The final match-up of the World Baseball Classic featured two teams from
countries where baseball is a beloved sport - Cuba and Japan. Both
countries are noted for producing fine players, some of whom are
enjoying stellar careers in America. Presently, Ishiro and Matsui from
Japan are two of the best and most consistent players in the majors.
Making it in the big leagues in America is a big deal in Japan, a
country that loves baseball and embraces its own professional teams.
American teachers first introduced the game to the island country in the
1870's, and it firmly took root. By the turn of the century, it was a
sport throughout the nation and in 1936 the first professional teams
were established. The current professional structure was created in
1950, with teams playing in either the Pacific League or the Central
The exchange of
players between the Japanese leagues and Major League baseball is
not a one-way street. The first American to play baseball in
post-World War II Japan was Wallace Kaname Yonamine, a Nisei
Japanese American who had played NFL Football but never had a spot
on a Major League Baseball club. Yonamine had a Hall of Fame career
When major leaguers from America first started to compete in the
Japanese League, they were often at the end of their careers. In 1962,
right-handed pitcher Don Newcombe became the first MLB player to sign
and play with a team in Japan. During his 10 years in the majors,
Newcombe posted a 149-90 mark, with 1129 strikeouts and a 3.56 ERA. He
is still the only player to win Rookie of the Year, MVP and the Cy
Young. Newcombe was the first of many Americans to go to the Far East
to play what many consider "the" American sport.
In the past
decade something has changed concerning the emigration of
professional players from America to Japan. The men who go to the
Japanese League are no longer at the end of their careers. They are
now, more often than not, mid-career players who can't seem to find
an everyday role on a major league team. Often, these players decide
to go to Japan because they will have a chance to contribute every
Some players find a home away from home in Japan, while others go and
get some daily experience and come back to parlay that into a starting
role in MLB. Still, others struggle in their foreign environs and come
back looking to play in the big leagues, even if it's as a utility
Alex Cabrera is an example of the first type of player, while Lou
Merloni seemed as though he might fit the bill for the second category
but didn't quite get a break in Japan or make the cut when he came back
to his homeland. Gabe Kapler illustrates a player in the final and least
desirable of the three groups.
Alex Cabrera, who spent nine seasons in the minors with the Chicago
Cubs, Tampa Bay Devil Rays, and Arizona Diamondbacks, finally got
his chance to play Major League Baseball in 2000. In 31 games he hit
5 homer runs, scored 10 runs, knocked in 14 RBI and accumulated a
.262 BA. Then, in 2001, the Seibu Lions of the Japan Pacific League
bought his contract from the Diamondbacks. For Cabrera it was the
perfect move at exactly the right time.
Cabrera immediately became a star in Japan. In his first season he hit
.282 with 124 RBI and 49 HR. In 2002, his second season, he won the
Pacific League's MVP award and tied the single season homerun mark (55)
set by the Babe Ruth of Japan, Sadaharu Oh. (Tuffy Rhodes, another
former MLB player also tied the record in 2001.)
In 2004, Cabrera hit two homeruns in game three, including a grand slam,
and a massive dinger in the seventh game of the Japan Series to help the
Seibu Lions defeat the Chunichi Dragons 7-2, leading his team to their
first championship since 1992.
Cabrera totes a .308 BA with 413 RBI and 147 HR in his first four years
with the Lions. Life is great for the first baseman and he loves
Japanese ball. Except for one thing. In an interview with ESPN.com he
acknowledged his frustration at not being allowed to break the record
set by Sadaharu Oh.
Cabrera noted, "All my teammates wanted me to break the record. A lot of
the players on other teams wanted me to break it, too. The pitchers want
to throw me strikes but the managers and coaches don't let them."
"They didn't want me to get the record," he acknowledged. "All records
are for the Japanese. The last 20 at-bats of the season, I think I only
saw one strike."
There are aspects of the game with which MLB players have difficulty.
Cabrera said it very clearly, when he complained, "Here, if you hit a
home run your first at-bat, they walk you the next three. In America,
you get a chance to hit more home runs. They challenge you."
In the same article, former Japanese player and present Yankee Hideki
Matsui observed, "In the past there has been more of that sort of
unfairness," Matsui said, sympathizing with Cabrera. "But it has been
decreasing in the last couple years and I just hope that in the future
it will get better."
