37-year-old first baseman, there's not much room for him to enjoy a lengthy NPB career, but his four-plus seasons in Japan have been memorable. So far, he has hit 40, 45, 38, and 47 home runs for Yokohama and Chunichi; last season he added 144 RBI to his tally of big flys. In 2007, Woods has jumped out of the gates with a league-leading eight home runs in only 14 games. Last week, I watched Woods win a game by himself with three homers. As long as he's hitting in the middle of the Dragons order, they will be the favorites in the Central League.
Seung Yeop Lee, 1B, Yomiuri Giants
I've written a lot about Lee over the last year. He is the single-season Asian home run champion, with 56 for the 2003 Samsung Lions of the Korean Baseball Organization-I guess Oh wasn't able to order intentional walks him across the Sea of Japan. Lee was looking for a contract in the Major Leagues until recently, but reportedly couldn't find a taker willing to offer a guaranteed MLB deal. The Giants stepped in and signed him to a one-year deal in 2006, followed by a four-year extension at the conclusion of the season. The contract allows Lee to leave for the Major Leagues should the Yomiuri club win the Japan Series at any time during the deal. That's unlikely, but Lee will hold a highly respected place as the cleanup hitter for the Giants-he is the only foreign player in the team's long history to be given that honor. Before losing some of his power to a gimpy knee late last year, Lee was on pace for Oh's record. He finished with an impressive 41 home runs nevertheless, and is looking to continue his hot hitting for Yomiuri in 2007.
Zuleta is just plain crazy. I don't know the numbers, but I recall hearing somewhere that he's charged the mound a stunning number of times in his three-and-a-half Japanese seasons. Last season he was suspended 10 games for charging Nippon Ham's Kanemura early in the year. I've already seen him being held back by his teammates and the umpires this year for a brushback pitch, one which wasn't really all that close. Zuleta and his agent also staged one of the more futile and counterproductive campaigns in recent memory at the Winter Meetings, when the two claimed to be close to a deal with the Yankees; Brian Cashman later denied ever speaking with Zuleta's people. In the end he left SoftBank for Lotte. and is continuing to mash for manager Bobby Valentine's squad. A Panamanian native, Zuleta was an outstanding minor league hitter who just couldn't catch a break with the Cubs. Whatever his mental state, he crushes baseballs for a living, and should help Lotte a lot this year.
Tuffy Rhodes, OF/DH, Orix Buffaloes
Rhodes is likely the greatest foreign player in Japanese history. His 367 career home runs is far and away the highest total for a foreign-born player. Should Rhodes put together a 40-home run season, he would join only 13 other players in the history of Japanese baseball with as many round trippers. That number would have been a piece of cake had he not decided to retire after the 2005 campaign; his return to the field this season was a surprise and he looked awful in spring training, but Rhodes has come out hot with seven home runs and 17 RBI early on. In fact, his hot streak has pushed him past the 1000 RBI plateau, joining only 28 other Japanese players to amass that total. He's probably the only reason to pay attention to Orix this year; I'm certainly cheering for him. I must have known something when I named him as my player to watch in the Pacific League Preview. (Rhodes was the other player that Oh intentionally walked to hold at 55 home runs in 2001.)
Jose Fernandez, 1B/3B, Rakuten Golden Eagles
Fernandez is a native of the Dominican Republic and a former farmhand with the Angels' system. As a young player, he showed promise, but never the pop with the bat that would make a good major league corner infielder. It's unlikely you'll see him ever back in the Major Leagues; after a brief spring training stint with the Pirates in 2003, he came to Japan and has thrived, and has now spent four seasons with three different teams. Each year, Fernandez has hit in the vicinity of 30 home runs and 30 doubles off of Japanese pitching, not too shabby. As he plays for a recent expansion franchise, he gets overlooked, but he's a solid contributor in the middle of the order for Rakuten. Trivia note: Jose's middle name is Mayobanex. That's sort of cool.
Seguinol's claim to fame before coming to Japan was being an 18-year-old signee with the New York Yankees out of Panama. Well, that and the fact that he was traded with cash for John Wetteland. He played parts of five seasons in the Major Leagues before taking his game to Japan. On this side of the Pacific, the tall first baseman has earned his keep by putting up a batting line of .280/.365/.552 and an average of 31 home runs per season over four years. A switch-hitter, Seguinol has been a great fit for Nippon Ham, helping propel them to the Japan Series title last year. He's off to a hot start in 2007, matching Tuffy Rhodes' seven home runs and 17 RBI in the early going.
Alex Ramirez, OF, Yakult Swallows
Ramirez swings a fair bat, putting up a batting line of .293/.327/.509, from you can infer that he has no eye at the plate. His extra-base totals are always good, but he just refuses to take a walk. Against strikeout totals in the low- to mid-100s in each of the six seasons he's spent with Yakult, Ramirez generally walks about 20 times. His OBPs the last two seasons have been particularly awful, at .315 and .289, so you may question my inclusion of the Venezuelan outfielder on this list. The power is good enough for an honorable mention, but the reason Alex Ramirez is a must on any list of foreign players in Japan is his love affair with the fans. Yakult fans tend to embrace their players with a kind of loyalty that goes above and beyond other fans, and unlike many of his peers, Ramirez has not only stayed with one team, he's also been highly visible in the media. He's a character, a very lovable and charismatic guy. Like the Lee brothers, Ramirez has found a place in Japanese baseball culture that suits him, making him as memorable off the field as on it.
Kroon was my pitcher to watch in the Yokohama section of the Central League Preview. This native New Yorker had a rough go of things in the minor leagues, where he was forced to pitch in the Pacific Coast League in places like Las Vegas, Tacoma, Salt Lake, and Colorado Springs. Even in those unfriendly environs, he was able to post a career minor league K-rate of 10.5 over nearly 350 innings of work. He gave up a ton of walks during those games, but seems to have found his control in Yokohama, where he strikes out about 13 batters per nine innings; he fanned 70 men against only eight walks last year. The Japanese media loves to talk about his 100 mph fastball, and when he's in control, it's lights-out for the opposition. You'll notice that I haven't included any of the other current pitchers among the foreign corps in Japan. I don't really invest much faith in most of them, and I think that even the NPB catches up to them after a year or two, unlike the better hitters. Kroon is an exception. He could be a very effective late-inning man in MLB if given a suitable situation (not in Colorado). Whatever happens to Kroon the rest of his career, he will be remembered in Japan for throwing very, very hard.
There are many other foreign players in Japan, Americans, Latins, Koreans, and Taiwanese. Some are good, some are bad, and some players arrive with fairly big names acquired from playing in the United States, but go home with their tails between their legs. There's no guarantee that a player with MLB credentials will succeed in Japan, any more than there's a guarantee that a player with Japanese credentials will succeed in the US. Most of the players you see on this list are big first base or DH types; there are a few outfielders. What you don't see are middle infielders and catchers. I suppose a guy with a great glove will get a longer look from a Major League team, and there are already plenty of those players in Japan as it is. Being a catcher requires good communication, and it has yet to be shown that a foreign-born backstop could effectively manage a Japanese pitching staff. I think this may change someday, as we see Kenji Johjima work the process in reverse, while players like Jason Varitek and Jorge Posada work with their Japanese starters every week.