How soon will it be before foreigners in Japanese baseball become members of the Meikyukai (Golden Players Club for batters accumulating 2,000 hits and pitchers racking up 200 career victories)?

Who will be the next non-Japanese player to be elected to the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame?

When will a player from Japan be accepted into Major League Baseball’s Hall of Fame?

These questions are being raised as players such as Tuffy Rhodes and Alex Ramirez have extended the longevity of their already lengthy careers in Japan, and Ichiro Suzuki continues his record-breaking performances in the major leagues.

Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame Players Selection Committee member Yoshifumi Ejiri, writing in the HOF newsletter, expects Ichiro to easily become the first player to gain entrance to the Halls of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., and Tokyo. Ejiri also is of the opinion foreigners playing in Japan will soon be given more consideration for HOF inclusion in the country where they have excelled.

“These are such days of globalization . . . and supposing Ichiro is inducted into the American Hall of Fame, the same should be true in the case of a distinguished foreign player who has made a great contribution to baseball in Japan,” wrote Ejiri. He continues, naming notable foreigners who have played in Japan:

“Randy Bass played for the Hanshin Tigers for six years, was twice batting champion and home run king, led the Central League in RBIs twice and won the Triple Crown twice. He is called the greatest enlisted foreign player, but he failed to be elected into the Hall of Fame by a small margin.

“Daryl Spencer played for the Hankyu Braves and was famous (infamous?) for his furious sliding besides his batting. Don Blasingame played for and managed the Nankai Hawks and introduced ‘thinking baseball.’

“Without Alex Ramirez, who batted fourth for the Yomiuri Giants, they would not have won the pennant for three consecutive years in the CL. He became the batting champion this year and led the league in home runs once and RBIs three times during his nine-year career in Japan with the Yakult Swallows and the Giants.”

Cases could also be made for such former stars as the Lee brothers, Leron and Leon, who played 11 and 10 years in Japan, respectively, as well as Bobby Marcano, Boomer Wells, Warren Cromartie, George Altman, Charlie Manuel, Ralph Bryant and Alex Cabrera, most of whom won batting, home run or RBI titles and helped their teams win pennants while playing six or more seasons in Japan.

Pitchers Joe Stanka and Gene Bacque, stars of the 1960s, should be mentioned as well.

Currently, former Giants standout Wally Yonamine, inducted in 1994, is the only foreigner in the Hall of Fame in Japan but, as Ejiri points out, others are bound to follow.

“The time ought to come when it is natural to see foreign players who have made a great contribution to baseball in Japan inducted into the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame,” he says.

Players — Japanese and foreigners alike — must wait five years after retiring before they are eligible to be considered for the voting process, but entry into the Meikyukai, which has no foreign members to date, necessarily occurs while players remain active.

Previously, batters who got 2,000 hits exclusively in Japan were invited to join, and Ichiro achieved “only” 1,278 hits during his career with the Orix BlueWave, before moving to MLB and the Seattle Mariners.

Late during the 2009 season, however, Ichiro recorded his 2,000th major league hit, finishing the year with 2,030 career hits and a combined Japan-U.S. total of 3,308.

It should also be pointed out Hideki Matsui, now with the Los Angeles Angels, also has more than 2,000 career hits — 1,390 in Japan with the Yomiuri Giants and 977 in the majors with the New York Yankees for a total of 2,367.

This prompted the Meikyukai officials to alter the rules for membership, and now any player who racks up a cumulative total of 2,000 hits in Japan and the majors can get in.

But does this work in reverse?

Ramirez, through the just-concluded 2009 season, has 1,545 hits in Japan. He also left behind 86 hits during his brief career in MLB with the Cleveland Indians and Pittsburgh Pirates, giving him a total of 1,631. The way he is playing, and at age 35, he could make 2,000 during the 2011 season.

Rhodes, meanwhile, came to Japan after banging out 132 major league hits and, in 13 years here, he’s got 1,792 in this country, for a total of 1,924 MLB-NPB hits. If he returns to play in 2010, he could get the 76 hits needed to reach 2,000 sometime next summer.

But does he get in the Golden Players Club?

In September, I asked prominent Meikyukai member and then-chairman Masaichi Kaneda (Japan’s only 400-game-winning pitcher) what would happen if Rhodes, Ramirez or another foreigner accumulates 2,000 hits combined in the major leagues and Japan.

“We would welcome them, absolutely,” Kaneda replied.

Ramirez said he expects to get there before his playing days are concluded, and he would be honored to accept membership in the GPC but wants to do it the old way.

“My goal is to get 2,000 hits in Japan only,” he said. “That would be something of which I would really be proud.”

So, there you have it. As Ejiri wrote, it is about time the foreign players get more recognition, and the day is coming when more non-Japanese names will be added to the membership lists of the Meikyukai and the Japan Baseball Hall of Fame.

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