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BASEBALL/ First Japanese player in MLB feels pride on 60th anniversary

时间:2024-07-25 23:08:08 出处:阅读(143)

BASEBALL/ First Japanese player in MLB feels pride on 60th anniversary

By MASAKI KASAI/ Staff Writer

April 21, 2024 at 07:00 JST

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Photo/IllutrationMasanori Murakami throws the first ceremonial pitch during a pre-season game between the Oakland Athletics and the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters in Tokyo on March 17, 2019. (USA TODAY Sports via Reuters)

  • Photo/Illutration
  • Photo/Illutration

Before the likes of Shohei Ohtani, Ichiro and Hideo Nomo, another Japanese ballplayer blazed a trail to the major leagues for them 60 years ago.

Masanori "Mashi" Murakami's fingertips still remember the one pitch that made baseball history. 

“The first pitch was a straight fastball,” recalled Murakami, 79. “I threw it to the outside of the right-handed hitter, low on the corner and it was right on the money. I still remember it.”

DEBUT IN THE BIG APPLE

On the night of Sept. 1, 1964, the San Francisco Giants were playing the New York Mets at Shea Stadium in New York City.

In the bottom of the eighth inning with the Giants trailing 4-0, a rookie relief pitcher was summoned to face the Mets.

A youthful Murakami left the bullpen and made the long trek through the outfield to the mound.

During the walk, the 20-year-old left-handed pitcher hummed “Ue o muite aruko," a song by Japanese singer Kyu Sakamoto.

The popular single was called “Sukiyaki” in English and had reached No. 1 on the U.S. Billboard chart the year before. 

“Up until the day before, I was pitching in front of a crowd of about 500,” said Murakami, who had just been called up from the minor leagues. “And now I’m pitching before 40,000 people. I knew I shouldn’t get nervous. But how can I calm myself down? So I looked around the stands and hummed the song, and I thought, ‘There are quite a lot of fans here.’”

Murakami got a first-pitch strike against Charley Smith, the Mets' top slugger, who hit 20 homers that season. Murakami turned the count in his favor with two strikes and finally finished Smith off on a swinging strikeout with a curveball.

Murakami allowed a single up the middle, but struck out the next batter and recorded the final out of the inning on a groundout to the shortstop. 

Murakami got out of the inning without allowing a run, making him the first Asian player to make his big league debut with a strong pitching performance.

It was a hectic day for Murakami.

Just that day, the major league teams expanded the number of players on the roster for the remainder of the season.

Murakami was playing for the Giants’ Single-A farm team in Fresno, California. The Giants hurried to sign the pitcher to a major league contract just before the start of the game.

Murakami made the massive jump to the majors without playing Double-A or Triple-A ball.

He was not strongly aware that he would be the first Japanese to play in the big leagues.

“I would have saved the ball as a souvenir if it were today, but I threw it away (after) the first strikeout,” he said.

Murakami went to bed late that night after the game.

At dawn, he was awakened by an international phone call from a sports reporter from a Japanese newspaper. That made him realize that he had achieved a historic milestone.

RECRUITED FOR THE PROS WHILE IN HIGH SCHOOL

Murakami was born in Otsuki, Yamanashi Prefecture.

He played baseball at powerhouse Hosei University Daini Senior High School in Kanagawa Prefecture.

One year above him was Isao Shibata, an ace pitcher who later became a star outfielder for the Yomiuri Giants.

The team won the Koshien national high school tournament twice with Shibata.

Murakami’s team lost in the semifinals of the prefectural tournament when he was in his third year. 

On a morning in August after the loss, Murakami was at home.

Kazuto Tsuruoka, the late manager of the Nankai Hawks, who was on a tour of the Kanto region, came to his house, asking Murakami to join the pros.

There was no draft system back then and it was an era of open competition for the top young players.

Tsuruoka was familiar with Murakami because his son was a year behind him in high school.

Despite the offer, Murakami was unable to immediately say yes. Then, Tsuruoka said, “I will let you go to America to play baseball.”

Although Murakami had no interest in playing in the major leagues, he was a big fan of Western movies and had a longing for the United States.

