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Murakami ideal man for new U.N. goodwill ambassador role

by Wayne Graczyk

Kudos to Masanori Murakami, the first Japanese player in the major leagues, on his recent appointment as a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. “Mashi” is highly qualified to take the leadership role in supporting charities and, having been acquainted with him for a quarter of a century, I know he will do a respectable job.

The left-handed pitcher went to the U.S. in 1964, that magical year of the Tokyo Olympics and the New York World’s Fair, as a confused 19-year-old sent by his Japanese club, the Nankai Hawks. He was to play in the lower minor leagues in the San Francisco Giants organization, just to get some seasoning, then go back to Japan to re-join the Hawks, then based in Osaka.

However, he was so good at the Class A level, he found himself being called up to the majors in September of that year, and he enjoyed another good season on the big league stage in 1965.

After a tug-of-war for his services between San Francisco and Nankai, it was decided he would return to Japan in 1966 to play out his career, which he did with Nankai, the Hanshin Tigers and Nippon Ham Fighters, but he never forgot his two Golden Gate years in the National League playing as a teammate with such notable Giants as Willie Mays, Orlando Cepeda, Willie McCovey, Juan Marichal, Gaylord Perry, Jim Davenport and Tom Haller.

Murakami did not speak much — if any — English when he made his debut for San Francisco on Sept. 1, 1964, at New York’s Shea Stadium. It was said he even signed his contracts without fully understanding what was written in them. Over the years however, he became fluent and, these days, our conversations are maybe 90 percent English and 10 percent Japanese.

He has kept up with his former San Francisco teammates and returned to the Bay Area on numerous occasions, having thrown the ceremonial first pitch at Giants games, being honored with a bobble-head doll and participating in Japanese Heritage Night at AT&T Park. He has not been forgotten.

Most likely an event will be planned next year to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the day Murakami broke into the majors as the first Japanese player, and there is no one more deserving of such an honor.

In accepting the post of good will ambassador, Murakami noted the awarding each year of Major League Baseball’s Roberto Clemente Award and, according to media reports, said he hopes to use the spirit of that prize to promote works of charity among his Japanese compatriots.

Having faced the late, great Pittsburgh Pirates player in his prime, Murakami recalled Clemente, who was killed in a plane crash on New Year’s Eve in 1972 while delivering relief supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua.

Murakami knows how to give respect and will be respected by all in the international baseball community as he takes on this important new challenge.

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Back in Japan this month was Alonzo Powell, former Chunichi Dragons outfielder who won three consecutive Central League batting titles (1994-96). Powell appeared at the Dragons spring training camp in Chatan, Okinawa, for a week serving as part-time batting coach.

Prior to his going back to the U.S. last week, Powell spoke by phone with the Baseball Bullet-In, saying he was thrilled to be back in Japan and especially enjoyed re-visiting Nagoya, where he played six years with Chunichi before moving on to the Hanshin Tigers for a final season in 1997.

Powell said, “I’ve been keeping up with Japanese baseball through the Internet, and especially the Dragons, so I knew a lot of the players’ names. It was good to finally put the faces on those names and get to know them.”

Despite the fact Chunichi is a team of aging stars with several key players in their late 30s and 40s, Powell insisted he sees the Dragons as a club with a good mix of veterans and younger guys.

“Especially there are some good young pitchers,” he said, most likely referring to such up-and-comers as 21-year-old Junki Ito and 23-year-old Shinji Tajima; the latter a standout rookie in 2012.

Powell’s main role, though, was to work with the Dragons hitters, and he feels first-year American infielder Matt Clark will do a good job in replacing slugging first baseman Tony Blanco, gone to the Yokohama BayStars.

“Matt was with my team (in winter ball) in Venezuela, and I explained to him how Japan works,” said Powell, indicating Clark has at least some idea of what he is getting into.

Now 48, Powell left Okinawa for home on Wednesday to get ready for his full-time job as a batting coach at the major league level with the San Diego Padres. He previously served in a similar capacity with the Seattle Mariners in 2010 and has also managed a Class A farm team in Dayton, Ohio, in the Cincinnati Reds organization in 2004-05.

“I’m really looking forward to this year with the Padres,” he said. “We have a strong young team and we had a good second half last season. If we can stay healthy, we have a great chance of making the postseason.”

Powell is one of those guys who, for whatever reason, did not make it in the majors, batting just .211 in parts of two seasons with the Montreal Expos and Seattle Mariners. But he found his place in Japan as a .313 hitter over those seven seasons and remains active in the game on both sides of the Pacific.

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Contact Wayne Graczyk: at Wayne@JapanBall.com