The Importance of Tazawa

Right-handed baseball pitcher Junichi Tazawa last week signed a US$3 million deal to join the Red Sox baseball team. Nothing particularly remarkable about that. The Boston team already boasts two Japanese superstars on its pitching staff, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Hideki Okajima.

The difference is that the two Japanese pitchers moved to the United States after playing for many years in the Japanese professional leagues. Tazawa, 22, is the first Japanese player to jump directly to the Major Leagues without even getting a draft notice from a Japanese team.

“It means that the gap between Japan and America [in baseball] just got narrower,” said Robert Whiting, a longtime observer of Japanese baseball and author of You Gotta have Wa and The Meaning of Ichiro. “As another barrier falls, the number of new players from Japan to the US will increase.”

The Japanese baseball authorities were both embarrassed and sorely angered by Tazawa’s move. They were embarrassed because nobody in Japan had sensed Tazawa’s talent or tried to draft him on their teams. It was left to foreigners to recognize his abilities.

They were angered because they felt that they had a gentleman’s agreement with Major League Baseball, as the US semi-cartel is known, for them not to poach amateur talent. In retaliation, the Nippon Professional Baseball Association adopted a new rule that states that any player who passes up the Japanese draft and goes on to play in the US will not be allowed to play for three years when he returns to Japan.

Tazawa better not get homesick.

In response, Red Sox manager Theo Epstein said he could produce a list of 50 Japanese amateur baseball players who have been signed by the US major leagues. “This is far from unprecedented,” Epstein said.

That may be true, but most of them had passed under the radar, toiling in obscurity in the minor leagues and, anyway, were not coveted by the Japanese professional leagues. Tazawa might have followed that lowly path. He was passed over in the annual high school draft. But somehow he matured during his four years playing for Nippon Oil of the Industrial League, winning 13 games with an earned-run average of 0.80 – less than one run given up per game -- while pitching four shutout games last season. Suddenly, Japan’s professional leagues took notice, but by then it was too late.

The Tazawa acquisition has thrown Japanese baseball authorities into a tizzy. Will Major League scouts be descending on Japan, brandishing lucrative contracts and siphoning away all of the best available talent?

All eyes are on Yuki Saito, now playing as an undergraduate at Waseda University and a star in the annual Japanese high school summer baseball tournament. (High school baseball is to Japan what high school football is to Texas, an overriding obsession.) He has two years before he graduates. Will he follow the trail blazed by Tazawa?

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Although Tazawa is often described as an “amateur”, it might be more accurate to call his team semi-professional. The difference is that Tazawa drew his salary directly from Nippon Oil, Japan’s largest refinery, and not from the team itself, unlike players in the Central and Pacific professional leagues.

Compared with the Major Leagues, Japan has only a rudimentary farm system of lower-ranked teams where young talent can be signed and then given some seasoning before being called up to play in the majors. The Industrial League team that Tazawa labored for is not part of the professional circuit.

That means there are comparatively few openings on the professional rosters. The total roster for any professional team in Japan might consist of roughly 70 players. By contract, an American team may sign 150 to 200 players, parceling them out among the big league team and five or six farm teams.

Whiting points out that there are roughly 4,000 high schools in Japan. Assuming that each school produces one player with professional potential, that is a pool of 4,000 players for perhaps a dozen slots. “If Japan had a multi-tiered system, they might get a shot. Their only alternative is to play in the industrial league,” he said. Or move to the U.S.

Hideo Nomo blazed a trail for Japanese players to America in 1995, when he joined the Los Angeles Dodgers as a pitcher, becoming, among other things the first Japanese to play in the All-Star Game, an annual classic between all-star players from each of the US’s two premier leagues. He has since been followed by a host of Japanese superstars, such as Ichiro with the Seattle Mariners and Hideki Matsui, star slugger for the New York Yankees.

The trend is accelerating as the latest Japanese phenom, Kosuke Fukodome, helped power the Chicago Cubs into contention last season, only to have their pennant dreams crushed with the help of L.A. Dodgers pitcher Hiroki Kuroda.

All of these players, however, had already played in Japan’s professional leagues – Matsui for the Yomiuri Giants in Tokyo, Ichiro for the Orix Blue Wave based in Kobe. They came to the US only after playing for nine years for their teams, after which they were permitted to become free-agents and negotiate with teams outside Japan.

In comparison to these players who were established stars, Tazawa is something of an unknown quantity. Though he showed promise as an amateur, he has never tested his skills against top-flight professionals. Some baseball writers say his fast ball is too slow for big league batters. They note his relative small stature, being under six feet (1.83 meters) and weighing about 170 pounds (77,1 kilograms) in a sport where intimidating pitchers often grow to nearly 2 meters.

Although he insisted for signing that he be part of the 40-man Red Sox roster, the team plans to send him to one of their AA farm teams for some seasoning. If he shows his stuff next season, he may be called up to fill his spot on the roster. Or, he may toil in obscurity and simply fade out of the game with his slot given to somebody else.

So far, the migration of Japanese baseball stars to the US has raised Japanese interest in the sport at a time when other imported games, such as soccer, were competing for attention. The popularity of American baseball, beamed into Japan by satellite, has exploded.

Meanwhile, the Japanese have discovered lucrative new sponsorship possibilities. The Yomiuri Group pays US$1 million for the billboard it has erected in left field, just behind Matsui, so that it is visible when the cameras are on the player – which is often. There are even “virtual” billboards that appear magically on the screen behind Ichiro, whenever he comes to bat.

The Tazawa affair is just the latest example of baseball’s exploding international reach. While some Major League managers are reluctant to irritate relations with Japan by poaching their best young talent, there are plenty others, like Theo Epstein, who are eager to snag the next potential Ichiro.

As for the Japanese players, there is now a greater opportunities to play professionally– for a full career if they wish - for big money contracts on biggest baseball stage in the world. Little wonder that Japan’s baseball authorities are sorry they let Tazawa go.