Every year, Japanese baseball produces some great stories, and some not-so-wonderful ones. During this last week of 2010, let’s take a final look back at some of the good and bad events that occurred over the past 12 months.

For me, one of the best stories of the season was the record-breaking performance of Hanshin Tigers outfielder Matt Murton, whose 214 hits set a new single-season mark, breaking the old standard of 210 hits banged out by Ichiro Suzuki with the Orix BlueWave in 1994.

Even better than the actual feat in itself was the record-breaking scene at Jingu Stadium in a game against the Tokyo Yakult Swallows on Oct. 5.

I had been receiving e-mails from fans who were asking if “they” would permit an American to establish a new batting record in Japan, eclipsing one held by a Japanese favorite. Or, would opposing pitchers not throw strikes but walk Murton to deny him the record, as was arguably the case when foreigners Randy Bass, Tuffy Rhodes and Alex Cabrera were threatening to surpass Sadaharu Oh’s single-season home run mark? As we saw, Murton was treated more than fairly. He got the pitches to hit — and he hit them. When he stroked his 211th hit of the year to go one better than Ichiro, the crowd in the stands at Jingu — Swallows as well as Tigers fans — warmly applauded his accomplishment.

The stadium scoreboard message screen displayed the news as Murton tipped his cap with appreciation and pride. Yakult center fielder Norichika Aoki, another 200-hit batter, applauded his batting title rival, as Swallows first baseman Jamie D’Antona shook hands with the new record holder.

The best team performances of the year were by the Swallows and the Chiba Lotte Marines, with Yakult coming on like gangbusters in the second half of the season after the change in managers from Shigeru Takada to Junji Ogawa. They probably would have made the postseason Central League Climax Series had they not been so far behind and mired in last place when Takada stepped down on May 26.

Lotte, meanwhile, rode a late-season hot streak that saw the Marines barely finish third in the Pacific League, and the momentum carried through two stages of the PL playoffs and eventually to a victory in the Japan Series over the favored CL champion Chunichi Dragons.

The NPB-MLB posting system came under scrutiny after the Oakland Athletics and pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma could not reach agreement on a contract, and the right-hander reverted back to his Japanese club, the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles.

All went smoothly, though, with the posting of Marines infielder Tsuyoshi Nishioka, who agreed last week to a reported three-year, $9.25 million contract with the Minnesota Twins.

There was a breakdown in negotiations, too, in late October after it appeared the Yokohama BayStars franchise would be sold, and a bizarre incident where the Nikkan Sports newspaper came out with a front-page story on Dec. 4, saying the Yakult Swallows team would be sold to an Internet company called Cyber Agent, and an announcement at a news conference might even take place that day.

The Yakult team website immediately posted a message from the team ownership saying the Nikkan article was totally false and a complete fabrication. Spokesmen for Cyber Agent and the Fuji-Sankei Communications group, which owns part of the Swallows ballclub, also denied the sale was imminent.

So, we still have the Yokohama BayStars and Tokyo Yakult Swallows as Central League members for 2011.

A tradition has apparently begun whereby Japanese teams are staging what I would call a “new player extravaganza” to introduce high-profile members joining the clubs.

There was that elaborate showcasing of rookie right-hander Yuki Saito by the Nippon Ham Fighters before 8,000 fans at Sapporo Dome on Dec. 8 in a scene which appeared to be a huge pep rally. Then a free agent player leaving the Fighters was welcomed to the BayStars. Outfielder Hichori Morimoto took part in an “entering the team” event held in Yokohama’s Chinatown Dec. 11, wearing a Chinese costume.

Saito, out of Waseda University and already 23 years old, is expected to make the Fighters’ first-team roster from Opening Day, and he joins Nippon Ham ace Yu Darvish and a host of superb Pacific League pitchers already in — or just coming into — their prime.

You’ve got Iwakuma staying with Rakuten, Masahiro “Ma-kun” Tanaka also with the Eagles, Yoshihisa Naruse with the Chiba Lotte Marines, Hideaki Wakui and Takayuki Kishi with the Seibu Lions, Chihiro Kaneko of the Orix Buffaloes, and Toshiya Sugiuchi and 2010 MVP Tsuyoshi Wada on the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks.

This ensemble of Pacific League starters is stunning, and there should be some exciting performances by these guys in 2011. As I’ve said all along when asked about the effect on Japanese baseball of so many native star players going to the major leagues, they keep going, but they keep coming, too.

As in any year, we sadly lost members of the Japanese baseball world in 2010. Among them were Nippon Ham Fighters pitching coach Shigeru Kobayashi, Orix Buffaloes outfielder Hiroyuki Oze, Yomiuri Giants infield coach Takuya Kimura and former Fighters manager Keiji Osawa.

But, let us look forward to a new year and a new start for Japanese baseball. The “Baseball Bullet-In” wishes all readers the best for a happy and prosperous 2011.

There will be no column next Sunday, Jan. 2, but we’ll see you again on Jan. 9.

* * * * *

Contact Wayne Graczyk at wayne@JapanBall.com

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.