|

Japanese roots spread wide at World Baseball Classic

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

One of the beautiful things about sports is that there are always stories about the losers, not just the winners.

China and Brazil have been eliminated from the World Baseball Classic, but there were some notable Japan-related players on those teams.

Despite its winless record, Brazil certainly caught the attention and was a feel-good tale during the first round of the tournament at Fukuoka Dome, where it lost 5-3 to Japan on the first day.

Brazil’s roster included a bunch of Japanese-Brazilians, many of whom currently play in Japan, and they certainly played their part in helping the South American side reach its first WBC finals.

Team Brazil shocked the world last fall when it beat Panama twice in the WBC qualifying tournament, including the final.

Veteran infielder Yuichi Matsumoto, who has played for the Tokyo Yakult Swallows since 1999 (there are three more Swallows on the Brazil team), was named Team Brazil’s captain by skipper and former Cincinnati Reds great Barry Larkin.

Before the tournament, Larkin said that baseball in Brazil is heavily influenced by its Japanese-Brazilian communities, and is characterized by a blend of Japanese discipline and Latin passion.

But the 32-year-old Matsumoto, who is listed by his original name of Daniel Matsumoto at the WBC, indicated after a 5-2 loss to China on Tuesday that the team lacked the discipline to win.

“We could’ve won in all three games,” Matsumoto said. “But we ended up not winning a single game. It’s a real shame.”

And Matsumoto, who hit in the cleanup spot in all three games, took full responsibility.

“It was completely different from when we beat Panama,” the Sao Paulo native said. “The opponents we faced this time were stronger. Panama was a little unguarded, but teams like Japan and China weren’t. And we entered the tournament a little too loose. That’s why we came up short.

“And that’s where a captain is supposed to step in. But I didn’t do my job. I regret that I didn’t lead my teammates. I’ve got to reflect on that.”

The final game was a big one for Matsumoto, who took Japanese citizenship in 2004.

When the players came out of the dugout when they were introduced pre-game, Matsumoto took a few seconds to have a conversation with Larkin.

“I told him that this would be my last game in a Brazilian uniform,” Matsumoto said. “I’d decided it before the tournament.”

But while a veteran like Matsumoto has made his exit, there were newcomers like Daniel Missaki, the youngest player in this WBC at 16.

Missaki, whose father was a Japanese industrial league player, was born in Shizuoka Prefecture and moved to Brazil when he was 2 years old.

Although he’s still immature as a ballplayer, Missaki already has a sharp 140-kph fastball along with five different breaking balls.

Larkin said that the phenom would have “a bright future.”

“It’s remarkable how good he is and how well he has done,” Larkin said. “He’s so young, so he’s not draftable yet. But I would suggest that when he’s eligible, it’s going to be a bidding war for him (from major league clubs), because he’s a special talent.”

Missaki made his WBC debut when he entered in the eighth inning against China as a middle reliever. He pitched against one batter and got him out.

Meanwhile, there was another Japanese name who didn’t put on a Team Japan jersey.

Shu Okamura got the nod to represent China, his mother’s native country. The 19-year-old Ibaraki Prefecture native, who played his high school ball at powerhouse Aomori Yamada High, didn’t see much action once the group games started. But he had a single in the seventh inning in a 12-0 loss to Cuba on Monday.

“I’ve not had any positive results (since the warmup exhibitions),” Okamura said after the game.

Okamura, who plays for the Jiangsu Hopestars in China, told reporters he’d always wanted to be a bridge between Japan and his mother’s native country.

“I was born and grew up in Japan,” the left-handed hitter said after the Cuba game. “But representing China, I got to see a whole new world. As I played against Japan, Cuba, and we’ll play with Brazil tomorrow, I’d like to absorb lots of different things from each team.”