Although Cabrera has found a home with the Lions, he's certainly willing
to come back and play in America. In fact, he's anxious to prove that he
can hit big league curveballs - something scouts claim he can't do - and
pound 40-plus round trippers per season in the majors.
Lou Merloni and Gabe Kapler both did their time in Japan for the same
reasons and with similar results. Merloni and Kapler were enticed by the
chance to play every day, something that had eluded them when they were
both with the Boston Red Sox.
In 2000, Merloni went to the Yokohama Bay Stars with the understanding
that he would be the team's regular third baseman. But the player he was
supposed to replace decided to stay with the team, and so Merloni spent
much of the season on the bench. Although he found it to be a
frustrating season, he also thought it was a once-in-a-lifetime cultural
The game is pretty much the same, except there's a rule prohibiting tie
games from going more than 3 extra innings, which means the game ends in
a tie. First, there are the pre-game workouts and warm-ups, lasting
hours. Then there's all the cigarette smoke - Japanese players light up
a lot. Also, there's the fact that when the club is on the road everyone
has to dress for the game at the hotel because there are no visiting
The media never tired of asking the third baseman if he'd like to marry
a Japanese woman. When Merloni answered questions, he often felt his
translator was editing his comments along with reporters' queries.
Along with the possibility of being an everyday player, there's the bump
in salary a player who's been in the states realizes. Usually they're
making six to 10 times what they made in MLB! That's quite a payday.
After Japan, Merloni came back to the Red Sox and played for them and
the AAA team for the next three seasons before going to various other
major league clubs. He seemed like he might have found a starting role
with San Diego part way through the 2003 season, but after 65 games,
they dealt him back to the BoSox.
Gabe Kapler was offered a similar opportunity in 2005, and like Merloni,
he took it. With a contract valued at approximately $2 million, the
utility outfielder was excited about getting to play every day and
experience an entirely different culture. But after being a part of
Boston's first World Series winning team in 86 years, Japanese ball
seemed to lack the spark of the game played in his homeland.
Missing were the overly expressive fans, the rich heritage, and the
knock 'em down rivalries. Kapler also didn't perform up to expectations
and found himself sitting on the bench by the second-half of the
season. When he got back to the states and was signed by Boston for the
rest of the 2005 season, he was overjoyed as were many Red Sox fans, who
always admired Kapler's hustle, work ethic and intelligent play.
In a strange twist of fate, the outfielder, who was on first base when
Tony Graffanino hit a homer, ruptured his Achilles tendon after rounding
second. As Kapler lay in the base path unable to get up and in agonizing
pain, it was clear that his 2005 season was over.
In 2006, he was no longer on a major league roster and neither was
Merloni, who had played a utility role with Cleveland in 2004. For
both players, Japan never panned out, while Alex Cabrera has achieved
more than most Japanese players. The irony for Cabrera is that despite
his winning ways, the Japanese League will never accept him. That
non-acceptance, which seems to affect every foreign player, is one thing
that definitely separates baseball in Japan from baseball in America.
These are some comments made by Gary
Garland http://www.japanbaseballdaily.com firstname.lastname@example.org
1, Japanese pro baseball dates back to the early 1920's.
It was the first pro LEAGUE that started play in 1936.
2. Merloni got playing time but didn't hit. I assume that the third
baseman they were talking about was Tatsuya Shindo, a former Gold Glover
there but a guy with a light bat, so if Merloni hit at all he would have
been the regular third baseman. Shindo was subsequently moved to Orix.
before the beginning of the next season while Merloni was released.
3. Cabrera was indeed pitched around when he played against Oh's team,
but he then had a series against Orix, who did pitch against him and
Cabrera was so concerned with the record that he was overswinging and
missed quite a few pitches he normally drives. After the series with
Orix was over, Cabrera complimented Orix of "playing like men."
4.Don Newcombe wasn't the first former major leaguer to play there.
Glenn Mickens (Brooklyn Dodgers; went to Japan in 1959) is one of many
former MLB player who comes to mind who beat Newcombe to Japan. In
addition, Leo Kiely played in Japan while he was part of the U.S.
military during the Korean War in the middle of his career with Boston
in 1953. Furthermore, Newcombe wasn't even the first former Negro
Leaguer to play in Japan (that honor went contemporaneously to Jimmy
Newberry and Larry Raines).