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New Hall of Famers Griffey Jr., Piazza familiar to Japanese fans

by

Staff Writer

Ken Griffey Jr. and Mike Piazza were elected to the United States’ National Baseball Hall of Fame last week to much fanfare. While both players spent the entirety of their Hall of Fame careers in North America, neither star is a stranger to Japanese baseball fans.

Piazza, in particular, is a known commodity among Japanese. He was in his fourth season catching for the Los Angeles Dodgers when, in 1995, pitcher Hideo Nomo made his historic jump to the majors. Nomo was an instant sensation in Year 1 — he whirled his way to a 13-6 record, 236 strikeouts, 2.54 ERA, 2.89 fielding independent pitching, and a 4.7 wins above replacement — and became a huge star as fans in Japan awoke early to watch his starts and revel in his success.

Nomo was already a top pitcher in Japan and his move to the West, which was contentious to say the least, was major news. Success only pushed his profile in Japan even higher, so much so that Piazza became somewhat of a star in his own right. Piazza was able to cash in on his newfound international fame, signing endorsement deals with Gunze, an underwear maker, and Komatsu, a mining and construction equipment manufacturer, that were believed to be in the range of $2 million, according to Baltimore Sun writer Jonathan Herskovitz in a 1995 article.

Piazza also played with a number of Japanese players during his career. He was teammates with Nomo in Los Angeles and also with the New York Mets. During eight years in New York, he played with pitchers Kazuhisa Ishii, Satoru Komiyama, Shingo Takatsu, Masato Yoshii and position players Kazuo Matsui and Tsuyoshi Shinjo.

Piazza was also in Japan for the MLB all-star tour after the 1996 season.

Griffey participated in two of those tours, appearing in 1990, alongside his father Ken Griffey Sr., and 1992. Griffey began his MLB career in 1989 with the Seattle Mariners and remained there through the 1999 season, counting Mac Suzuki as a teammate for a few seasons. He returned to Seattle in 2009, after nine years in Cincinnati, and played alongside Ichiro Suzuki, who may join him in Cooperstown, New York, one day, during the final two seasons of his career.

In 2012, Griffey traveled to Japan, during the MLB season-opening games between the Mariners and Oakland A’s, as a baseball ambassador to help raise awareness for recovery efforts after 2011’s Great East Japan Earthquake. While in Japan, Griffey participated in a baseball clinic for a group of children, including many from affected areas, in Kawasaki.

“We (the U.S.) went through a similar situation with 9/11, and sports really helps bring back those smiles,” he said at the time. “I think this trip is going to do that for the people of Japan.”

Pumped up: Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters pitcher Shohei Otani has added some muscle and, according to Nikkan Sports, clocks in at 100 kg right now, though he expects to trim that to around 98 during camp. Otani is said to want to get more strength out of his body and that adding weight is a means to that end.

Otani was listed at 90 kg at the beginning of the 2015 season.

Signed, sealed, delivered: Kenta Maeda’s transition from the Hiroshima Carp to the Los Angeles Dodgers is complete, with the Japanese star signing an incentive-laden eight-year $25 million contract with the team late last week.

When he makes his debut, Maeda will be the seventh Japanese player to suit up for the Dodgers. Pitcher Hideo Nomo, who helped open the doors for modern Japanese stars to move to the majors, had a pair of stints in Southern California, the first being from 1995-1998. Nomo returned to the team in 2002, and at least one Japanese player suited up for the Dodgers during each of the next 10 seasons.

Nomo bled Dodger Blue the second time from 2002-2004, and the others were Kazuhisa Ishii (2002-2004), Masao Kida (2003-2004), Norihiro Nakamura (2005), Takashi Saito (2006-2008) and Hiroki Kuroda (2008-2011). Additionally, the team’s first-year manager, Dave Roberts, was born in Okinawa, the son of a American father and Japanese mother.

Maeda is also the first Japanese player posted by the Carp. Hiroshima has posted three other players in the past. The first, Alejandro Quezada, also the first NPB player to be posted successfully, signed a minor-league deal with the Cincinnati Reds in 1999. The Carp also made Timo Perez available that year, but found no takers. The team then successfully posted pitcher Ramon Ramirez, who signed a minor league deal with the New York Yankees in 2003.

None of those players appeared in the majors the year they were posted. Quezada never made it; Perez signed with the New York Mets as a free agent in 2000, and spent eight years in MLB, playing for four teams; and Ramirez eventually reached the majors with the Colorado Rockies in 2006, and played for six teams in nine MLB seasons.