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Did You Know? – Japanese Red Sox Ballplayers

With the hype surrounding Japanese pitching phenomenon Diasuke Matsuzaka as he prepares to make his MLB debut with the Boston Red Sox this spring, it’s worth noting the accomplishments of Japanese baseball players in Major League Baseball history. According to Baseball-Reference.com, in total, there have been 27 Japanese ballplayers who have worn an MLB uniform. The first such player was Masanori Murakami, who debuted at the age of 20 in September of 1964 for the San Francisco Giants; he would pitch one full season the following year before contractual obligations forced him back to the Nankei Hawks of the Japanese League, where he pitched another 17 seasons.

It wasn’t until thirty years later that another Japanese ballplayer, Hideo Nomo, would take the field with a Major League club. In 1995, “The Tornado” (named so for his winding delivery style) made his first start for the Los Angeles Dodgers versus the Giants in May of that season; at season’s end, he was 13-6 with a 2.54 ERA and 236 strikeouts, beating future NL MVP Chipper Jones by 14 points for Rookie of the Year honors. Six years later, in 2001, he would spend his first and only season in a Boston Red Sox uniform. The year began well for the then-32-year-old veteran; making his first start of the regular season in Baltimore, Nomo pitched the first official no-hitter by a Red Sox pitcher since Dave Morehead no-hit the Cleveland Indians at Fenway Park in 1965. Having thrown a no-hitter against Colorado in 1996, he became the fourth pitcher in major league history to throw a no-hitter in both the American and National Leagues. He would finish the season at 13-10 in 33 starts with a 3.09 ERA and 220 strikeouts and then return to the Dodgers in 2002 as a free agent.

Nomo was actually the second player of Japanese descent to play for the Red Sox; in July of 1999, Tomokazu Ohka made his MLB debut for Boston and would remain with the club until 2001 when he was shipped mid-season to Montréal in exchange for fellow pitcher Ugueth Urbina. Ohka began his baseball career in Japan with the Yokohama Giants of the Central League, where he was 1-2 in 34 appearances over four seasons. Starting at Double-A Trenton to begin the 1999 season, he went 8-0 with a 3.00 ERA in 12 starts; he was rewarded with a promotion to Triple-A Pawtucket and went 7-0 with a 1.58 ERA in 12 more starts. He soon made his major league debut as a mid-season call-up on 19 July; unfortunately, he lasted just one-plus innings in his first start, giving up five runs on five hits and a walk. He did not fair any better in his second start and was sent to the bullpen for the rest of the season.

The following spring, Ohka again started the year in the minors with Pawtucket and enjoyed another fast start, beginning the season with a 9-6 record and a 2.96 ERA in 19 starts, which included a perfect game against the Charlotte Knights on 01 June 2000. Once more, the Red Sox promoted him mid-season and, after saddling two more losses in starts with Boston, he finally earned his first major league win on 13 August in Texas against the Rangers, the first of three straight wins; at season’s end, he was 3-6 in 12 starts but with a respectable 3.12 ERA. He would begin the next season with Boston, winning two of his first three starts, but those would be the last wins for Ohka in a Boston uniform before the deadline trade. In total with the Red Sox, he compiled a 6-13 record in 25 starts and 33 total appearances with a 4.61 ERA.

Only one other Japanese-born player has worn a uniform for the Boston Red Sox, though many fans may not be familiar with this player’s heritage: Dave Roberts, one of the heroes of the 2004 World Series champions. Forever remembered in Boston lore for his stolen base in the ninth inning of Game Four of the 2004 ALCS, now often referred to as “The Steal,” his father, Waymon Roberts, was a Marine stationed in Okinawa, Japan; his mother, Eiko, is of Japanese descent. However, despite being born in the Land of the Rising Run, Roberts spent most of his youth in San Diego, CA. In total, counting players with other heritages, there have been 34 players born in Japan to don a major league uniform.

2004 Season Preview

Now that another wild and crazy off-season is finally coming to an end, it’s time to dust off the binoculars and look over the field of players that will be putting on a uniform for the Boston nine this season. For you holdovers from last season, you won’t see many differences; the only significant loss being 2B Todd Walker, who left as a free agent and signed with the Chicago Cubs. Where the Sox have improved the most is with the pitching staff, having added starting pitcher Curt Schilling and closer Keith Foulke to give the Red Sox a solid staff on the mound. On paper, you have to like what you see, but this column would be relatively uninteresting if we didn’t take a closer look, let’s answer some self-imposed questions first.