“If it weren’t for that invitation, I might not have joined the Nankai Hawks,” Murakami said.

ANOTHER MILESTONE IN 1ST WIN

In the spring of his second year as a pro, that promise was fulfilled and Murakami joined the Giants’ Single-A team in Fresno.

In September that year, he was promoted to the major leagues and made his debut on the first day he was called up.

On Sept. 29, he pitched three innings of a tie game against the Houston Colt .45s (today’s Astros). The Giants won the game in extra innings with Murakami as the pitcher of record, marking the first win for a Japanese player.

The moment a teammate knocked in the winning run, Murakami came off the bench to congratulate him. 

“I said to him, ‘Wow, I’m glad you did it.’ Then I went back to the bench and was told, 'It's your first win. Congratulations.’ And that’s about all there was.”

He returned to Japan with a contract to play for the Giants again the following year.

But the contract he also had signed with the Hawks became an issue, and he was hounded by the media every day during the off-season.

After agonizing over whether to play in the majors or in Japan, Murakami chose the former and returned to the United States in May. It was on the condition, however, that he would only pitch in the major leagues one more season.

In his two seasons with the Giants, he pitched a total of 54 games, going 5-1 with a 3.43 ERA and 100 strikeouts in 89 1/3 innings.

However, no matter how remarkably he performed, he had to keep his promise to the Hawks.

“Shigeo Nagashima would probably say, ‘I have no regrets in my life,’” Murakami said, quoting a famous line from the Yomiuri Giants slugger at the time of his retirement. “But I still have regrets,” he said with a heavy tone, while looking into the distance.

ONE LAST TRY AT THE MAJOR LEAGUES

After the Hawks, Murakami played for the Hanshin Tigers and Nippon-Ham Fighters. He retired in 1982 with a total of 103 wins, 82 losses and 30 saves in Japan.

Even though he was past his prime, Murakami never lost his desire to pitch in the big leagues again.

In the spring following his retirement from professional baseball in Japan, Murakami participated in an open tryout camp with the Giants.

He did not get a contract, but remained there as an unpaid batting practice pitcher. Murakami summoned his family to join him in the United States and waited for nine months to see if the team would give him a chance.

“I didn’t want any other (Japanese) players in the major leagues while I could still pitch,” he recalled.

And for the next three decades, he remained the only one. 

NOMO OPENS THE FLOODGATES

On May 2, 1995, Nomo of the Los Angeles Dodgers made his major league debut against the Giants, ending the 30-year “blank” in which Japanese players were absent from the big leagues.

Murakami was at Candlestick Park, then the home of the Giants and his old stomping ground, as a TV commentator. He watched Nomo and his dynamic “tornado” pitching motion.

It was the moment when the road that Murakami had carved out finally opened to the top Japanese players. 

On Sept. 2, 2022, Yu Darvish of the San Diego Padres won a game against the Dodgers. It was a milestone victory, the 1,000th win by a Japanese player in the majors.

Last season, Ohtani, who played for the Los Angeles Angels at the time, became the first Japanese player to win a major league home run title.

This season, Major League Baseball opened the season in Seoul on March 20 with a game between the Dodgers and Padres.

The roster of the two teams featured four Japanese players: Ohtani, 29, and Yoshinobu Yamamoto, 25, of the Dodgers, and Darvish, 37, and Hiroki Matsui, 28, of the Padres. 

'YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE'

Murakami, who will turn 80 in May, will always hold the bragging rights of the first Japanese player to crack a major league roster.

He jokingly said, “I will celebrate my 60th birthday this year.”

“People might think, ‘Well, he's going senile,’ but that’s not the case. I’m talking about the 60th anniversary of my major league debut.”

The fact that Japanese players are today taking on the big leagues one after another is “a good thing,” he said.

“You only live once,” Murakami said. “If you get the chance, you should do it. If you don’t fit in the majors, you can play in Japan.”

He does not want the times to ever return to that “blank period” where there are no Japanese players on a major league roster. 

That is the greatest wish of the '60-year-old.'

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