The latest chapter in a long history of pro baseball exchanges between Japan and the United States will open Friday with the start of the six-game Japan All-Star Series.
For the second time, visiting major leaguers will square off against Japan’s national team, Samurai Japan, a format that started in 2014. Japan beat the major leaguers 3-2 over five games, including one game in which the big league side was no-hit.
Japan sees these games as a spring board in its quest to win an Olympic gold medal when the sport appears for the first time since 2008 in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
“These international games are very meaningful,” said Masatake Yamanaka, Samurai Japan’s head of baseball operations. “Their opponents will be major league all-stars. And the question for each individual, not just the youngsters, is how will his skills play against really strong opponents whom they have never faced before?
“It’s a big test, and also a great chance to grow.”
Japan Hall of Famer Sadaharu Oh has praised the competition between Japan’s pros and major leaguers for raising the quality of play here and he is not alone.
Kazuo Matsui, who retired this year after 24 seasons in pro ball — seven of those in the States as Japan’s first big league infielder — agreed. Matsui said recently that competing against big leaguers in 1998 and 2002 was a huge factor in his wanting to play in the majors.
“I agree with that,” Matsui told Kyodo News recently when asked about Oh’s comments.
“I was fortunate to be picked. After I played against those guys, I knew that if I had the chance to go to the majors, I wanted to grab it.”
Matsui’s electric performance in the 2002 series greased the wheels for his move to the majors, according to his first big league skipper, Art Howe. The major leaguers’ 2002 manager, Howe, took over as the New York Mets’ skipper in 2003 and the club snapped up Matsui when he became a free agent that autumn.
That the all-star series would become a showcase for Japanese talent instead of a way to market Major League Baseball’s brand in Japan was something no one envisioned before Hideo Nomo upset the apple cart and moved to the U.S. as a free agent in 1995.
Starting in 1996, Japanese big leaguers became a regular feature of the tours. When Nomo first pitched to Ichiro Suzuki in the 1996 tour, Tokyo Dome was lit up by camera flashes.
Although it seemed like a watershed moment, it was one long in the making. The first tour by American pro ballplayers came in 1908, when the Reach All-Americans, a group of mostly minor league barnstormers, made Japan a stop on their Asian tour. An early high point was the visit of Babe Ruth in a 1934 tour sponsored by the Yomiuri Shimbun that provided an impetus for the revival of pro baseball in Japan and the creation of its first pro league.
Starting in 1949, with the visit of the Pacific Coast League’s San Francisico Seals, the focus switched from all-star teams to individual ball clubs, a practice that was to continue until 1984.
The tours were big events, but MLB’s business got a huge jolt when Nomo put on a Los Angeles Dodgers uniform and Japanese viewers couldn’t get enough of his games.
And with that growth of interest in and knowledge of the game overseas, tours by big leaguers became an even bigger deal.
“These big events are a shot of adrenaline for our business,” MLB Vice President for Asia Jim Small told Kyodo News last week, adding that the reach of the event goes beyond Japan. “People watching in China can see these prime-time games at 5:30 p.m., instead of early in the morning like they have to do if they watch the U.S. All-Star Game.”
And while an expanded television audience enriches MLB and its partners, Matsui said watching games on TV — he turned pro the year Nomo moved to the majors — motivated him once he had a chance to compete in the autumn competitions.
“Being selected to play against the major leaguers — guys I watched all the time on TV — that was such a kick,” he told Kyodo News recently. “It gives you the feeling that, ‘If I do really well, it could make me famous.’ “
The major league team plays the Yomiuri Giants in a Thursday exhibition at Tokyo Dome, followed by three games there against Japan. After a travel day on Monday, the teams will play Game 4 in Hiroshima on Tuesday before wrapping up with two more at Nagoya Dome the following two days.