1. Who will be the number one starter, Schilling or Pedro Martinez?

The truth is that there is no “number one” on this team, but Pedro will have the honor of opening the season against Baltimore on 04 April. While a definite rotation has not been set to my knowledge, there is a good chance that Schilling and Martinez will NOT pitch in back-to-back games this season. More likely, we will watch Tim Wakefield‘s knuckleball flutter between their starts. So does that make Schilling a number three starter? The good news for Red Sox nation is that Boston has one of its strongest rotations in years; when you toss in Derek Lowe, you have four proven starters that between them could easily collect 70 wins.

2. Will Bill Mueller have another career year?

It’s unlikely that Mueller and the rest of his team will repeat the offensive output that they had last season, when they out-slugged the 1927 New York Yankees and were first in runs scored in the majors. Still, it’s very likely that he can hit .300 again and continue to use the Wall to his advantage. He’s probably also good for another 10 to 15 home runs. Most importantly, he has proven himself at third base, one of the trickiest positions in baseball to play.

3. Is manager Terry Francona on the hot seat already?

Given the fact that there are several big contracts that expire at the end of this season, the pressure is on for the Red Sox to go all the way, if you ignore the fact that history and the other 29 teams are not on their side. Francona was not the first choice that the Red Sox had but, if consider that Grady Little, who had no major league coaching experience when he was named manager two years ago, won nearly 200 games in two years, you just need to have enough knowledge and personnel skills to repeat that success. As long as he is smart enough to pull a pitcher who is obviously fatigued late in a Game Seven, then he should do fine.

4. Who will see more time at first, David Ortiz or Kevin Millar?

Ortiz would like to spend more time covering the bag, but he will come second to Millar. However, when Ellis Burks is used as the DH, Ortiz will win over Millar on this battle. Ortiz just has better numbers at the plate and the Sox will not want to keep his bat out of the lineup too often.

5. What free-agent signing will have the highest impact?

Although Curt Schilling’s presence in the lineup will make the starting rotation an opponent’s nightmare, having Keith Foulke come in to shore up the closer role will mean the most to this club. Since Derek Lowe’s 2000 season in that role, the Sox have been very weak in this respect. Lowe faltered the following year, Ugueth Urbina was anything but solid in 2002, and the closer-by-committee experiment last season was, while a sound idea in theory, a complete failure in practice. Foulke collected 43 saves in his one year in Oakland and that means that the rest of the bullpen can be used better to set him up to close the door.

6. What bench player will have the highest impact?

My money is on Gabe Kapler, who enjoyed a solid spring and will actually start the season in right field as a replacement for the injured Trot Nixon. Once Nixon returns in May, Kapler will likely take a seat on the bench but will called out for service if Manny Ramirez is thrown into the DH role or is given a seat by Francona to rest for a day. He also makes a nice pinch hitter should the opponent throw out a left-handed reliever, having hit .326 last season against southpaws.

7. Will the Red Sox be able to hold off the Yankees and win the AL East?

As strong as the Red Sox have become with several key additions, you cannot ignore the Yankees, who have also made key additions for another chance at a World Series title. They certainly have a stronger lineup with the addition of Alex Rodriguez and Gary Sheffield. The only real question for the Yankees will be if Kevin Brown can have an injury-free season and if newcomer Javier Vazquez, recently of the Montreal Expos, will prove unflappable under the lights of Yankee fans and the front office. As Sox fans have seen for the last six years, you can never underestimate New York; every year, they remain tough. It helps when your owner is willing to shell out nearly $200 million to pay for the collective salary of this team.

8. Overall, is Boston good enough to… you know?

Anybody who has followed the Red Sox as long as I have knows enough NOT to start opening the champagne bottles prematurely. However, with all that happened during the off-season, good and bad, Boston has made significant strides to improve on a team that came very close to tasting a championship in 2003. It will be critical for Boston to play to this potential if they are to stay ahead of the Yankees. With the addition of Schilling, the starting rotation looks strong and, with the addition of Foulke, so does the bullpen. Although it will tough to match last season’s offensive output, there are plenty of bats available to score runs when needed and, defensively, the Red Sox are better than average at most positions and should keep the untimely errors to a minimum. In conclusion, the 2004 edition of the Boston nine is good enough, but let’s not say any more than that.