1995: A tumultuous year for Japan, a great one for baseball

by Wayne Graczyk

Ten years have passed since one of the most unforgettable times in Japan’s history.

Two weeks ago, we observed the anniversary of the Great Hanshin Earthquake that struck Kobe on Jan. 17, 1995. Six and a half weeks from now, on March 20, Japan will also mark a decade since the Aum Shinrikyo Tokyo subway gassing.

The year 1995 was also a most memorable one in Japanese baseball.

Orix BlueWave players, wearing the slogan “Gambare (Hang in There) Kobe” on the sleeve of their uniform jerseys, epitomized the fighting spirit and will to recover of the Kansai people, and they won the Pacific League pennant under manager Akira Ogi.

His roster included a skinny 21-year-old kid named Ichiro Suzuki who had just played his first full season, batted .385 and broke Japan’s single-season hits record with 210.

Bobby Valentine came to manage the Chiba Lotte Marines, Japan’s all-time home run king Sadaharu Oh took over as manager of the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks, Shigeo Nagashima skippered the defending Japan Series champion Yomiuri Giants, and his archrival, Katsuya Nomura, piloted the Yakult Swallows.

As a result of a players strike in the major leagues that wiped out the last one-third of the 1994 season, forced cancellation of the World Series and spilled over into 1995, five bona-fide, in-their-prime big leaguers caught without contracts and no place to play in North America, headed for Japan.

The Marines welcomed Julio Franco and Pete Incaviglia, Yomiuri took in Shane Mack, the Seibu Lions got Darrin Jackson, and the Hawks signed Kevin Mitchell.

Star foreign players already in Japan moved to new teams, with Tom O’Malley leaving the Hanshin Tigers for Yakult, Jack Howell switching from the Swallows to the Giants, Mel Hall going from Lotte to the Chunichi Dragons, and Hensley “Bam Bam” Meulens also exiting Chiba and surfacing with the Swallows.

Each Japanese team was allowed only three imported players then, and Yakult made the most of the rule, as O’Malley hit cleanup, belted 31 home runs, marked 87 runs batted in and batted .302.

Meulens chipped in with 29 homers and 80 RBIs, and a lanky, 205-cm tall right-handed pitcher by the name of Terry Bross was unbeatable during the second half of his “rookie” season in Tokyo.

A former basketball player at St. John’s University in New York, Bross went 9-0 following the All-Star break, finished with a 14-5 record and a Central League-leading 2.33 ERA.

On Sept. 9, 1995, he threw a no-hitter against Nagashima’s Giants at Tokyo Dome, allowing only one base runner when he hit a pinch batter in the foot with a slow curve.

O’Malley was named CL MVP for the year as Nomura led the Swallows to a five-game Japan Series win over the gutsy BlueWave in recovering Kobe.

Bross won two Series games, and O’Malley took MVP honors in the J.S. as well.

In July of that year, a special All-Star Game was played at Fukuoka Dome, pitting the foreign players on the Japanese teams, managed by Valentine, against the best Japanese players, led by Oh. Proceeds from ticket sales were sent to help earthquake victims in Kobe.

The game featured the likes of O’Malley, Meulens and Bross, Troy Neel, Bobby Rose, Ralph Bryant, Alonzo Powell, Kip Gross, Lee Stevens and Glenn Braggs against such Japanese stars as Ichiro, Atsuya Furuta, Hideki Matsui, Kazuhiro Kiyohara, Keiichi Yabu and Norihiro Nakamura.

Meanwhile, Japanese pitcher Hideo Nomo began what has become an exodus of players from this country to the majors.

He joined the Los Angeles Dodgers and paved the way for others, including Ichiro, Hideki Irabu, Shigetoshi Hasegawa, Masato Yoshii, Kazuhiro Sasaki, Tsuyoshi Shinjo, Kazuhisa Ishii, So Taguchi, Hideki Matsui and Kazuo Matsui, Shingo Takatsu and Akinori Otsuka to follow. You can add Yabu and Tadahito Iguchi this year.

Nomo went 16-12 for the Dodgers and started the 1995 MLB All-Star Game at Arlington, Texas, in July.

Now, here we are 10 years later, in the year 2005.

Will it also be a memorable year in Japanese baseball?

It should be. There is talk of another Gaikokujin vs. Japanese All-Star Game to be played March 14 and benefit survivors of the earthquake that struck Niigata on Oct. 23.

Valentine is back heading the Marines, joined as a foreign manager by Trey Hillman of Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters.

Oh is still managing Hawks, but they are not Daiei any more; now SoftBank.

Nagashima-san is recovering from a stroke suffered last year. Nomura is managing the Shidax team in Japan’s industrial league after being forced to resign his job as skipper of the Hanshin Tigers after his wife was involved in an income tax scandal in 2001.

O’Malley scouts for Hanshin and would have been manager of the expansion Sendai franchise if Livedoor, not Rakuten, had gotten the team.

Bross is now a player agent.

Powell in 2004 managed the Dayton Dragons, the Class A affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds.

Bryant returns to Japan this season as an Orix Buffaloes batting coach under comeback manager Ogi.

The names “Kintetsu” and “BlueWave” have been retired, and now four foreign players are allowed on each team’s active roster.

Ichiro set the MLB single-season hit record with 262 last year, and Nomo has just signed with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, his sixth major league club.

Hideki Matsui is New York’s “Godzilla,” while Kazuo Matsui will do his best at second base in his second season with the Mets.

Yabu and Nakamura are on their way to try their skills in the majors; Yabu with the Oakland Athletics and Nakamura most likely with the Dodgers.

They will be joined by Tadahito Iguchi going to the Chicago White Sox and Denney Tomori to the Boston Red Sox.

Furuta, players union chief who stood up to the establishment during last year’s crisis and is acknowledged as the man who did the most to save Japanese baseball as we know it, will be back behind the plate for the Swallows at age 40.

Spring training began on Tuesday, so welcome to all the rookies and first-year foreign players to Japan. Gambatte, one and all.