Japan's Babe Ruth Is The Latest Japanese Player To Sign With MLB Team
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
He is called the Japanese Babe Ruth, and he is one of the most talked-about players in the upcoming Major League Baseball season. Shohei Ohtani just signed with the Los Angeles Angels, continuing a 50-year history of Japanese players in Major League Baseball. So who started it all? Well, that's a question Mary Louise Kelly put to Gemma Kaneko. She's a writer and editor for mlb.com's Cut4.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, BYLINE: Hey there, Gemma.
GEMMA KANEKO: Hello.
KELLY: So walk us way back to the very first Japanese player to appear in a major league game here in the States. This is back in 1964, and the San Francisco Giants called up a 20-year-old left hander. Remind us who he was.
KANEKO: His name was Masanori Murakami, and he had been playing before in Japan for the Nankai Hawks. And he had this chance to play for the Giants, and it was sort of like a foreign exchange program, is sort of the best way to put it. But the Hawks were a little bit uncomfortable with the Giants wanting to keep him for so long. They were like, this is our player, we can kind of see what is going to happen here in the future is that Major League Baseball will start to take all of our good marquee players, and then where will we be?
KELLY: OK. So he was good enough that he could've made it and continued his career here, but they wanted him back.
KANEKO: The Giants did want him to stay. There was a bit of discussion over who actually controlled his rights because he had been so serviceable and so good for the Giants. And that's sort of what led to the intervening years, which is, we didn't have another Japanese baseball player in MLB until 1995.
KELLY: All right. Well, let's pick up the story there then. And I am guessing you're going to tell me about Hideo Nomo...
KELLY: ...Who signed with the Dodgers. We've actually got a little bit of tape of Al Michaels introducing him as he came onto the field.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
AL MICHAELS: Quite a sight on the mound. Who would've figured Hideo Nomo, last year pitching in Japan?
KELLY: And, Gemma, how did Nomo end up making it to the U.S.?
KANEKO: There had been an agreement between major league teams and Japanese league teams which was, essentially, don't poach our players. And Nomo was under control for the team that had drafted him in Japan at the time, and he wanted a more lucrative contract but he couldn't really figure out a get that. But his agent found a loophole. If he retired and then wanted to come back, he would then be a free agent and could play for any team.
KELLY: So he retired in Japan so that he could come play here?
KANEKO: Exactly. And he was young. He was at the peak of his career. So it wasn't a retirement so much as he wanted to play in the USA, and that's what he kind of figured out to do.
KELLY: Yeah. He went on to become one of the best pitchers in Dodger history. But, I mean, this suggests that players in Japan want to come here. Is that right? They're making more money, more exposure here?
KANEKO: I would say that players, the attitude has changed a lot. I think when Nomo first came over, there was this idea that he wanted to leave Japan and that he was a little bit of a traitor. But I think that idea has evolved a lot in that Japanese players come to MLB because they want to play against the top competition that there is, and that's Major League Baseball. So they want to come here to see how many more titles they can win. Like, they can win in Japan, they want to win in the U.S. They want to win everywhere they can win.
KELLY: Well, Gemma, let me circle you back to where we started. Shohei Ohtani. We called him the Japanese Babe Ruth. Is he that good?
KANEKO: I think that it's really fun to believe the hype. He's a two-way player, which is rare in Japanese baseball and rare in American baseball.
KELLY: Two-way player meaning?
KANEKO: He pitches and he hits. He throws a hundred miles an hour. He hits like crazy. He won a home-run derby in Japan. And I think that it's so fun to believe that we could have a two-way player who is that good again, and I really want him to be that good.
KELLY: A little teaser of what the spring may be there. Gemma, thanks so much.
KANEKO: Thanks for having me.
KELLY: Gemma Kaneko. She is a writer and editor for mlb.com's Cut4.
GREENE: And Gemma was talking there to our colleague Mary Louise Kelly. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.