Break up the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles.
The third-year team in Sendai is making a mark this year in the Pacific League standings, showing a tremendous improvement over its first two seasons in Japanese baseball.
As of Friday, Rakuten was in fourth place, just a game under .500, and actually contending for a playoff spot, exciting the fans in Tohuku — and in many other parts of Japan.
One of the big reasons for the Eagles’ advance is the power surge and clutch hitting of veteran first baseman/DH Takeshi Yamasaki who leads the Pa League with 21 four-baggers and 49 RBIs through Friday.
Yamasaki’s heroics so far this season are remarkable because he is having his best season at the age of 38, and he is on a pace to hit 58 homers for the year.
The winning home run total in the Pacific League in 2006 was only 32, hit by Michihiro Ogasawara, who was then playing for the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters.
Yamasaki hit 19 out of the park in 2006.
One who is not totally surprised at Yamasaki’s long-ball count in 2007 is Marty Kuehnert, special assistant to the Eagles’ team president.
Kuehnert was the Rakuten general manager in 2004 when the expansion Eagles acquired Yamasaki in a dispersal draft from the list of available players following the Orix BlueWave-Kintetsu Buffaloes merger.
Kuehnert said, “I’m so happy he’s having his best season three years after we were told he was through. It was a gamble on our part to get him, because we weren’t sure he had any gas left in his tank.
“He had hit only four homers the year before we got him, but (then-Eagles manager Yasushi) Tao and I believed in him. He hit 25 home runs for us that first year, and I think he would have hit 25 again last season, had he not been injured.
“I used to kid him by holding up four fingers when I saw him, and he would say, ‘Marty, I’m not 40 yet; I’m still in my 30s.’ I told him I wasn’t referring to his age, but rather trying to indicate I think he could still have a 40-homer season.
“Now if he plays the rest of this season half as good as he has played so far, he will go over 40.”
Kuehnert added: “Not bad for a guy who came off the ‘scrap heap.’ What he’s doing this season could not happen to a nicer guy.”
Yamasaki is actually a former Central League home run champion, but you have to look way back to 1996 — a full 11 years ago when he was 27 — to see where he led the CL with 39 blasts while playing for the Chunichi Dragons.
We’ll see if he can keep it up and join current Dragons manager Hiromitsu Ochiai as the rare birds to win home run titles in both Japanese leagues but, so far, it’s a banner season for a veteran player in Japanese baseball and a one-time “scrap heaper.”
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Following are some comments from fans and readers of the Baseball Bullet-In in reaction to last week’s column about whether or not veteran Japanese players such as Ichiro Suzuki, Hideki Matsui and Daisuke Matsuzaka should be designated as rookies in Major League Baseball.
Michael Owen: Of course you’re right about NPB players not being rookies, but if MLB eliminated the rookie label, then surely they would also have to count years in NPB as equivalent to MLB service, at least for the purposes of calculating Hall of Fame eligibility and the like. Otherwise the players would miss out both ways.
I mean, either you’re a rookie or you’re not. And if you’re not a rookie, you should expect some sort of credit for the years of experience that disqualifies you from being one.
But I can’t see MLB recognizing NPB as being equal to MLB any time soon, so I imagine the current situation, however imperfect, will have to stand.
Harley Ferguson: I agree with you that “Dice K” and Ichiro and the others are (were) not rookies by anybody’s definition except MLB.
MLB will probably change the rule about the same time it changes the “World Series” to the “North American Series.”
But, if special recognition is given Japanese pro ball, where do they draw the line?
Korea and Taiwan may think they are playing at the major league level, too — and maybe Cuba also.
Candace McTwigan: Good point about the rookie pitchers from Japan, although something to consider is the fact they are rookies facing the American players.
Getting to know the sluggers, their habits, weak points, puts them in the rookie category.
Until then, their experienced arms will not be as much help as they will be.
Donald Vasquez: I agree with you 100 percent that players who come over from Japan should be considered major league players and not rookies.
They play in the major leagues in Japanese baseball, and that alone speaks for itself.
In fact, I believe the words “World Series” should also be eliminated from MLB until they can prove they have the best overall teams playing each other.
Maybe a “World Series” between the two “major leagues” would settle that.
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Contact Wayne Graczyk at: wayne@JapanBall.com.