December 19, 2002, 20 years ago today: A couple years after the Seattle Mariners make a splash by signing Japanese superstar Ichiro Suzuki, the New York Yankees give the concept a try by inking outfielder Hideki Matsui to a three-year contract. Matsui was already 28 years old, but he played every game for the Yankees the next three seasons. He would later be named Most Valuable Player of the 2009 World Series, the Yanks’ last world championship. Matsui had a career batting average of .282 with 175 home runs in 10 MLB seasons.
The most celebrated Japanese superstar to cross the Pacific has been Ichiro, who joined the Mariners in 2001 after nine years in Nippon Professional Baseball. He then played 19 more seasons in the bigs, 14 of them with the Ms. Ichiro, one of baseball’s most disciplined players, collected more than 200 hits in each of his first 10 seasons in Seattle, an MLB record. He had 262 hits in 2004, the most in baseball history.
But arguably the best Japanese player in MLB history is a current one: Shohei Ohtani of the L.A. Angels. Ohtani moved to the majors in 2018, and the five seasons since have been nothing short of phenomenal. He is the first player ever to make the All-Star Game as both a pitcher and hitter, starting the 2021 All-Star Game in both roles. Ohtani went on to earn AL Most Valuable Player honors that season with 46 home runs and 100 RBIs at the plate and a 9-2 record with a 3.18 ERA on the mound. Also in the top tier of Japanese crossovers with Ohtani, Ichiro and Matsui are pitchers Yu Darvish and Hideo Nomo.
The first Japanese player to make the big leagues was Masanori Murakami with the San Francisco Giants in 1964. He had signed a contract with the Nankai Hawks of the Japanese Pacific League at the age of 17 and got permission to train in the U.S. with two other Japanese prospects. Murakami instantly endeared himself to fans in the minors when he sprinted toward a teammate who made a great catch, doffing his cap and bowing several times. He pitched part of two seasons for the Giants, compiling a 5-1 record and a 3.43 ERA before returning to Japan after a contract dispute with Nankai. It would be 30 years before another Japanese player made the majors.
(Tom Scott hosts the Scott Slant segment during the football season on KTVB’s Sunday Sports Extra. He also anchors four sports segments each weekday on 95.3 FM KTIK and one on News/Talk KBOI. His Scott Slant column runs every Wednesday.)