Here is my final column of 2004, the most tumultuous year in the history of Japanese pro baseball.

As predicted in this space last week, former Osaka Kintetsu Buffaloes ace right-handed pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma has gone to the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles. So Eagles general manager Marty Kuehnert got a nice Christmas gift, and Marty is understandably excited about the team and the players he has acquired from scratch.

The Japanese sports papers are already assuming Iwakuma will start the opening game of the 2005 season against the Chiba Lotte Marines on March 26 at Chiba, and Rakuten’s home opener on April 1 against the Seibu Lions in Sendai.

Kuehnert points out his club has the nucleus of a fine pitching staff which includes Iwakuma, rookie righty Yasuhiro Ichiba and American southpaw Gary Rath making a return to this country.

Rath won 16 games for the Korea Baseball Organization’s Doosan Bears in 2002, then notched 17 victories for that team in 2004.

In between, he spent a season with the Yomiuri Giants, going 3-4 but with a not-so-bad 4.14 ERA. He pitched well for Tokyo but was a victim of bad luck. The following account epitomized his year in Japan.

It was on June 11, 2003, when Rath reached the pinnacle of misfortune and frustration while his parents were at Tokyo Dome watching Gary start a game for the Giants against the Yakult Swallows.

In the top of the second inning, he hit Yakult batter Katsuyuki Dobashi in the head, but with a slow curve that did absolutely no damage as the ball grazed harmlessly off Dobashi’s helmet, and the hitter jogged toward first base.

But, enforcing a Central League rule, umpire Kazuhiro Kobayashi ejected Rath who was confused because he was unaware of the regulation requiring automatic disqualification of any pitcher who beans any batter with any “dangerous” pitch.

Rath left the mound extremely disappointed, especially since his mom and dad only got to see their boy face eight batters.

To make matters worse, reliever Hiroya Tani came on with two runners aboard and gave up a three-run homer which helped elevate Rath’s ERA, and later another three-run jack to seal the loss for Rath.

With Rakuten, the Mississippi native will no doubt get the chance to show his true ability and prove he can be as good a pitcher in Sendai as he is in Seoul.

Another plus with Rath is his hitting ability which will come in handy when the Eagles play Central League teams and cannot use a designated hitter.

The rules for interleague games, by the way, have not yet been decided, and Nippon Professional Baseball may not necessarily follow the major league system of playing by the home team’s league regulations.

The rules concerning the DH, announcing starting pitchers prior to games as the Pacific League does, and automatic ejection for pitchers who plunk batters in the noggin, will be established at an interleague play rules meeting in mid-January.

As for Iwakuma, perhaps another reason, besides his skill and attractiveness to the fans, the Orix Buffaloes did not want to let go of him is that his photo appears in the team’s 2005 calendar, printed when that club obviously thought he could be persuaded to stay in the fold, and now on sale.

There are several Internet sites dealing with Japanese baseball, but one of the newest and best on the Worldwide Web is Bob Bavasi’s JapanBall.com.

Chock full of news, statistics, the 2005 preliminary schedule and an opportunity for your friends and relatives in North America to join one of Bavasi’s baseball tours to Japan, the site is at www.japanball.com/news–list.phtml. Check it out.

Speaking of that ’05 schedule, I am entering the data into my computer in preparation for next year’s English-language Japan Pro Baseball Fan Handbook & Media Guide, and it seems so strange to list such games as Rakuten at SoftBank.

That new Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks logo looks terrific, by the way, and I can’t wait to see what the SoftBank uniforms, as well as those of the Rakuten Eagles, will look like.

From the e-mail bag: Michael Owen in Hyogo Prefecture wrote to comment about my Dec. 8 column on Jon Deeble, manager of this year’s Olympic silver medal-winning Australian national team: “As an Aussie baseball fan, I was so proud of our team in Athens and, although a silver medal was a fine result, I think (the team) was robbed of the gold, or at least a real shot at it, with that umpiring mistake you mentioned. The ‘catch’ should have been ruled a double which would have scored a run or two and definitely knocked the (Cuban) pitcher out of the game,” wrote Owen.

“The Aussies were on a roll, and the Cubans were looking very shaky at that point. But it was a good game and a great tournament. However, I am not sure baseball will ever really catch on in Australia; cricket is much too dominant.”

If you have a comment or question about Japanese or international baseball, send me a fax at: (0422) 21-9342 or an e-mail: wsgraczyk@yahoo.com

Wishing all readers of the Baseball Bullet-In a safe, happy and prosperous Rakuten, SoftBank and interleague year in 2005.

Spring training starts in just 34 days.

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